Q. Did Jimmy Buffett really write his song, Cheeseburger in Paradise, based on time spent on Cabbage Key? What can you tell me about the island? Laurie Andrews, Naples, NY
A. To find out firsthand, I spent the day on Cabbage Key. The 100-acre island is in Pine Island Sound in Lee County, not far from Captiva and Sanibel. There are no paved roads, and is accessible only by boat or plane!
Rob Wells III and his younger brother Ken oversee the restaurant on Cabbage Key as well as the family owned Tarpon Lodge and Restaurant on Pine Island.
Rob was three years old at the time Jimmy Buffett first flip-flopped his feet on the island, also called Paradise by the millions who stay and visit each year. He shared the story of how it all came to be with me.
“In the late 70s, Buffett’s sister lived on Boca Grande. An avid pilot, they arrived via seaplane and pulled right up to the small section of beach near the boat slips.
Buffett came often and got to know my parents and the servers and staff. It was during a 1978 concert (the year his song was released) at the Lee County Civic Center where the staff he invited to attend were acknowledged by Buffett in the crowd. When he started playing his legendary, Cheeseburger in Paradise, he dedicated the song to the staff in the audience. That’s where we think the origin of the song being inspired by our island and cheeseburger was born.”
Like most of the famous faces who have visited, they all seem to blend in with everyone else wearing their tropical T-shirts. If Wells or his staff do spot a celebrity, they don’t draw any attention to them. Everyone is treated like a friend and you won’t find any paparazzi on Cabbage Key.
Some he did mention were George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. He can’t confirm reports of Hemingway or Hepburn as I’ve read in other articles, but Wells especially remembers the day John F. Kennedy Jr. arrived. He came with a group nineteen years ago and had drinks at the bar but departed before dinner. His signed dollar bill is behind the bar, but you have to really squint hard to spot it. Wells says they haven’t seen Buffett on Cabbage Key since the mid-80s.
Buffett’s framed photograph and signed dollar bill are starting to fade, but his memory lives on forever. During my visit, there was a steady stream of sunburned shoulders. On a typical day they serve up to seven hundred cheeseburgers, and in season that jumps to one thousand. They also serve breakfast and dinner.
The front room is the old porch with a view of the marina. Seating is inside and alfresco under large umbrellas and fans to beat the heat!
The story goes that soon after the Inn opened in 1944, a fisherman taped his autographed bill to the walls as his way of guaranteeing on ongoing bar tab hence the ‘unofficial’ name, Dollar Bill Bar.
Don’t be surprised if a dollar bill lands on your lap. Hanging like Spanish moss and depending on the humidity, between 15-20 thousand dollars fall each year. Wells says that there are approximately 70,000 dollar bills all told. All that money goes to good causes and is donated to various local charities twice a year.
I like mine with lettuce and tomato,
Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes
Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer
Well, good God Almighty which way do I steer
For my cheeseburger in paradise.
The burger business was bustling this day; although they have a full menu with everything from shrimp to smoked salmon. There are no French fried potatoes, but you do have a choice of coleslaw or potato salad as a side.
Their equally famous no-bake key lime pie comes frozen. Many guests, Wells tells me, have suggested they forgot to thaw it out, but on a hot day, it hits the spot!
His parents, Rob and Phyllis Wells live on the island full-time next to the Cabbage Key Restaurant Bar and Inn. They have maintained the character of Cabbage Key since 1976. There are six guest rooms in the main lodge that houses the restaurant and eight cottages of various sizes scattered near the shoreline. Some are big enough for large groups or families. If you prefer to sleep under the stars in your own boat, there is transient dockage available, too. All of the rooms and cottages are air-conditioned, with the exception of the Restaurant and Bar. They are open 365 days a year.
There’s a 45-minute nature trail you can explore and a water tower to walk up for a vast view, but most people seemed to be content to just waste the time away on Cabbage Key.
The tour boat company I used for this journey was Captiva Cruises departing out of McCarthy’s Marina. It’s an hour each way to Cabbage Key and the most entertaining part of the day was the back-of-the-boat performance by dolphins. Our noses were a few feet from bottlenose dolphins who danced and dove in the wake alongside the boat. Listening to the narrated fun facts delivered by a crew member, Eric, was a treat! He pointed out homes of interest including J. N. “Ding” Darling’s artist studio. The Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island is named for the famous cartoonist. Herbert V. Kohler Jr., chairman and president of Wisconsin-based Kohler Co., a leading maker of plumbing products on Upper Captiva, a private barrier island where the primary mode of transportation is the golf cart.
I reached out to Buffett’s publicist for a comment but she wouldn’t confirm or deny he penned his song on Cabbage Key.
Alan Rinehart and his wife, Grace Houghton Rinehart, owned Cabbage key and built their winter home in the mid-30s with help from his mother, mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. Whether this piece of paradise or cheeseburger was the inspiration for his song will perhaps always remain a mystery.
If you go, ask your server for a black marker and tape to add your dollar bill to the collection!
In case you were wondering what I wrote on the bill, It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere (Buffett joined country artist Alan Jackson on this catchy tune) These lyrics literally came to life. Even by 11 a.m. the bar was brisk!
The sun is hot and that old clock is movin’ slow,
Work day passes like molasses in wintertime,
But it’s July.
I think I’ll just call it a day. Pour me somethin’ tall an’ strong,
Make it a “Hurricane” before I go insane.
It’s only half-past twelve but I don’t care.
It’s five o’clock somewhere.
If you’re planning a staycation this is the perfect place for a day or weekend. Nearly 1 in 10 Americans are opting to staycation this summer, a 33 percent jump from 2015 according to airfarewatchdog.com.
Tidbit ~ Cabbage Key is featured as the cover of the L.L. Bean Summer Catalog/2016. They’re not the only one. In the last three years, Lands’ End and Abercrombie & Fitch have picked Cabbage Key for a location shoot.
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