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Captiva — My Bali Hai

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I have been to Captiva Island twice before — once as part of a sales meeting and once at the tail end of a market research project.  So both times I was physically there, but mentally at work.

This time I couldn’t remotely afford Captiva’s  crown Jewel, South Seas Plantation, so we wound up on the boat at funky Tween Waters Resort and Marina for a grand total of $91 per night, all resort amenitities included.  It’s really quite nice — good pool, good restaurant, friendly staff.  And of course, right on one of the most beautiful beaches in Florida and a half mile from Captiva village.

A lot of things make Captiva uniquely attractive — it’s the furthest of a long string of islands and a long haul from Ft.Myers, so no daytrippers.  It’s just far enough south  to be tropical, so the flowers and vegetation are beautiful and the weather never really cold.  And it has a sort of tasteful class, for the most part, that so much of Florida lacks.  It’s small and has been developed for years and years, so I think the residents and developers tend to preserve and improve rather than build the latest over-the-top 40,000 square foot mansion a la Naples and Marco Island.  Captiva is known for its restaurants, and although we went totally tourist at the Bubble Room (antique toys everywhere, always Christmas, waiters in Boy Scout uniforms, decent seafood) I saw I half-dozen places I would not hesitate to try.  You can walk or bike anywhere, no car needed, and in fact, cars are discouraged in favor of golf carts.

One of the Loop’s best-known bloggers, Betsy Johnson, says the test of a really good town is when she turns to her husband Rick and says, “You know, we could live here, let’s move.”  Captiva is on that list for me, and if I could afford it, right near the top.

Funky Tween Waters Resort and Marina

Funky Tween Waters Resort and Marina

At the pool, Tween Waters

At the pool, Tween Waters

The pool itself.  Tween Waters ain't Caneel Bay, but it's comfortable and in the right place -- Captiva

The pool itself. Tween Waters ain’t Caneel Bay, but it’s comfortable and in the right place — Captiva

View of Pine Island Sound from Memsahib's berth.

View of Pine Island Sound from Memsahib’s berth.

Captiva has enough rain (and money) to support wonderful tropical landscaping.

Captiva has enough rain (and money) to support wonderful tropical landscaping.

Captiva is our first really tropical destination -- flowers everywhere

Captiva is our first really tropical destination — flowers everywhere

Joined the crowds on the beach every night looking for the Green Flash, but didn't see it.  Good sunsets, though.

Joined the crowds on the beach every night looking for the Green Flash, but didn’t see it. Good sunsets, though.

Central Captiva has a very Mediterranean feel.  Molly, this color is terra cotta.

Central Captiva has a very Mediterranean feel. Molly, this color is terra cotta.

Everywhere in waterside Florida, people are going to totally over the top with beach "cottages."  20 miles inlandnear Ft. Myeers we saw real people sleeping on the streets

Everywhere in waterside Florida, people are going to totally over the top with beach “cottages.” 20 miles inland near Ft. Myeers we saw real people sleeping on the streets

Climbing the Charts – Pine Island Sound

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Pine Island Sound — the area bordered by Fort Myers, Sanibel, Captiva and Pine Islands — has climbed to our number two favorite place  after Canada, just ahead of Kentucky Lake.   What development there is (outside Cape Coral and Fort Myers) is low key, the beaches are pristine, and the sound is totally protected by the islands, so it’s never rough.

We spent the first night on anchor at Cape Haze, a perfectly protected round cove surrounded by jillion-dollar homes (photo got erased somehow).  It was a nice stop, but I felt like I’d pulled a camper into some tycoon’s backyard and called out, “Don’t worry about us, we’re just here for the night.”

Then onto one of the most famous of the Pine Island anchorages, Pelican Bay at Cayo Costa State Park — only accessible by boat, protected, and a huge beach and tropical nature trails.  It was a cool Monday, so we had the beach to ourselves, but a fair number number of boats were just vegging out in the anchorage.

Then onto another well-known spot, the anchorage at Useppa Island across from the Cabbage Key Inn.  We dinghied over for lunch (again, boat-accessbile only) and it was great.  They let you climb up the water tower and you can see for miles.  Cabbage Key’s famous gimmick is that the whole restaurant is plastered with dollar bills.  Legend has it that the tarpon fishermen who were the inn’s initial guests used to put their name on a bill and pin it up, so after a day of fishing, drinking and gambling, they’d always have a buck for one last beer.  Molly and I went there year’s ago while staying at South Seas plantation, but I couldn’t find our dollar among the 80,000.

Then on to Captiva Island, which deserves its own entry.  If I am ever afflicted by religion, I won’t ask to go to heaven, just back to Captiva.

Pelican Bay, Cayo Costa State Park (photo from another boat since my card got full)

Pelican Bay, Cayo Costa State Park (photo from another boat since my card got full)

John Kessinger, last man on earth, at Cayo Costa beach

John Kessinger, last man on earth, at Cayo Costa beach

Beautiful nature trail at Cayo Costa

Beautiful nature trail at Cayo Costa

Cabbage Key Inn is wall-papered with dollar bills

Cabbage Key Inn is wall-papered with dollar bills

John doing the dollar ceremony

John doing the dollar ceremony

John's Donation to the Cabbage Key Inn

John’s Donation to the Cabbage Key Inn

View of Pine Island Sound from the water tower at Cabbage Key

View of Pine Island Sound from the water tower at Cabbage Key

Greenwich South (aka Sarasota)

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You know you are in a fancy marina when it has valet parking — I guess so you don’t wear out your Manolo boat shoes lugging your Coach boat bags from the parking lot.

We wound our way down the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Tarpon Springs, past Tampa and into Sarasota, where we foumd ourselves at plush Marina Jack, right downtown.  It was another one of those head-turning Memsahib’s Voyage moments — from Greek pastry and sponge fishermen to ultrasophisticated Sarasota.  Downtown was great — scores of restaurants, Starbucks,  bookstores, a beautiful library — and A GIANT WHOLE FOODS MARKET.

We spent a day in a rental car doing all the chain retail basics that we’d been away from for a long time — Publix, Home Depot, PetSmart, Kohls, Cheeburger-Cheeburger, then had a great Mexican dinner after a long stroll through town.  Sarasota has its share of high rise development, but it’s tastefully woven in with cultural attractions and low-rise retail.  Downtown was totally packed every night we were there.  Someone has really thought the zoning through in Sarasota.

And we did something that we hadn’t done since Thanksgiving — slept in real beds.  We didn’t want to miss the NFL playoffs, so we spent a night with Sparta at the cheap, pet-friendly LaQuinta Inn.  Sparta had never been in such a large space in her whole life and had a great time exploring every nook and cranny when she wasn’t watching football.

Hate to say it given the weather situation at home — but it’s been beautiful.  Breezy so you have to watch yourself in open water, and cool — but cool in Southwest Florida is high 60s.

 

Marina Jack

Marina Jack

 

Sarasota skyline from Memsahib's dock at Marina Jack.

Sarasota skyline from Memsahib’s dock at Marina Jack.

 

Typical downtown Sarasota Street.

Typical downtown Sarasota Street.

 

Sarasota Public Library

Sarasota Public Library

 

I'm not much into modern houses, but this one would do.

I’m not much into modern houses, but this one would do.

 

Would I want MY Sarassota mansion right next to ANOTHER GUY's Sarasota mansion?  Birds of a feather, I guess.

Would I want MY Sarassota mansion right next to ANOTHER GUY’s Sarasota mansion? Birds of a feather, I guess.

 

Crew doing what it does best -- watching football and eating pizza.

Crew doing what it does best — watching football and eating pizza.

 

Would I ever lie to you?

Would I ever lie to you?

 

 

Going Greek

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Loopers readily agree that Tarpon Springs is the gold at the end of the tough crossing rainbow.  It is scenic, it is different, it is fun and it is WARM!

Tarpon Springs has the largest concentration of residents of Greek descent in the United States — and for obvious reasons, more every day.  Their heritage permeates the entire town, not just the touristy waterfront — restaurants, architecture, churches, social clubs.  The rest of Florida tries to have that sort of beige/terra cotta Mediterranean motif.  Tarpon Springs is the whitest white and bluest blue right out of the Greek Islands.

It all started in 1905 with the discovery of a huge natural sponge colony right outside Tarpon, and an entrepreneur began encouraging Greek sponge divers to emigrate.  It was dangerous work in those old copper diving helmets between storms, predators, and the risk of the bends.  The fishery died out with the discovery of synthetics, but you can still buy local, natural sponges — for about $20 each.

We all stayed at Turtle Cove Marina, a beautiful facility on an island within a block of the waterfront and sponge exchange.  The owner saw us all down at the Tiki Bar kind of in shock after the crossing, and when some of us showed up at the cruisers lounge a bit later, a free hamburger/rib/sausages dinner was on the barbecue ready and waiting!  Word spreads fast in the Looper community and no Looper will probably ever go anywhere else.

But the greatest attraction of all in Tarpon Springs has got to be the incredible Hellas Greek Bakery.  I think Greeks make the world’s greatest pastry.  As a young reporter in Salinas, CA, I did a story on the local Greek Orthodox community and discovered the wonders of filo and baklava.  (I was the paper’s religion editor, by the way, since they figured as a known atheist, I would be fair to all parties.)  So one day we had a little rum-infused sponge savarin for lunch, a small baklava pick-me-up in the afternoon, and honey-soaked walnut cake with a spun-filo top after dinner.  All washed down with hold-on-to-your-heart-rate Greek coffee.

Looper pictures are from Catherine from Next to Me, who has a wonderful blog at

http://olallabay.blogspot.com/

Restoration of a sponge boat from the heydy of the sponge industry.  They are very beautiful, very Greek and made of cypress, which is impossilbe to find now

Restoration of a sponge boat from the heydy of the sponge industry. They are very beautiful, very Greek and made of cypress, which is impossilbe to find now

"Modern" sponge boat. Most of them are set up for shrimping, too.

“Modern” sponge boat. Most of them are set up for shrimping, too.

In Tarpon Springs, you want sponges, they got sponges!  We counted 12 sponge markets on Deodocenase Avenue alone.

In Tarpon Springs, you want sponges, they got sponges! We counted 12 sponge markets on Deodocenase Avenue alone.  John bought a preserved aliigator head for Sparta here.  Sweet boy!

Tarpon Springs has a huge Greek cathedral with a bishop and the whole nine yards.

Tarpon Springs has a huge Greek cathedral with a bishop and the whole nine yards.

Hellas Greek Bakery -- the best reason of all to visit Tarpon Spring

Hellas Greek Bakery — the best reason of all to visit Tarpon Spring

Loopers at Hellas Restaurant.

Loopers at Hellas Restaurant.

Everyone at Hellas Restaurant has to try the flaming cheese and yell "OOPA!" when they fire it off.  They fire it off with Greek brandy that could also be used in Memsahib's stove in a pinch.

Everyone at Hellas Restaurant has to try the flaming cheese and yell “OOPA!” when they fire it off. They light it off with Greek brandy that could also be used in Memsahib’s stove in a pinch.

Looper ladies celebrate the engagment of Laura and Ross from The Zone at the Turtle Cove pool.

Looper ladies celebrate the engagment of Laura and Ross from The Zone at the Turtle Cove pool.

Looper Central, Tarpon Springs -- the Turtle Cove Tkik bar.

Looper Central, Tarpon Springs — the Turtle Cove Tiki bar.

Leaving Tarpon Springs for points south.  But Hellas Bakery will always bring me back.  Memsahib still looks pretty good.

Leaving Tarpon Springs for points south. But Hellas Bakery will always bring me back. Memsahib still looks pretty good.

Apalachicola

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I am reverting back to the two days we spent in Apalachicola just before our Gulf crossing.  It is a funky little one-stoplight town of which I am very fond and I have been here enough times that I can actually spell it and say it right.  Perhaps my feelings have something to do with the six great seafood restaurants, scenic working waterfront and history at every step.

Apalach architecture is particularly interesting because the town has been through three great booms — cotton, lumber and shellfish harvesting.  But over-planting burned the nutrients out of the ground that are needed to grow cotton, they chopped down all the juniper, cypress and live oak trees and the oysters are on their way out.  For the past three years, virtually no fresh water has come from the parched midwest into Apalachee Bay.  We know, we were there on all the dried up lakes and rivers.  Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change should take this trip.

Anyway, within a block you will see Greek Revival, Victorian and rambling Southern big-porch, pressed- tin- roof houses cheek by jowl.  If you see somone out raking or watering, you will get the whole house story, since these people are justifiably proud of the well-preserved ones.

Apalach is also the home of Dr. John Gorrie, a little-known hero of medicine and physics.  Yellow fever was so bad in Apalach before the Civil War that the good doctor worked for years on perfecting a way to bring the victims relief, and in the process, the self-trained physicist invented refrigeration  Sadly, he died of what sounds like exhaustion just when the first working model was perfected.

So now Apalach depends on tourism, but it’s so remote that I hope they make it.  The town is a treasure.

Water Street Hotel.  Nice slips in back.  I was very tempted to haul out the American Express and sleep in a real bed and take a real bath, but would have been scorned by my fellow loopers.

I Water Street Hotel. Nice slips in back. I was very tempted to haul out the American Express and sleep in a real bed and take a real bath, but would have been scorned by my fellow loopers.

Apalachaola -- not much to look at, but I am very fond of the place.

Apalachicola — not much to look at, but I am very fond of the place.

Apalach Waterfront -- Chamber of Commerce Picture, couldn't get one from the boat.

Apalach Waterfront — Chamber of Commerce Picture, couldn’t get one from the boat.

Raney House -- perfect Greek Revivial from 1832.  Closed the day we were there!

Raney House — perfect Greek Revivial from 1832. Closed the day we were there!

Grady Market -- during the lumber boom, a major ship chandlery.  Now and art-gourmet-clothing-garden-antiques-book-gift store.

Grady Market — during the lumber boom, a major ship chandlery. Now and art-gourmet-clothing-garden-antiques-book-gift store.

Gorrie museum -- great tour because I was the only visitor.

Gorrie museum — great tour because I was the only visitor.

Replica of the ice machine of 1855.  Not exactly a Sub Zero, but you can see the essential pieces -- compressor, tank for refrigerant, teensy wooden box for the ice,

Replica of the ice machine of 1855. Not exactly a Sub Zero, but you can see the essential pieces — compressor, tank for refrigerant, teensy wooden box for the ice,

Perfect Victorian B&B.

Perfect Victorian B&B.

Survive the Savage Sea

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We made it across the Gulf from Apalachicola Bay to Tarpon Springs with nine other boats on Friday night.

Rough, long crossing and a big gulp (28 hours straight, 176 miles) in a boat with no autopilot.  But crew and boat behaved admirably.  Bilge pumps ran some at first until seams that hadn’t seen water since Lake Michigan started to swell.

Here’s my report on the crossing to Looper Weather Guru Tom Conrad:

You have probably heard from other fleet members, but we left EP earlier (1:30 pm) due to speed.
Very tough 1st hour (4-footers), better until about 5 (but still the occasional gut wrencher), then bumpy but bearable until it flattened out at 4 am.
BUT — clear starry skies, warm enough to sleep in the cockpit for those with mal de mer (John), NO FOG. These factors really helped.
On rumbh line from EP, saw first stone crab pots at 32 sm out in 40+ feet of water.  Are those little suckers really worth that kind of energy to get to them?  I mean, all you eat is the claws.
Thanks so much for your help.  Give me a card  to do this crossing again exactly as it was, and I would take it.
Memsahib
Lots of dolphins leaping about.  I had heard they respond to singing and a woman’s voice, but not having a woman handy, decided to whistle some up about 4 am when the weather got better.  For some reason only known to my psyche, the first song that came to mind was Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.”  That seemed to keep them around, so I hit them with Dino’s “‘At’s Amore,”  then “Marshmallow World in the Winter” my favorite Martin tune.  Having exhausted my Dean Martin repetroire, I went to “Oh, My Papa,” whereupon one leaped up and said, “That’s Jerry Vail, stupid, we’re leaving.”
Or at least, I think he did.  Long nights at sea can lead to hallucinations.
Sparta and John on watch just after daylight.

Sparta and John on watch just after daylight.

If one of those bastards would jump just a little closer, I would catch it and kill it and eat it.

If one of those bastards would jump just a little closer, I would catch it and kill it and eat it.

Hour 28, pulling into Tarpon Springs

Hour 28, pulling into Tarpon Springs.  Rough enough going out through the pass into the Gulf that I fell off my Ikea bar stool/driving seat twice!

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Dolphins Gone Wild

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We made two long hauls last week, Pensacola to Fort Walton Beach and Fort Walton to Panama City, but they were not too bad given the sand-and-shore scenery, beautiful homes on the waterway and, of course, the dolphins.  In almost every stretch of open water they come up to hitch a ride on the wake and look you over:  “Hey, is that boat made of WOOD?”  You just can’t get away from it.

After hours of trying to capture them with the camera, John finally made a video.

We stayed a couple rainy days at Fort Walton Beach Yacht Club — nice facility, good inexpensive food, and very friendly members.   Expected it would be dead in January, but there was a pretty lively bar scene of members who make me feel like a stripling knocking back the manhattans and old fashioneds.  Lots of interest in the boat and voyage, and I’d encourage any Loopers out there to make it a stop.

We are know at Bay Pointe Marina, part of the Wyndham resort at Panama City Beach.  Very fancy with a hotel and Jack Nicklaus golf course, but for the same $1 a foot as everywhere else, why not?

Panama City itself is this giant, interesting  contradiction:  beautiful beach homes and golf courses, upscale shopping, cheek by jowl with tacky, touristy junk and the barracks that house a quarter-million spring breakers every year.  In 2006 during the worst of the bubble the town fathers took the prohibition off high rises and to my way of thinking, just ruined large parts of the area.  These are almost all rental units and so overbuilt that most of them are empty most of the year.  (I get my information from the Enterprise rental car drivers, who generally have a very good take on what’s going on in the areas we’re passing through, and are a loquacious bunch.)

Had a great meal last night in one of those cheap strip-mall, formica-table joints that you dream of finding.  Dee’s Hangout was at the top of the Trip Advisor list, and it was fabulous — the best Creole/Cajon seafood outside New Orleans.  I am finding Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon pretty reliable and am going to start posting myself.

Driving to Easpoint tomorrow to get poor Sparta neutralized at the animal hospital.  Having a cat in heat on a small boat has not been fun.  She is up all night wailing for her husband Tom.

Friendly and inexpensive Fort Walton Yacht Club

Friendly and inexpensive Fort Walton Yacht Club

Here's what the water looks like AFTER the dolphin goes away -- I have about a 100 of these pictures

Here’s what the water looks like AFTER the dolphin goes away — I have about a 100 of these pictures

You always wonder -- "What does their REGULAR house look like if that's just their beach house?"

You always wonder — “What does their REGULAR house look like if that’s just their beach house?”

Beach Houses, Fort Walton

Beach Houses, Fort Walton

Bay Pointe Marina -- some big iron in here

Bay Pointe Marina — some big iron in here

Bay Point Marina -- Mississippi had its charms, but this ain't bad either

Bay Point Marina — Mississippi had its charms, but this ain’t bad either

Ripley's even tackier neighbor Wonder Works

Ripley’s even tackier neighbor Wonder Works

A Ripley's Believe It or Not puts a lot of points on the Tourist Tacky meter

A Ripley’s Believe It or Not puts a lot of points on the Tourist Tacky meter

This is what you see on Beach Foad in Panama City Beach -- not a grain of sand

This is what you see on Beach Road in Panama City Beach — not a grain of sand

Here's how Panama City absorbs 250,000 spring breakers every year -- build 'em big

Here’s how Panama City absorbs 250,000 spring breakers every year — build ’em big

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