Column: A visit to Cabbage Key


Last week, we visited Sanibel, Fla., a favorite winter destination for many Hoosiers. Today, we will visit Cabbage Key, an enjoyable boat day trip from Sanibel or nearby Captiva.

Cabbage Key is a 100-acre barrier island in Pine Island Sound about 20 miles northwest of Fort Myers. About 2,500 years ago, the indigenous Calusas began creating a 40-foot-high mound of shells (“midden”) on the island. In 1936, Alan Rinehart, son of best-selling mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, and his wife, Gratia, purchased the uninhabited island (then Palmetto Key) for a reported $20,000. The Rineharts built a 4,500-square-foot winter house atop the midden about 130 feet from the water. They also built a boathouse, two cottages, a power station and a 6,000-gallon water tower, creating a private tropical paradise. After 34-year-old Gratia, who obtained the property in a divorce, died in 1939, the island was sold. The new owners renamed the island Cabbage Key after its cabbage palm trees and converted the house and cottages into an inn.

In 1971, the then-owners obtained a liquor license. For reasons not entirely clear, bar patrons began signing dollar bills and taping them to the walls and ceilings in what had been the Rineharts’ library. The bar became world famous, attracting a number of celebrities, including singer-songwriter Jimmie Buffett.

Today, visitors come to roadless Cabbage Key by boat from around the world, most just for lunch or a drink in the bar. About 70,000 dollar bills cover every available space in the bar and an estimated 10,000 fall off every year, which are donated to children’s charities. During some spring days, the inn’s restaurant serves about 1,000 lunches, most of them its famous large and loaded cheeseburgers. A persistent rumor that Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” was inspired by his visits to Cabbage Key has never been confirmed.