06/02/08: From Tampa to Fort Myers on the Tamiami Trail/Boca Grande Interlude

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I checked out of the Hampton Inn in Tampa early in the morning, and decided to drive down to a breakfast restaurant called the Broken Egg in the new town of Lakewood Ranch, just outside of Sarasota. It was a large restaurant with a large outdoor patio where a surprising number of people were eating, considering the hot weather. Evidently, the place was also connected with Dick Vitale in some way, since they were selling his autographed books and golf shirts. After running by the FYE in Bradenton, I drove back down into Sarasota, where I was captivated by the beautiful aquamarine color of the bay. I stopped at the civic center park to take pictures, and then drove over the causeway to St. Armands Key, where I parked and walked around the circle. The community had been planned by John Ringling (yes, the circus guy), but hadn’t been fully realized until recently, and was centered around a circular park, with statues of the Greek gods and other figures representing the beauties and advantages of Sarasota. Around the circle were a number of businesses, mostly cafes and restaurants with streetside tables, and a number of ice-cream shops. One in particular bragged that their ice-cream was homemade, so I stepped in there and enjoyed a chocolate-peanut butter ice-cream in a cup to cool off before the walk back to my car. I drove down to the beachfront, and saw that there was a Holiday Inn there (that would be a fun place to stay in some future year), and then I drove back across the causeway to Highway 41. Further down was the Sarasota marina, and I stopped there to take another set of pictures. There was a dockside restaurant there, but I decided against eating there, and headed further out to another FYE in South Sarasota. Beyond that was Venice, another planned city that had been conceived in the 1920’s as a retirement community for the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers. The Great Depression had delayed the plans, but the main street through downtown was characterized by palm trees and beautiful Italainate architecture. At Venice, I left Highway 41 and proceeded down the state highway through Englewood and finally across a toll bridge onto Gasparilla Island. The water at the causeway there was a beautiful green-blue, but as stopping was prohibited anywhere along the causeway, I could not take any pictures of it. The island was fairly long, but at the center of it, I came to the town of Boca Grande, a small, old town with no stoplights at all. It was laid out around an old tile-roof railroad depot that now housed a restaurant called the Loose Caboose. Nearby were shops and restaurants, such as PJ’s Seagrille, Hudson’s, the Temptation, the Boca Grande Outfitters and Boca Grande Baking Company. Summer is the off-season in Boca Grande, and some of the businesses were closed, although there were some people on the streets. Walking down to the beach, I found that it was both beautiful and practically deserted, and I took several photos there. There was some sort of private beach club near where I was, maybe affiliated with the venerable old Gasparilla Inn hotel. After I took a picture of two old white frame churches surrounded by palm trees, I drove further down the island road past a tall white lighthouse and down to the island’s southern tip, where there was another, more-historic lighthouse that is a state park nowadays. The museum in it was closed, but there were some other tourists walking around, and I managed to take some photos of the pass, and the white seagulls flying around, and the island to the south (North Captiva perhaps?) Yachts had anchored off to the southwest of the island, and I shot more photos there, and then headed back up into the town, noticing a subdivision where the streets were Damfino, Damficare and Damfiwill. I took pictures to prove the streetnames (who would believe it otherwise), and then, not finding any ice-cream place open, I headed back north up the road to the small shopping village on the Charlotte County side of the island, and got a fountain drink there. The Island House Inn nearby looked like it would be a good palce to stay if I ever craved for a longer visit, but I continued north across the bridge to El Cajon and Rotonda, headed for Port Charlotte. Port Charlotte had been planned by the General Development Company beginning in 1959. It was planned to be a city on a truly massive scale, and somewhere I read that there were more miles of paved streets and roads in Port Charlotte than in any other town in America. Unfortunately, most of those streets and roads were completely uninhabited even today, and eventually the General Development Company, who had sold lots through newspaper advertising to people who had never seen the town, was found guilty of real estate fraud and collapsed. While North Port Charlotte found a modicum of permanence and success as the city of North Port, Port Charlotte never fared quite as well as the large-but-unincorporated metropolis of Charlotte County. With large square miles of vacant paved streets tracking through wilderness, cocaine cowboys found it an attractive place to land their planes and offload shipments in the 1980’s. More recently, it had gained a reputation for gangs and violent crime, and this was before Hurricane Charlie scored a direct hit on the hapless community. As I headed northward, I passed street after street that was vacant, with the occasional house here or there. I was told that many who had purchased their lots were unaware that water and sewer lines had not been run out to the sections of Port Charlotte where they had purchased. Also, large quanities of the lots were purchased by investors who never intended to build on them. At the Port Charlotte Town Center, I stopped by the FYE, but didn’t find any of the DVDs I was looking for, so, resisting the temptation to eat dinner in Port Charlotte, I headed south on Highway 41 toward Fort Myers. Below the Town Center, Port Charlotte had the look of a typical ‘hood, with the road lined with old, run-down shopping centers. The look had not been helped by Port Charlotte’s unincorporated status, which meant that the residents had no ability to control zoning or enforce codes. Across Charlotte Harbor, Punta Gorda was the county seat, and had grown considerably since the last time I saw it, but the town had suffered damage from Hurricane Charlie as well. At North Fort Myers, I began to notice rain and dark clouds gathering, and as I passed across the Caloosahatchie River bridge, I noticed an island off of downtown Fort Myers that had a pier or dock at both ends and for sale signs all around it. It appeared to be overgrown and wooded, so I wasn’t sure why the piers were there or what it had been intended for, but I couldn’t help thinking what a great restaurant/nightclub that would make. Imagine having to park on the mainland and ride the boat out to the restaurant/nightclub and back. Of course, boats would have to run every 15 minutes, but that would be half the charm of such a place. The drive from Cleveland Avenue to Fort Myers Beach took forever, and there were no roads other than city streets, loaded with stoplights, but when I crossed the bridge onto Estero Island and into Fort Myers Beach, I had the most beautiful vista of aqua waters and sunshine. It was not raining here, and as I headed down the island, I soon came to the Carousel Beach Inn, where I had my room reserved. The motel was quite old, built in the late 1950’s, but it was directly on the beach, had a swimming pool and was impeccably clean. As soon as I had gotten everything unpacked into my efficiency, I stopped to consider dinner. There was a good restaurant across the street with a lot of cars, but it looked expensive, so I decided to eat at a steakhouse called Sam Seltzer’s in Fort Myers. Not wanting to face the traffic nightmares of Summerlin Road, I decided to head south from the motel and catch Highway 41 in Bonita Springs instead. At first, I thought this had been a good choice, as the road crossed from Estero Island to an even lovlier one called Lover’s Key. The sun was setting, and there were only a few boats out on the water and a few people on the beaches, and it was truly a pretty scene. But I had not realized that Bonita Springs was almost 30 miles south of Fort Myers, so the drive north on Highway 41 took awhile, and the rain was back, truly heavy at times, with thunder and lightning, and seeming to come in from the east, which struck me as unusual. Sam Seltzer’s Steakhouse turned out to be in a hotel, and had an outdoor tiki bar, but I chose to sit inside. The atmosphere was formal, like really expensive steakhouses, but the prices were like Texas Roadhouse or Outback. Furthermore, the food was incredibly good, and they were playing good jazz music on the speakers. After dinner, there was a jazz club called Ellington’s on Sanibel Island, so I drove down Galdiolus Drive through the small ‘hood of Harlem Heights and across another bridge ($6.00 toll) onto Sanibel, which was pitch-black dark. I could hardly see a thing, and it was raining heavily. I later learned that lights have to be kept away from the beaches on Sanibel during the summer because of bird nesting. The club was above a restaurant at the Sanibel Island Inn, and a jazz trio was playing there. I ordered a slice of key lime pie and coffee and enjoyed the group’s last set before heading back into Fort Myers. I drove down Fowler Avenue because there was an establishment on it called the Reggae Cafe, but it was not open, so I headed east on Martin Luther King Boulevard into the Dunbar neighborhood, but once again, nothing was going on. I had expected that I might see a record store somehwere along that route, but I didn’t. Hot 105.5 had played a local artist called A-Lee that the DJ had said was the next big thing to come out of Fort Myers, and I had hoped that they would be broadcasting from a rap club, but instead, they were broadcasting from a strip club in Port Charlotte. So I gave up trying to find anything to do, and headed back to Fort Myers Beach. Even the clubs there seemed dead, so I returned to the room and to bed.

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