Old fishermen's dives are thriving -- and delicious
In some ways, popular tourist destinations and general media coverage of the state have had a similarly blinding effect on the ways we think of Florida -- and why we choose to visit it, or not to. If there is no anthropomorphized, creepy-as-hell mouse skipping around a castle, no sprawling beachside resort that seems to know and love every color except the sensible kind, no gated golf community whose residents sip on sweet wine and bemoan the threat of "the illegals" as they wait for their bell to toll, it's not Florida. It's not worth the trip.
Which at least in part explains why a place like Fort Myers can go relatively unnoticed. Of course the town -- which, perhaps appealing to a tourist demographic blind to what Florida actually is and could be, has requested I call it the "Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel" when writing about it -- dabbles in the superlative. But unlike Miami, which peddles Caligulan fantasy alongside a dash of Fidel Castro, and Orlando, which caters to an America willing to shell out $100 for their kid to snuggle Cinderella's petticoats, Fort Myers offers Florida at its oldest, rawest, and, in my opinion, best.
Case in point: our next destination. After swimming back to Ryan's boat, we made our way to a restaurant at Cabbage Key, yet another site in the Fort Myers and Sanibel area where a car is about as useful as your appendix. In spite of its inaccessibility, the restaurant -- which allows guests to cook whatever fish they've caught that day on-site -- was absolutely packed with people. And dollar bills.
From floor to ceiling, thousands of George Washingtons stare at guests as they enter the remote, nicely worn island establishment, his face often covered with the signatures of past diners. According to Ryan, naturally a Cabbage Key regular, the blatantly unorthodox choice in wall treatment stems from a legend wherein fishermen would post a dollar bill to the eatery's walls on a good day, and take a bill down when they encountered hard times. Over the years, he said, the tradition literally stuck, and now servers bring masking tape and permanent markers out for guests right along with menus. Whatever money falls to the ground, he said, the restaurant donates to charity.
The restaurant’s decadent-yet-functional décor absolutely matched its signature drink, aptly named the Cabbage Creeper. Presented unpretentiously in a plastic cup, the creeper consisted of rum, piña colada mix, and coffee liqueur on ice. The drink's strength, as its name promised, revealed itself over time -- in my case after I had finished a plate of smoked salmon, boiled shrimp, and clam chowder.
Coming from a city where worrying is the pastime of millions, I inquired anxiously about where I might find a restroom. Again, our guide reminded me why Fort Myers, and this site in particular, is such a treasure. "It's so simple," Ryan said. "There's one restaurant, one bathroom in the restaurant, one nature trail, and some cottages here. And it's all called Cabbage Key."