November 21, 2014

Here & Now

Getting to Know Us

Welcome to the gulfshore. One part polished, one part primeval and one part, frankly, weird. If you’re new here—on vacation or settling in as a seasonal or full-time resident— our little paradise may seem fairly normal. As normal, anyway, as a place can be whose borders include vast virgin cypress swamps where panthers, black bears and alligators roam free, and whose skyline consists of towering royal palms and Mediterranean palaces.

Some might say we’re a teensy bit full of ourselves, with our world-class hotels, performing arts centers, glitzy shopping enclaves and society soirées. But they just don’t understand. The reason so many of our yachts have gold fixtures is simple: Brass rusts, gold doesn’t. As for those soirées that bring in millions of dollars for charitable causes: One can’t show up at a $7,500-per-couple dinner in last season’s jewels, can one?

Some might say, “Get over yourselves.” After all, much of this beautiful land once—and still does—belong to the Seminoles, the only Native American tribe both smart and tenacious enough not to be conquered by the U.S. government. A century ago, where exclusive gated communities now stand, were thousands of acres of pastureland, the domain of cattle barons, cow men (not boys) and rough, tough rustlers. Our native sons included “swamp cowboys” and alligator poachers like old Totch Brown (1920–1996). The wild turkey on the Collier County flag exhibited our pride as the turkey hunting capital of the world. (A couple of years ago, some tourism gurus decided that the turkey no longer fit our public profile, so now they fly a properly sophisticated tropical palm.)

Some of the names on our streets and buildings belong to men—still active on today’s political and social scenes—who brought their rifles to school so they could do a little hunting on the walk home. 

“That was then, and this is now,” you say? Not really. It was just 22 years ago when I showed up here … a city girl escaping to an adorable beach town off the beaten track. Interstate 75 stopped abruptly somewhere south of Fort Myers. One day I stopped into a small party store and bought a huge bunch of helium balloons for my little boy’s birthday. Only they didn’t take credit cards or out-of-town checks, and I had no cash. “Don’t worry,” said the owner. “You’d better get those balloons home. Just stop by and pay me later.” 

Really? Who says stuff like that?

Some of the eccentric characters and bizarre happenings that still go on around here take the term “laid back” to a whole new level. Just about the time I arrived, Stan Gober, a good ole boy down on Marco Island who owned a seafood bar, was so proud of the song he wrote about dead buzzards in the road that he made up a dance to go with it. That year, and every year since, women show up on Sunday afternoons decked out in bizarre ensembles of feathers, masks and Mardi Gras jewels to practice for the annual Buzzard Lope Queen contest.

Down in the swamp, just a few miles from glamorous downtown Naples, grown-up men were—and still are—driving outrageously souped-up trucks with monster airplane tires and deer antler hood ornaments into the swampy bogs. Today, the big events are the annual Swamp Buggy Parade and periodic Swamp Buggy Races, highlighted by the dunking of the Swamp Buggy Queen into the slimiest, soupiest mud hole. On Pine Island, in an artsy, off-the-wall village called Matlacha, (pronounced mat-la-shay), they have dead mullet-tossing contests. Next door to “Stan-the-Man” Gober’s Idle Hour Bar, where the buzzard queens dance, The Little Bar hosts the annual Spammy Jammy Party, where guests show up in their pajamas, and famous local chefs make gourmet meals out of—you guessed it—Spam.

The neighborhood where my little balloon shop once stood is now dominated by world-class boutiques like Hermès, Gucci and Tiffany, so the “stop-and-pay-me-later” thing may be a bit of a stretch, but there’s just enough weirdness to keep it real. 

Here along the Gulfshore, we can slog up to our knees in a guided swamp walk to see rare wild orchids in the Fakahatchee Preserve State Park, the “Amazon of America.” Or we can do our orchid viewing without getting dirty in the spectacular re-created ecosystems of the Naples Botanical Garden.

We can sample gator tail and Indian bread fried up by descendants of the heroes of the Seminole Wars. Or we can take tea with dainty sandwiches and glamorous pastries in the lobby of The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and lacy-sweet little tearooms like the veddy British Brambles on Fifth Avenue South. 

We can feast on seasonal stone crab claws and Key lime pie in one of our famed five-star restaurants, with a master sommelier to suggest just the right wine pairing. Or we can have our crab claws down at the docks, at a picturesque island seafood shack such as Everglades City’s Camellia Street Grill, or on Cabbage Key, just north of Captiva Island.

It could be the roughly 364 days or so of sunshine we have here. Or the luminous sliver of a new moon that rises over the Gulf once a month. For the most part, I think the magic is in the fact that we can mix it up, and we really don’t take ourselves too seriously. Terri Rementeria, owner/chef at the Camellia Street Grill, makes one of the best gourmet salads in Southwest Florida, with herbs that grow among the plastic pink flamingoes in her garden.

It still makes me feel good when, every now and then, the tram or trolley driver says, “I’m supposed to stop, but where are you parked? I’ll take you to your car.” Or when I notice the slogan at the end of an e-mail from the Naples Grande Beach Resort: “Yes is the answer, what is the question?”

So, welcome to the Gulfshore. Immerse in the elegance and the deliciousness and the weirdness. And savor every moment.

 

Fun Websites
Stan’s Idle Hour, Goodland: 
www.stansidlehour.net
Swamp Buggies:
www.swampbuggy.com
Seminole Tribe of Florida:
www.seminoletribe.com
Fakahatchee Strand:
www.friendsoffakahatchee.org

Fascinating Reading
Totch: A Life in the Everglades by Totch Brown