July 25, 2014

My Place on the Gulfshore

Against the midnight-blue sky, a million stars seem to loom above while speckles of white phosphorescence jump from our boat's wake. Except for the drone of the motor, there is silence. Leaning back against a vinyl-covered seat, I feel my cares dissolve. Useppa Island is still a half-mile away, just a pale glimmer in the distance. I take a deep breath. My home on this quiet, private island beckons.

All day I had shopped and dined in Fort Myers, and then enjoyed an evening at the Barbara B. Mann Center with my husband-in between fighting traffic and searching for parking places, dashing across the Cape Coral Bridge and maneuvering around potholes and road-construction pylons.

Home to Calusa Indians and prehistoric peoples going back more than 10,000 years, Useppa Island's 80 acres of rolling, shell-mound hills nurture an abundance of native and exotic foliage. Useppa's been my winter home for more than 20 years now. The island is a mood and a tonic, and its isolation soothes my soul.

Peace and quiet reward those who live on the island. Ospreys fly over the beach. Their mouths may be full of branches to add to their nests, or of unsuspecting fish plucked with quiet efficiency from Pine Island Sound. Occasionally a red-shouldered hawk, an owl or an eagle can be heard from the top of an Australian pine or live oak. Such commonplace sounds and sights are usually the only ones on Useppa, where man and wildlife cohabit peacefully. Homeowners leave behind their cars and cares at marinas on Pine Island.

Useppa is probably the only island in Southwest Florida where gopher tortoises outnumber human visitors and residents. A peaceful presence, the tortoises slowly make their way up and down sand hills. In an effort to create homes and tunnels up to 30 feet long, they dig up foundations, gardens, and maybe even relics of the Calusas, Spanish explorers, pirates, and Civil war soldiers who are part of the island's history.

Cayo Costa, our home since 1976, was one of a number of cottages Barron Collier built circa 1913 as an alternative to staying at the Useppa Inn. Named after nearby islands, five of the original ten cottages still stand proudly along Useppa's Pink Path, so called for the pink sand with which it was built. Although not as showy as newer homes on the island, the cottages elicit the quiet charm of past generations, when visitors rocked on screened porches. Originally our house contained all bedrooms and baths-guests took their meals at the Inn. Most rooms connect, and all have doors leading outside. Room numbers remain on the doors, and we have tried to restore and decorate in Florida cottage style.

We like to think that someone famous once stayed in Cayo Costa, but who knows? Troops who trained for the Bay of Pigs invasion occupied our home in the early 1960s, followed by years of raccoons that gained access through holes in the roof punched by the aerial roots of our banyan tree-second in size only to one at the Edison Home in Fort Myers. We would not trade our sanctuary with its diamond mullioned windows, hard, long-leaf Dade pine floors and Chippendale porch railings for anything.

Strange greenery grows on Useppa. Palms like South American gru-grus with spiny trunks and numerous fronds, Muscarene Bismarcks and Australian eucalyptus dot our landscape.

Could the Calusas, early Spanish settlers, Jose Gaspar and his pirates, or Collier's many friends and guests have left some of the exotic foliage? In the tranquillity of the island, accessible only by boat or seaplane, where golf carts, bikes and walking are the only forms of transportation, residents and visitors alike ponder the question. But the ghosts aren't telling.

I am not obsessed with the mysteries of my island. It is enough to just be, to let my spirit and heart mix with the smell of red mangroves, cord grass, and sea grapes while a pileated woodpecker pecks incessantly at a decaying coconut palm. To live on Useppa one must be ready to give up the fast-paced life and settle back into nature. Mall-oriented, high-maintenance people quickly weed themselves out when they find the shopping and nightlife nonexistent.

Useppa Islanders are as varied as the places from which they come. Barbara Sumwalt, a former art director and account executive for New York's Tiffany & Co., last lived in Tokyo but now runs the Useppa Museum and has become a year-round resident. She appreciates the slower pace. "I walk along the beach at the end of every day collecting shells and watching the moon rise over the mangrove islands," she says. "One never sees stars in a city. I don't ever want to leave. I want to spend the rest of my days here."

Almost-daily commuters Ron and Cindy Castellanos stay on Useppa more than they do in their Fort Myers apartment. "It's just a complete change, and only one hour from my office to the island," says Ron, a urologist and noted cancer specialist who needs the quiet after a hectic daily schedule. "Folks in big cities think nothing of commuting an hour to work, and I have no problem doing that either."

Artist Kathe Tanous finds her subject matter in the beauty that surrounds her house and studio: bold tropical foliage, and shells collected from the beach on the barrier island of Cayo Costa. The calming sound of birds in the background helps her concentrate. Quite a switch from busy summers in East Hampton, Long Island. "When I need canvases, brushes and paints, I call New York Central Art Supplies and they UPS everything to Bocilla Marina," she says. (The marina, on Pine Island, is Useppa's lifeline to the mainland.)

A Martha Stewart Living photo shoot on Useppa about 10 years ago depicted residents in evening clothes enjoying elegant dinners. Everything was flown in, from models to clothes, linens, china and crystal. But most homeowners on the island have their feet up and a glass of wine in hand by 6 p.m. Daytime activities that may include walking, boating to different islands, or sailing and shelling on Cayo Costa leave folks exhausted and ready for a quiet evening of reading or cocktails with friends.

For the 30 or so of us who live here full time in the winter (six in the summer), life flows slowly, like the tide, in and out, day after day. "Island time" is not just an expression here-it's a rhythm of life without watches. Peace within, devoid of the hustle-bustle of everyday life without. Like the exotic foliage on Useppa, residents from all over have landed, taken root and flourished.

Visiting Useppa

Useppa is located just off the Intracoastal Waterway between markers #63 and #64. For a private visit via club launch or for docking privileges, contact:

Useppa Inn & Dock Company.P.O. Box 640, Bokeelia, FL 33922. (239) 283-1061

Useppa's ferry service offers several boat trips a day. Useppa is a private island for homeowners and members only, but reservations can be made by special request to visit the island or tour the Barbara Sumwalt Useppa Museum.

Useppa Museum:

For information call (239) 283-9600. A $2.50 donation is requested. Hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, noon-2:15 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 1-2:15 p.m. The museum may open for groups of six or more at other times by special request.

Useppa's staging base:

Bocilla Marina, 8115 Main Street, Bokeelia, FL 33922. 239) 283-5005

Cruises come daily from Captiva to Useppa for lunch, walking the island and touring the museum.

Captiva Cruises, P.O. Box 580, Captiva Island, FL 33924. (239) 472-5300 

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