Living the Good Life on Cabbage Key

Rob Wells III shows off the glories of the island his family has owned for more than 40 years.

BY June 6, 2019
Cottages with private docks on Cabbage Key, a private island lodge in Pine Island Sound. Photography by Zach Stovall.

On a cool morning in early spring, Rob Wells III is at the helm of his Avenger 24 slowly motoring through the narrow channel that leads away from Tarpon Lodge. This close to shore, the air smells like mangroves at low tide and is filled with the sound of gulls. Wells points the bow of the boat toward Cabbage Key, a route he knows well. His parents bought the island in 1976, and Wells and his brother, Ken, grew up there. The family has run the business for the last 43 years, with the addition of Tarpon Lodge in 1999, and today they are some of the Gulfshore’s most notable purveyors of paradise.

The narrow channel away from the lodge ends, and Wells opens the throttle. He is 45, cleanshaven and trim, with light-colored hair that curls loosely around his neck. His skin is fair, though he often forgets to wear sunscreen, and he’s dressed in a white cotton button-down cuffed at the elbows, pressed khaki pants and a pair of clean deck shoes. He looks more like an urban financier on vacation than a man who spent his early years on an island without electricity or telephones. Which is fitting. Unlike his brother, who always planned to work in the family business, Wells had his sights on the New York financial industry. But each time he came to Florida for a visit and left again, he missed the island a little more, until finally he decided to shrug off the big city and come back to Cabbage Key.

Rob Wells, the operator and oldest son of the owners of Cabbage Key.

“Now New York seems like a distant memory,” he says.

Today Wells is married with two daughters, and though he lives in Fort Myers, much of his time is spent on the island.

The waters of Pine Island Sound shade to green the farther the Avenger gets from shore, and a light breeze ripples across the surface. A tour boat out of nearby Boca Grande cruises past, and a pod of dolphins jumps in its wake—three, four, five, six, then seven of them. Buoys from blue crab traps bob in the bay.

Wells was 3 years old when his parents, who were originally from North Carolina, moved to Cabbage Key. Both worked in education, his father recruiting students for a university in High Point, North Carolina, and his mother as a third-grade teacher. When they discovered Southwest Florida, they fell in love with the area.

“My mom and dad were surprised that there were so many parts of Florida that had so much more development along the coast than this area did. So they started looking for something to buy, and they found this opportunity and decided to take a chance.”

The business—a restaurant, an inn and a collection of cottages for rent—had been in operation since 1944, when Chicago artist and advertising exec Larry Stults bought the property with his wife, Jane. Prior to that, the island was a winter retreat for Massachusetts couple Alan and Gratia Rinehart. Alan was the son of Mary Roberts Rinehart, one of the most famous American writers of the early 1900s, and Gratia was heiress to the Corning Glass Works fortune. The original Rinehart house was completed in 1937, but the couple divorced suddenly in 1938. The island, then known as Palmetto Key, continued to be occupied as a marine research station for several years then was abandoned until the Stults purchased the key in 1944. The Stultses ran the Cabbage Key business until 1969, then the island went through two more owners before the Wells family purchased it in 1976.

Wells still recalls a time on the island without electricity or phones, only a diesel generator and a ship-to-shore radio.

“I remember as a young kid that it was the quietness that was alarming,” he says. “As long as you heard the drone of the generator, you knew everything was OK.”

Anhingas on the docks at Cabbage Key.

In the early 1980s, when neighboring Useppa Island was developed, the Lee County Electric Co-op finally ran cables to both Useppa and Cabbage Key.

“That was a big change,” Wells says. “It helped us modernize. Well, not really ‘modernize,’ because it looks much the same, but it helped us with the power infrastructure and to have a little more normalcy out on the island.”

Although “normalcy” for island living might still seem like a scene out of the Swiss Family Robinson to the rest of us. Wells had to take a boat in order to get to school on the mainland, and he remembers his brother motoring his own 15-foot Boston Whaler to Pine Island in order to catch the bus to middle school.

“Little boats like that were like your bike to get around your neighborhood,” he says. “Since we had no other kids on Cabbage Key, the ‘neighborhood’ was the islands that went as far south as Captiva.”

Wells and Ken missed school on heavy fog days or when the wind was too strong to make the passage.

“The wind chill is so much cooler on the water,” he says. “I remember kids making fun of me for wearing this big old puffy jacket, and I’d say, ‘You didn’t just take a boat in.’”

The storms that ravaged the island often blew through with a fierce intensity, stronger and more dangerous than what the mainland experienced. When a storm was coming, Wells and his family, plus the staff members who lived on Cabbage Key, gathered around the VHF radio.

“I can remember sitting at the bar, everything put up for the storm, and we’d be in there listening to the details of the report, of where the storm was, what the intensity was. That voice on the radio—I wouldn’t say it haunts me, but every now and then I’ll hear something like it and it brings me back to that early childhood.”

Growing up on an island and relying on a boat for transportation, Wells has been imprinted with a need always to check the weather. He’s especially mindful of fog, the kind that rolls in before dawn and cuts visibility down to nothing. When he plans his morning staff and supply runs, he watches the weather report for signs of it, and sometimes the supply boats are delayed until after the fog has burned off.

“These are the kinds of things that happen in an island business that don’t always happen at roadside locations,” he says.

A tour boat dropping off visitors at Cabbage Key.

There are various ways a boat can approach Cabbage Key, though that small detail—the boat—is essential. The island is accessible only by water. Charters and private watercraft run out of nearby marinas, as do ferries like the King Fisher out of Punta Gorda, Island Girl from Pine Island and the boats of Captiva Cruises from Captiva. Wells and his staff also run boats to and from Cabbage Key, but those are mostly for ferrying supplies and workers, though about half the staff lives on the island. Wells likes to point out that though it may look as if he and his family are in the hospitality business, they’re really in the logistics business.

“There’s a lot involved with running a restaurant and bar on an island where we have to bring in all the supplies and haul away all the trash,” he says.

The Avenger heads west and north, to the pass between Useppa and Mondongo islands. The water here is a deep opaque green, more jade than emerald, except on the southern side where the sun reflects off the surface and turns it the color of pewter. Wells slows the boat to look across the sound at a bird rookery, and the waves make a gentle slush, slush, slush as they rock against the hull. Satisfied with what he sees, he opens the throttle again and heads toward the island of Punta Blanca, where a one-room schoolhouse offered education through the eighth grade to the scattered children of the islands from 1925 to 1949. He skirts Cayo Costa with its white sand beaches, and from the boat Wells can make out the seaweed at the wrack line, stands of silver buttonwood, an osprey nest in the limbs of an Australian pine and a snowy egret gliding in at the water’s edge. Up ahead, he points out a sand spit that sits ankle-deep in saltwater, visible only at low tide.

The main dock on Cabbage Key.

“These shoals come and go,” he says. “Sometimes they’re full-on beaches, and sometimes they’re little spits. I love it in early winter when the water is really low, and you can see the bird population spread out across them.”

The sands of the sound move based on the current, the tides and storms, and even someone like Wells, who knows these waters intimately, can be waylaid by an unanticipated sandbar.

“One year can be a lot different than another,” he says. “You have to watch the buoys as you come in and out of these passes.”

A trio of sandpipers wings by overhead, and a sailboat in the distance unfurls its sails to the wind. Wells rounds the southern tip of Cayo Costa and heads, finally, to Cabbage Key. He’s taken the long way, he knows, but it’s worth it for a little extra time on the water.

As he pulls up to the dock, he calls out to the charter boat captains and says hello to the dock master. On the hill above—an old Calusa midden mound—sits the Rinehart building, now the main structure at Cabbage Key, where the restaurant and bar are located. People spill out onto the porch and down the slopes of the hill, ogling the gopher tortoises and pausing for photos beside gumbo limbos. Cabbage Key has welcomed countless visitors over the years—Wells won’t hazard a guess how many—and some of the most famous include John F. Kennedy Jr., former Treasury Secretary James Baker and Jimmy Buffett. Wells points out an old Key lime tree that’s sending out the first blooms of the new season and stops to say a few words to his father, Rob Wells Jr., who’s holding court beside a golf cart.

“My dad has been here so long that he knows a lot of people,” Wells says. “They like to group together and talk.”

His mother, Phyllis, is at the family house, which sits beside the inn and restaurant property. His parents still spend most of their time on Cabbage Key. Depending on the time of year, 15 to 20 of the island’s 25 employees live on the island. Combined with Wells’ parents, they make up the entire island population.

Dollar bill “wallpaper” in the open air restaurant of the Old House at Cabbage Key.

Wells leads the way inside the restaurant where he greets staff members, overnight guests and boaters just in for the day. The inside of the restaurant is darker than the sunlit patio, but it’s possible to see that dollar bills are everywhere, taped to the walls and ceiling, about $70,000 worth, Wells estimates. Nearly $20,000 falls off each year, which the family donates to local charities.

Wells takes a seat at a table on the back patio and orders a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp and a dish of smoked salmon, which Cabbage Key smokes itself. A pair of ginormous Cuban laurels, planted more than a hundred years ago, soar skyward on the other side of the screen. Pink bromeliads are tucked into the clefts of their branches. Inside, there’s an old tarpon skin-mount on one wall that’s gone bronze with age, and fans turn lazily overhead, stirring the dollar bills. Wells looks thoroughly at home here, even if he still carries a touch of that New York City sheen.

“We consider ourselves stewards of the island,” he says, “and I feel fortunate to be able to oversee things for a moment in time. I love seeing the historic parts of this island preserved for future generations and hope that after I’m gone somebody else has the opportunity to continue with this vision and to be lucky enough to work in an environment that I’ve been lucky enough to work in.”

Other families owned Cabbage Key before the Wellses, of course, and it’s possible that someday the island will pass outside the family. But for this moment, the island’s legacy falls squarely on their shoulders as they strive to bring a little bit of paradise to those who pass through.

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