Maria Sonnenberg | FLORIDA TODAY
The magic begins when the straw-hatted boatman motions you aboard Palm Island Transit’s Katie B. ferry.
In terms of distance covered, the Katie B.’s trip to Knight Island in Southwest Florida is unimpressive — a fair swimmer could cover the couple of hundred yards that separate the mainland from the island. However, the ferry’s journey should not be measured in puny physical yards, but rather in the vast mental distancing it provides from stress and worry.
As the ferry lumbers for six-minutes across a picturesque stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway, ospreys, herons and egrets greet your arrival to Knight Island, a slip of paradise that remains largely undiscovered, primarily because the short ferry trip can cost a whopping $55 round trip. A five-trip pass costs $225, but the best deal is to book accommodations with Palm Island Resort, which includes ferry access in its rates.
The Resort, which dominates the tiny island, opened in 1983 in the tradition of its sister resort, the exclusive Useppa Island Club, a watering hole for the likes of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. Developers — and brothers — Dean and Gar Beckstead did not have to work hard to create the atmosphere of relaxation they wished for their new project, for Palm Island Resort is eminently relaxing by nature.
Bellmen with golf carts whisk guests from the parking lot to one of the 160 Caribbean-inspired villas clustered in serene semi-circles facing the Gulf of Mexico. Cars are verboten in this enclave, replaced by golf carts, bikes or your own two feet. You can do as little or as much as you want here, for the resort provides pools, tennis courts, kayak tours and children’s activities led by Redbeard, a colorful pirate fellow beloved by now several generations of youngsters.
Take your pick from the on-island restaurant, Rum Bay, or hop on a short and free launch trip around the pretty estuaries to Leverock’s, the resort’s mainland seafood restaurant. When you are finished, the launch will take you back to the private dock.
The beach always beckons here, with silky sands and the warm and usually placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Collect the abundant seashells, but don’t forget the cool sharks’ teeth, readily available.
You can walk the beach for miles, often without seeing a soul. Palm Island Resort is at the northernmost tip of Knight Island, which is connected to Don Pedro Island, which is connected to Little Gasparilla Island at the southern tip. They used to be three separate islands, but over time, Mother Nature fused them into one, although they’re still considered three separate entities. Yes, it’s confusing, but don’t sweat the details and enjoy the scenery.
Stroll by the seashore to Stump Pass and gaze at neighboring Manasota Key. You might be tempted to swim across since it is not far, but don’t do it, for the current can be treacherous.
Manasota Key is worth a visit on its own, if only for its classic retro beach town vibes. Weston’s WannaB Inn carries the mid-century theme a step further with 80 retro-styled units right on the beach, each with its own personality.
To further enhance your beach zen, take one of the inn’s weekly yoga classes by the sea, rent a beach cruiser to tool around the warren of sunny little beachside streets adjoining the inn or join the eco-tours led by Hooked on SUP. Choose a stand-up paddleboard or a kayak to get up close to dolphins and other denizens of the deep that make their home on Lemon Bay.
The water is usually crystal clear, making spotting the critters super easy, easier still because the master naturalist guides know all the good hangouts for the marine animals.
At the outfitter’s headquarters at Cape Haze Marina in Englewood, say hello to Georgia, the resident pig, a porcine legend that supposedly knows how to paddleboard.
Restaurants abound in nearby Englewood, where Farlow’s by the Water overlooks Angler Creek, Surrounded by tropical gardens and a huge outdoor dining area, the restaurant has a reputation for great American/Caribbean cuisine with a southern twist. Owner Keith Farlow hails from St.Croix and his wife Laurie, is from the States.
For an infusion of artsiness, drive a few minutes to Olde Englewood, where you will find the Arts Alliance of Lemon Bay, the Old Florida Outdoor Center and Gallery and Mango Bistro, with its colorful décor and gifts, plus a menu that includes authentic French crepes, gourmet wraps and other goodies.
A couple of miles south from Knight Island is the whimsical artist’s village of Placida, heavily influenced by the landscape of Gasparilla Sound. Stop for lunch at the Fishery, an Old Florida-style historic seafood eatery with a killer waterside view.
Take $6 out of your pocket to pay the toll for the bridge that connects Gasparilla Island to the mainland. Boca Grande, a hangout of the Bush family of presidential fame, is laid back and quaint. A wide bike path protected by a canopy of trees permits visitors a leisurely look at the multi-million-dollar homes found in this well-heeled enclave.
Legend has it that pirate Jose Gaspar, who sailed these waters, buried treasure around these parts. Many, including folks from the Smithsonian have searched in vain for the loot. The treasure is there, however, in the glorious land, water and sky.
For more information, visit charlotteharbortravel.com.