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Pleasure island: pirate lore and sweet seclusion at the Useppa Island Club.

The sky was a warm Florida blue as we passengers gathered at the small marina of the Bocilla Club on Pine Island for the morning ferry to Useppa Island. Our destination was the private Useppa Island Club, set apart from the rest of the world by the glistening waters of Pine Island Sound.

As we threaded the narrow channel to the Sound, our thoughts turned to the pirate Jose Gaspar and his band, who once ruled these waters and mangrove islands. On a raid of Spanish galleons, Gaspar captured Josefa de Mayorga, a beauty en route to a convent in Spain. Legend has it he set her up quite comfortably on her own private island and wooed her gallantly but with no success. Supposedly, he was finally so enraged by her disdain that he slew her with a blow from his cutlass. Over the years, "Josefa's Island" has become Useppa Island.

We first discerned the island through the glint of the sun from the silvery tin roofs of its homes and cottages. As we came closer, we could admire the old-Florida styling of those homes, with their intricate gingerbread trim and wraparound verandas.

Fishing-lodge luxury: We tarried in the lobby of the club, enjoying early 1900s photos of wealthy visitors who came to fish at what was then the Izaak Walton Club. When renovation of the club started 21 years ago, workers found an old washtub filled with tarpon scales signed by famous visitors. The most valuable autographs are kept under lock and key, and the other signed scales are mounted on small ovals of old cypress wood and line the walls of the Tarpon Bar, where fish stories are still embellished as visitors sip drinks or play billiards.

Our room was like a cozy fishing cottage with pecky cypress walls and old-fashioned rocking chairs teetering in the sea breezes on the porch. Just a few feet from our door was the club's famous pink path, which winds through the accessible areas of the one-and-a-half-mile-long island. Shaded by banyan trees and gently lit at night, it makes the perfect spot for romantic, hand-holding walks. We made our way to a quiet waterfront gazebo, where we unpacked a cooler of champagne, strawberries and chilled steamed shrimp. We settled in for an afternoon of napping, reading and wading, giving in to a delicious case of the lazies.

Club cuisine: That evening, rested and refreshed, we strolled the pink path a bit farther to reach the Collier Inn, the neoclassical-styled mansion where Florida land tycoon Barron Collier once plotted his big business deals. Now it's home to the club's two restaurants: the classy Barron Collier Room and the more casual Izaak Walton Room, where photos of anglers showing off monstrous tarpon dress the walls.

In keeping with our mood, we chose the more relaxed of the two, starting dinner with a rummy lime daiquiri, then moving on to tender, spicy blackened pompano. The homemade key lime pie served atop a thin layer of fresh strawberry coulis perfectly mingled sweet and tart flavors. (All restaurants are closed on Mondays, so bring groceries.)

We strolled to the marina, marveling at the yachts at rest in their slips and sitting down at the edge of the dock with our feet dangling over the water. Pine Island Sound was pitch-black, except for the flashing green channel markers, the distant dock lights of Mondango Island (owned by the Lykes family) and the brilliant stars. The silence was broken only by the blowing of dolphins surfacing for air. Could life get any better?

Good morning! After a Continental breakfast at the Tarpon Bar, we headed for the pool, surrounded by pink chaise lounges and lush tropical palms, and stretched out in the warm morning sunlight.

The murmur of activity behind a hibiscus hedge aroused us. Peeking, we found green croquet courts crowded with players dressed in classic white and carrying beautiful carved wood mallets. Surprise - international croquet players flock to the club for year-round competitions! We joined the spectators, who watched in silent respect as the players sent their balls rolling through the wickets.

Across from the croquet courts, the Useppa Island Historical Society Museum invites visitors to journey through the island's history. The museum is a treasure trove of Calusa Indian artifacts discovered in archaeological digs. A most significant find: the "Useppa Man," the remains of a young man dating back from 8,500 to 12,000 years ago. The exhibits travel through Spanish takeover, piracy, visits by celebrities from Roosevelt to movie stars and to the 1961 CIA takeover of the island, when Cubans were trained for the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Non-members' special: Though the club is private, it offers a one-time "Get Acquainted" visit, an opportunity to explore possible membership in this nearby retreat. In-season rates start at $150 a night for a guest room and go up to $620 a night for a four-bedroom home. Weekly stays offer savings, and off-season rates are a bargain. Reserve guided fishing trips ahead, especially during tarpon season. Picnic and shelling trips to Cayo Costa Island are $50, and take-along picnic lunches can be arranged in advance. Info: (941) 283-1061.

Getting there: To get to the Useppa Island Club launch, take 1-75 south to Exit 25. Continue onto Pine Island, turning right onto Stringfellow Road to the Bocilla Club. The marina is at the rear of the property. Or head your boat out to the Gulf, traveling south and heading in at Boca Grande Pass. Follow the ICW south for three miles to marker 63, the entry to the Useppa channel, which is nine feet at low tide. The marina accommodates vessels up to 110 feet.
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Title Annotation:Getaways
Author:Holler, Janis Frawley
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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