“You’re gonna need earplugs,” he warned us as we made our way through the packed bar to a small corner table in the back. Clearly a regular, he had a long, grizzly beard that was tied together at the end into a neat braid. His sunglasses sat on top of his ragged camo ball cap and a loose jean shirt hung over his shoulders barely concealing a t-shirt purchased years ago with faded letters that said, “Local Riff Raff.”
We soon realized he was right. The band was just warming up and the Ragged Ass Saloon was already flooded with sound checks and arpeggios as the two guitarists tested each pedal lined up on the floor at their bare feet.
My husband, Jason, and I grabbed seats across from our good friends, Rod and Cindy. They had opened their Florida home to us this past weekend and wanted to give us one last night on the town before we left to go back to Michigan the next day. We couldn’t be more grateful for our hosts for showing us an incredible time. There were so many amazing things we got to experience during our visit and the trip was much welcomed respite from the cold Michigan February.
Jay met Rod at a marina about 10 years ago running fishing charters out of Lake Michigan. Rod’s son, Chris, served as first mate on their vessel and has since become a good friend of Jay’s. He stood as Jay’s best man at our wedding two years ago and Jay will be standing as he says his vows to his fiancé next June. Every July we could always count on all of us hanging out together either at the marina in Ludington or going out to one of local bars for a good time.
Rod has since retired from running fishing charters in Michigan and he and his wife purchased a home on Pine Island near Fort Myers. They live in a small community right on a canal, perfect for the two dedicated boaters who spend their free time hopping from island to island enjoying the best the area has to offer. Jay and I jumped at the chance when they invited us to stay with them for a couple days.
Jay drove down to Florida and arrived at the airport just as my flight was landing. After being on the road for over 24 hours, he was exhausted when he picked me up. As we worked our way from Fort Myers to Pine Island, the buildings began to thin. They also transformed from commercial architecture to small, bright colored shops stocked with shells, local art, and other curiosities decorated with fishing nets and hand painted signs.
We made a quick stop into a Winn Dixie to pick up some groceries. Both of us were feeling deliriously tired at this point and we meandered up and down the aisles until we finally found everything we needed. It was getting near 8:00 and we were trying to rush to get to our destination. Our impatience got us in trouble at the self checkout as we couldn’t get anything to scan correctly without the help of the attendant. She scolded us for everything from removing the bags from the checkout area too soon to stacking too many things on top of a carton of eggs. But we didn’t care, we were feeling famished and just wanted to get out and grab some dinner.
As we made our way onto the drive our friends lived on, they were already in the driveway waving excitedly as we turned the corner. We hopped out, threw our bags inside, and got in their truck to head to our dinner destination.
We didn’t have to go far before arriving at the restaurant, a tiki themed bar with outdoor patio seating. A few patrons remained, but since this was a community made up primarily of the retired crowd many restaurants and bars shut down around 9, even on a Friday night. Our waitress greeted us and we ordered some beers while Jay shared the details of his lengthy drive.
We were all pretty hungry at this point so it didn’t take anyone long to figure out what to order. Jay and our friends ordered mushroom swiss burgers but my eye was immediately drawn to the fish tacos on the sticky, plastic coated menu. They were made with blackened Mahi topped with a creamy mango sauce and had everything you want in a fish taco; sweet, spicy, and cooked to perfection.
Jay and I were both up early the next morning. Despite still being a little travel weary, our excitement couldn’t keep us in bed any longer. Our friends were up drinking coffee and watching the news so we joined them in the sun-filled living room. We decided we’d take the boat out to North Captiva Island and do a little fishing to start the day.
While Jay and Rod went to the bait shop to get shrimp, Cindy and I packed a cooler with beer and sandwiches and loaded the boat. When the boys returned, Rod made us all a drink to take with us. For Jay, a rum and coke. For me, something called a Ruby Relaxer made with coconut rum, vodka, cranberry and pineapple juice and a couple other things I didn’t quite catch but it tasted amazing.
We wound through the natural mangrove canals sipping our drinks while Rod gave us the rundown on the currents, tides, and history of the area. There were a lot of natural preserves on many of the islands and consequently the skies were full of various birds of prey including eagles, ospreys, and hawks.
After a quick jaunt over open water we arrived at North Captiva. Rod carefully maneuvered the boat about 20 feet from an open dock while Cindy lowered the anchor. I skewered a shrimp with the hook and cast my bait near the dock. Almost immediately, the tip of my rod began to trigger and I instinctively set the hook. My bait-less lure came flying out of the water. Our friends laughed and explained that because the mouths of the sheepshead we were fishing for were so thick, we needed to let them take the bait for a couple seconds before setting the hook. It took a couple tries, but I was finally able to bring in one of the striped fish we were after. It was half an inch too small to keep, so it had to go back but the ice had been broken and the rest of us got our lines in the water as fast as we could.
Immediately after letting the first fish go, we heard what sounded like a snort right behind the boat. I turned around and saw two dolphins swimming around the motor. Cindy explained they were there to take the fish we didn’t keep. The two hung around while we cast our lines and when we caught a fish that wasn’t quite big enough, we’d take turns leaning over the boat and calling the dolphins to take the fish right from our hands.
After catching enough fish for a decent supper, we moved on to our next destination. It was a small island that doubled as a nature preserve. We anchored and ate our sandwiches and drank the beer we brought on the bow of the boat before jumping off the side and heading for shore. The beach was littered with shells and we walked around the island collecting them in our arms, getting pickier about the quality of each one we kept as we went along and making sure nothing was living inside.
We hopped back in the boat and headed off to a secluded resort for a quick drink. It was the type of place you’d never be able to find without the help of someone who had been there before. We grabbed a seat under an umbrella and sipped our cocktails (mojito for me) while Jay and Rod swapped charter fishing stories. When our drinks were empty, we loaded back into the boat and spent the rest of the afternoon fishing for whatever would take our lines.
Back at the dock that evening we unloaded the boat and started prepping for supper. Rod cleaned fish while Jay scrubbed the deck of the vessel. As soon as we brought our catch to the fish cleaning station, an increasing number of pelicans began to accumulate on and around the dock. They were followed by a heron, egret, and a couple storks eyeing our fish and hoping whoever was filleting them would toss them the innards. If, for whatever reason, Rod had to step away from cleaning fish Cindy would stand outside and keep the birds at bay.
Jay, not being a big fish person, was skeptical of our meal but one bit of the golden, crispy, deep fried sheepshead and he was pretty happy. Cindy made a habanero pepper infused vinegar she brought to the table that added the perfect amount of zing to the mild fish. The sun set behind us while we enjoyed our catch along with coleslaw and rice. We sat outside for the rest of the evening sipping on beers before turning in.
We decided to spend the next morning kayaking through the parts of the mangrove canals most boats couldn’t reach. I was as excited as I was apprehensive. My upper arm strength isn’t the best and I just wanted to keep up. Luckily for me, the pace was easy. However, I managed to find myself entangled in every tree branch we went under filling my boat with leaves and small crabs.
Once we hit open water again, I was good. As we made our way back into the canal our friends lived on we were greeted by two dolphins fishing right by our kayaks. They leaped right out of the water towards our boats while we called them to us by slapping against the water. I’ve never been so close to wild dolphins and, let me tell you, it was probably the best thing ever.
We packed a lunch and loaded up the boat again to head to another resort for the afternoon. Rod’s parents were also staying with them and they joined us that afternoon. Per Rod’s suggestion, we tried the resort’s Dirty Banana cocktail which was a perfect, frosty treat to combat the hot sun. Despite the heat, Jay and Rod ended up in the hot tub while Cindy and I got some sun on the pool chairs.
The tide was low when we returned which made it an opportune time to collect oysters. We dropped Rod’s parents off at the house and made our way back out to the open waters in search of shoals popping up out of the water like black broken glass. Not wanting anything to do with eating oysters, Cindy and Jay held back while Rod gave me my first lesson on collecting oysters.
We donned old sneakers and yellow gloves and hopped into the water. The sun was setting and the water was beginning to feel exceptionally cooler than it had during the day. We made our way over the shoals, our thick shoes crunching over oysters. Once we had a few in the bucket, rod took out a shucker and cracked open an oyster before sliding the contents into my hand. I cautiously popped the raw oyster in my mouth. This was a vast contrast to the oysters on the half shell I was used to eating at restaurants, but I figured they didn’t get more fresh than this. Even without a squeeze of lemon juice and a dollop of cocktail sauce, the oyster tasted delicious. We grabbed a couple more to fry up that night and headed back.
The fried oyster tacos we had that night were exceptional. A little Tobasco, lettuce, and tomato and I was in heaven. Since Jay and Cindy missed out, we headed over to another bar to grab supper for them and a beer for me. Even though it was a Sunday evening, a band was rocking in the corner and people were drinking and dancing. Being in a community made up of many retired individuals means the days of the week have no meaning as long as everyone is in bed by ten.
‘This band is nothing. Wait ’til you hear the band we’re gonna take you to see tomorrow,’ Rod informed us. Jay and I still enjoyed the music and I was even able to pull him off his barstool to dance to a cover of Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty.’
We hit the hay right after dinner. Our friends had another big day planned for us so we went to bed early and got up around 7:00 the next morning. Before we left, we took a few minutes to sit on the patio and drink homemade dirty bananas. According to Rod, this was the right way to make them. He blended banana liqueur and rum with ice and chocolate syrup then poured the mixture over Kahlua and Bailey’s but not before Cindy could swirl the glass with more chocolate syrup. A perfect kickoff to our last day.
We packed the last of our sandwiches and beer in the cooler and took off for Fort Myers beach.
Rod took the boat right along the beach and showed us all the spots their family had vacationed at throughout the years. We even got to see the spot where their son, Chris, met his fiancé. The boat rounded a corner into a tight canal and we docked the boat at a motel they had stayed at years before. We sat at a picnic table under a thatched roof and ate our sandwiches and drank the beers we packed before taking off down the beach.
Our first stop was the Lani Kai resort at the same stretch of beach Chris met Bre, his fiancé. We ordered rum runners with floaters while Rod and Cindy shared more stories from past vacations.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at another resort cooling off in the pool then grabbed some sushi before our ride back to their home. Our friends were eager to get us to dinner before the band started so we showered quickly and headed out.
After such an amazing time it felt bittersweet sitting across the table from them on our last night, but Rod and Cindy were determined to give us one last memorable evening. Based on their suggestion, we decided to try the He-Man Specialty pizza. Although I might have previously skimmed over any menu item with the word ‘He-Man’ in the title, this pizza was a favorite of our friends at the Ragged Ass Saloon so we decided to order a large extra crispy with onions and split it between the four of us. The waitress set our table with plastic silverware and paper plates before bringing out the behemoth pizza.
After we finished, we made our way to other side of the bar to get up close to the band. One of the guitarists looked to be about 30, clearly the youngest member of the band, and according to Rod was the best guitar players he’s ever heard. The drummer was also the main vocalist. He wore a handlebar mustache and thick mutton chops. The bassist sat in the corner and the last member of the band was an incredible saxophone player. The bar was booming with covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Credence Clearwater Revival. An older gentleman behind us bought some other patrons a pitcher of beer and when the favor was returned he offered us a glass. We rocked out until the band took an intermission then left.
We had such an incredible time on our trip. I couldn’t be more thankful for the time off and I have so many recipes I look forward to trying from our vacation. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts and be sure to follow Daily Ciabatta on Instagram to stay up with the latest!