Cheese in the Cabbage

It’s amazing what you can ignore in your own back yard.  Since my move to Florida, I’ve been to Orlando, Miami, South Beach, St. Augustine, Sebring, Tampa, and Key West.  Along the way I’ve hit Disney, Universal Studios, Bush Gardens, as well as botanical gardens, music concerts, book fairs, and other places of gathering.  And yet, for all this, I almost missed a major landmark and cultural icon.  Cabbage Key.  Heard of it?  No, you’re not sure?  Hmm. Ever hear the song “Cheeseburger in paradise” by Jimmy Buffett?  Yep!   That’s the one.  Cabbage Key and The Cabbage Key Inn are the inspiration for that song and have been featured heavily on many travel and food shows up and down the television channels.

So how did I not see this for so long?  One reason is that you can’t drive to Cabbage Key.  There are no bridges that cross over to the little island and no roads there once you’re on it.  That means travel is limited to boats and water planes.  (Ok. You could technically swim it, but with hammerheads, blacktips, and lemon sharks swimming the intracoastal, I wouldn’t advise it.)  The other reason is that I thought it was much further up the coast.  With a week off, it was a perfect time to correct this mistake.

Taking the King Fisher out of Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda.

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Carol and I enjoyed calm waters as we steamed leisurely up Charlotte Harbor.  Passing the Island of Boca Grande, a few dolphins swam up to join us.

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The First Mate explained to us that the dolphins were not swimming alongside the ship, but were actually surfing the wake.  Cheers and clapping encouraged the finned coupe to jump through the air as they surfed just under the surface.  They also enjoyed giving the closets viewers an unexpected shower as the splashed close by the side of the boat.

After stopping at Cayo Costa state park to let off some passengers for the day, we continued south for another twenty minutes before reaching our destination.

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I was surprised by my findings.  Cabbage Key is small!  I was expecting an island three times larger.  At only 100 acres, it holds five houses, the inn, a water tower, a maintenance shop and a quick nature trail.

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Cabbage Key Inn has wonderful views and the restaurant is covered in the most expensive wall paper I’ve ever seen!   Carol counted over four hundred dollars on the pole alone.

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The wall paper may be a dull green, but the drinks are vibrantly colored.  Carol enjoyed the sweetness of the Chambord Margarita while I indulged in the classic Golden Margarita.  It may have only been two in the afternoon, but why not?

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When you go to iconic places, you have to try the food they’re known for:  Lobster in Maine; Pulled pork bar-b-cue in South Carolina; Paczkis in Hamtramck. Likewise I just had to have a Cheeseburger in Paradise.  I was not disappointed.  Thick and juicy, this perfectly sized burger featured lettuce, tomato, onion, topped with gooey melted cheese, all on a toasted bun.  It doesn’t overload the bun but compliments it.

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There is one deterrent to island life though.  With such limited space, there are no fries with any meal.  In fact, nothing is fried at the restaurant.  There is no cost effective way to store the new and used oil as well as shipping it over to the mainland for proper disposal.  On the bright side, every ingredient is guaranteed fresh as it is brought over on a daily basis.

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After our lunch, Carol and I walked off some calories touring the nature trail.  Full and content, we relaxed as we rode the still water home.  Cabbage Key and the inn found a place in our hearts just as we left a little of us to mark our visit.

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The Celtic Ray – more authentic than I ever knew.

 

Sometimes it takes going to another country to find out how good a place is.  That was the case with The Celtic Ray.

My wife and I have been going there for many years for their tasty food and warm atmosphere.  When relatives visit and want a good Irish pub, The Celtic Ray is the only choice.  I always got a kick taking my brother and his wife there for dinner.

“I can’t believe I have to come to Florida for authentic Irish/English food.”  I’d hear on the ride back.

I got a kick out of hearing that since they visit England regularly.  Being that the owner is Irish, I expected authentic cooking.  It never occurred to me that the authenticity was complete.002

That was until my wife and I went to Ireland last year.  The experience  of visiting multiple cities and all the pubs in them, showed us how The Celtic Ray is an Irish pub.  In fact, it is so authentically Irish that if you picked it up and dropped in off in Killkenny, Dublin, or Gallway that people wouldn’t even notice that it was of U.S. origin.

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It’s done well in Punta Gorda.  So well in fact, that it has tripled in size.  Don’t let that fool you.  When The Celtic Ray first started, it was so small that it defined the word intimate.  If I had to throw out a figure on its size back then, I’d say the dining area and bar were maybe 500 square feet tops.  Now The Celtic Ray has branched out into the building next door, offering more bar space, dining room both upstairs and down as well as a stage for live music.

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The music was good the night we were there.  The singer mixed Irish folk tunes with American ones.  The audience must’ve been regulars for they sang along with every song.  The entire event brought me back to Ireland.

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I have to admit though, that there is one major difference between The Celtic Ray and all the pubs in Ireland.  The Celtic Ray does not serve Budweiser.  In fact, they do not serve any common domestic beer.  If you want Bud, Miller, Busch, Mic, or any other usual big brand beer, go to a usual bar.  If you want beer with flavor and body, go to The Ray.  The beer is hearty and memorable.

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The food is also hearty and memorable.  There are choices of both Irish and English food and many is it good.  It is the only place I will go to get a rack of lamb and their pasties are out of this world!

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The food is so good that even after working outside in 98 degree heat with 80+ percent humidity, you still crave what would be considered a heavy meal.  If you want something familiar, go with the traditional fish and chips.  It’s so good it would make John Oliver weep for joy.  He would feel right at home.

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And that’s what I had to leave the United States to figure out.  If I had never visited Ireland, I would’ve never known how authentic The Celtic Ray truly is.  I would’ve thought it was just an American bar with a good Irish feel to it.  Now I know it is a true Irish Pub.  If you’re ever down in Southwest Florida you should come to The Celtic Ray in Punta Gorda and see for yourself.  You’ll be amazed.

Slammed at Hogan’s Beach

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Something’s just can’t be helped.  It was late in our first day of vacation and we were famished.  Having survived the truly bizarre turnpike system of Tampa, we had no ambition to go anywhere far.  Wearily we scanned the half dozen restaurants near us when one jumped up and grabbed our attention.

Hogan’s Beach

I couldn’t believe the screen.  Hulk Hogan owns a restaurant?  I had to check this out.  I pulled up the menu and called Carol over.  There were a lot of choices and the prices were good.  Carol was so intrigued, she played the embedded video.

This was exciting.  How often do you stumble upon a famous person’s restaurant?  It ranked up there with going to Ditka’s in Chicago or Joe Mantegna’s Taste Chicago in Burbank.  It’s on the Bucket List of places to eat that you don’t even know you have.  We had to go.

I did check out a few reviews before we went.  There were only five, but half seemed to rate the place pretty harsh.  Mainly the complaints focused on horrid service.  My mind did quietly wonder if we would get the same treatment.  It was Memorial weekend after all, but we’re on vacation and what’s a vacation without a little adventure?

The place was surprisingly nice!  Hulk Hogan memorabilia from his wrestling years was displayed in cabinet or adorned on the walls of the hallway leading to the restaurant proper.

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The inside of the restaurant was nicely done with in the ubiquitous Hogan colors of red and yellow.  A large saltwater aquarium separates the dining area from the sushi bar.

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In fact, the sushi bar is so well hidden that Carol and I didn’t notice it until we walked across the floor to view the aquarium. I should also take this moment to let you know that Hogan’s Beach also has and outside beach bar for those who like to view the latest in bikinis and swimsuits instead fish swimming happily around.

Bikinis outside doesn’t mean that the dress is formal on the inside.  Far from it.  Swimsuits aren’t allowed inside, but relaxed casual is standard inside.  Shirts, shorts, and sneakers are all ok.

“How was the food?”  You ask.  In a word, great!  It may not rank up with the top ten restaurants of the United States, but Ribeye steak and salad I had was wonderful.

Sorry about the bad picture.  It looked s good that I started eating it before remembering to take a picture!

Sorry about the bad picture. It looked s good that I started eating it before remembering to take a picture!

 

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Cooked just the way I liked it and in large portions, I was very happy.  The steak was juicy, the potatoes thick, and the greens were crisp.  (The salad and the beans.)

Carol enjoyed her meal as well, but was blown away by the French Onion soup.

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“It’s hearty.” She said, sipping the caramel colored broth.

I never knew there could be such a thing.   Hearty French Onion soup?  Wow.

Our waiter was fantastic too.  Raul was polite, kind, friendly, and most of all, there whenever we needed him.  We never felt that we were ignored or put down upon.  He served us well.

Bottom line:  Would we go back to Hogan’s Beach? Definitely!  The prices were right.  The food was great. The service was on the spot.  What’s not to like.

We never saw Hulk Hogan, but it didn’t matter.  The experience was memorable.