Barrier island bounces back after Hurricane Ian
BY ALSTON CHARLES
From plundering pirates to America’s wealthiest families, Useppa Island has long lured sun-drenched visitors to its postcard-perfect perch nestled between Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key and Pine Island off the Southwest Florida coast.
The 100-acre, private barrier island and members-only Useppa Island Club — the former winter home of businessman Barron Collier — can only be reached by air or sea, with no cars to be found on the bridge-free haven that is also home to several dozen private residences.
Guests who have graced Useppa include such boldface names as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Rothschilds, as well as celebrities such as actress Shirley Temple and President Herbert Hoover.
More than a century later, the wonders of Useppa Island and its private club can now be enjoyed by non-members through a chartered helicopter tour from Elite Jets of Naples. The charter aircraft company is a member of Useppa Island Club, a unique partnership that extends privileges to passengers.
Taking off from Elite Jets’ private terminal at Naples Airport, passengers board the luxury Bell 407 helicopter, which is equipped with leather seats, high-speed Wi-Fi, snacks, drinks and other creature comforts.
The excursion, led by pilot Joe Fragione (better known as Chopper Joe), cruises past multi-million-dollar beachfront mansions on the Naples and north Collier County coastline on its way to Estero Bay. There, the chopper maneuvers just 300 feet above the water, low enough to spot dolphins, manatees, exotic birds, coastal marshes and other environmental wonders.
The eco-flight then passes Fort Myers Beach, the Sanibel Causeway and Pine Island before crossing Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve, home to multiple species of wading and diving birds.
“In a region already widely known for its natural beauty, a coastline-hugging flight to a car-free private island is guaranteed to delight and inspire,” said Stephen Myers, CAM, executive vice president of Elite Jets. “A little more than one year after Hurricane Ian, we are delighted to again offer our customers a slice of this only-in-Southwest-Florida experience.”
Once on the island, guests can dine at the club’s Collier Inn or the dockside Tarpon Bar Restaurant. An abundance of outer recreation awaits, including paddleboard and kayak rentals, deep-sea charter fishing or even rides on a cat boat, a type of sailboat with a single sail on a single mast in the bow.
Guests can also opt for more leisurely pursuits, whether lounging by the club’s pool and jacuzzi or a visit to the Barbara L. Sumwalt Museum, which chronicles the island’s colorful history, from its discovery by Calusa Indians to its late 19th century purchase by Chicago streetcar company owner John Roach, who later sold the island to Collier.
Before the club’s current owners acquired the property in the mid-1970s, it endured a World War II closure and multiple property-damaging hurricanes and even served a stint as a CIA training base for Cuban exiles preparing for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
These days, the Elite Jets’ charter flights are particularly popular as a romantic getaway for couples, Myers said, including a recent excursion in which a prominent Naples restaurateur proposed to his girlfriend (she said yes!).
The Useppa Island Club also rents out several guest rooms for overnight stays. So start making those Valentine’s Day plans now – your beloved deserves only the best.
To book the Useppa Island tour, please visit EliteJets.com or call 239-900-9000.
Alston Charles is a veteran Southwest Florida journalist and former snowbird who now calls Collier County home year-round.