The Buffett Rule: Everything — including cheeseburgers — is better in paradise

Did a Lee island's sandwich spawn one of Buffett's most beloved songs?

Cabbage Key's restaurant and lodge was built on top of a Calusa shell mound by the Rinehart family. Since its construction in the 1930s the building has changed very little and over the years many famous people (including Jimmy Buffett) have graced its rooms.

Cabbage Key's restaurant and lodge was built on top of a Calusa shell mound by the Rinehart family. Since its construction in the 1930s the building has changed very little and over the years many famous people (including Jimmy Buffett) have graced its rooms.

On the cruise back from Cabbage Key, frozen adult beverage in hand, it struck me that a girl could get used to this. Warm salty breezes and Jimmy Buffett music playing on the boat's sound system had me making a note on my to-do list: Look into buying a hammock.

And all it took to get me to this R&R revelation was a slice of Key lime pie, an afternoon on the idyllic island and a few intimate moments with one cheeseburger in paradise.

As local legend has it, Cabbage Key, a 100-acre (sometimes less depending on the tide) island in Pine Island Sound, is where Jimmy Buffett may have written — or gotten the inspiration for — his famously carnivorous anthem "Cheeseburger in Paradise." I wanted to see if I could verify the story, and, more importantly, I wanted to taste the burger that possibly spawned a restaurant chain, sold thousands of CDs and has likely become one of the most quoted sandwiches of all time.

So did I find it? The answer to that is maybe. But perhaps more importantly, what I truly and unequivocally found is a little island oasis so enchanting and relaxing it changed my whole view on what relaxing is.

Stepping off of Captiva Cruises' two-story party boat and onto the dock at Cabbage Key may well be the best cure yet for looming deadlines and angry emails from your boss. The clean white buildings and the smell of grilling fish mix seamlessly with the sound of water lapping at the dock.

Upon arrival, a cheery staff member welcomes you and your boatmates to the island. Within moments you are ushered into the island's restaurant in a way that feels vaguely cattle-callish, but as soon as you catch a waft of the smells coming from the kitchen, you'll be happy to follow the herd.

The back and interior rooms of the restaurant are where you'll find the restaurant's famous "dollar bill wallpaper." To be honest, it's a design nightmare. You imagine $70,000 in dollar bills as being a beautiful sight to behold, but autographed in Sharpie and taped every which way, it's not exactly attractive. Luckily, the restaurant's waterfront view and super-friendly staff make up for what the rooms lack in design aesthetic.

If you go

CABBAGE KEY

When: Cabbage Key restaurant is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily.

Cost: Cheeseburger with a choice of potato salad or coleslaw costs $9.50

Information: 239-283-2278 or www.cabbagekey.com

Getting to the island

■ Captiva Cruises: Tours to Cabbage Key depart at 10 a.m. daily from South Seas Resort, 5400 Plantation Road, Captiva Island. Includes an hour boat ride each way and two hours of free time on-island. Call 24 hours in advance to reserve a space in low season, and two to three days in advance in season. $40 adults; $25 kids younger than 12. Reservations: 239-472-5300

■ Island Girl Charters: Daily departures from Pineland Marina, 13921 Waterfront Drive, Pine Island. $32, round trip adults; $27 round trip kids 12 and younger. 239-633-8142

■ Pine Island Charters: Pineland Marina, 13921 Waterfront Dr., Pine Island. Water taxi times vary, call for details. $30 adults, one way; $20, kids 12 and younger one way. 239-246-9577

■ Tropic Star Cruises: Jug Creek Marina, 16498 Tortuga St., Bokeelia. Lunch at Cabbage Key, call for times. $30, adults; $20, kids 12 and younger. 239-283-0015

■ Private boat: If you’re headed to Cabbage Key via a private boat, the island is near Intracoastal channel marker 60.

On the way over to Cabbage Key, Richard Finkel explained the dollar bill tradition started many years ago when the restaurant was a popular spot for local fisherman. Apparently, a fisherman who'd had a particularly prosperous day was flush with cash and taped a few bills to the wall as credit for future visits. The tradition stuck.

"Each year, about 10,000 dollar bills fall off the walls," Finkel said, "and the family donates what falls to a couple of local children's charities, so it's a good cause."

It's hard not to want to add your own. There's something about leaving a little sign of your presence on this remote island that had me digging into my wallet for a single. And it's as if my server, longtime local Debbie Hyde, has read my mind. As soon as I dig my dollar out, she's behind me with some tape, a marker and a few instructions.

"There's really only one rule, and that's don't put it anywhere you don't see dollar bills already," Hyde said.

Even Jimmy Buffett had to play by these rules, and there are two signed bills in the bar to prove it. What's harder to prove, however, is that this is where he had that legendary cheeseburger.

The cheeseburger is, well, a cheeseburger. But it's a solidly good one. Cooked to a perfect medium (that's the only temperature they will cook it to), the patty's bumpy shape indicates that it was made by hand and a single slice of orange American cheese tops the whole thing off. It's no wagyu-beef-with-caramelized-onions-on-a-brioche-bun-wunderwich, and it's not the best burger you will ever have. But that's not the point.

Jimmy Buffett didn't call his famous song "Cheeseburger." It's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" for a reason, and I think I found that reason: Everything tastes better in paradise.

And Cabbage Key is truly a paradise found.

Ken Wells, the restaurant's manager, is quick to dispel any certainty around the Buffett legend, saying, "We really can't know for certain — there are several island restaurants in several places that serve cheeseburgers that could have influenced the song."

On the cruise back to Captiva, one couple said they heard the burger was from a restaurant in the Caribbean. On the frequently asked questions section of Jimmy Buffett's website, the first question is about where the inspiration for "Cheeseburger in Paradise" came from.

From the looks of the story, it's not looking good for Cabbage Key. Buffett explains how a trip through the Caribbean left him and his crew eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for days — but the link to read the whole story is broken, and I can't click through to see where Buffett ended up getting his now infamous cheeseburger fix — which I think is for the best.

Not knowing lets me think of Cabbage Key as a destination for a cheeseburger in paradise — emphasis on the paradise.

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