As boaters approach Useppa Island on Florida's southwest coast they may hear a warning from a loudspeaker, "This is a private, members-only club!" If you want exclusivity in a vacation, the Useppa Island Club is your place. Whether you want to come for lunch or an overnight stay, or perhaps buy a vacation house on this special little island along Florida's Intracoastal Waterway, you must find a member to sponsor you. A fifteen-minute boat ride from Boca Grande on Pine Island Sound, Useppa has a 10,000-year history that begins with the ancient Calusa civilization. Its shores have seen the occupation by Cuban fishermen in the 1800's and it was one of the favorite haunts of turn-of-the-century Chicago and New York robber barons. The island eventually became a base for the U.S. government during the Bay of Pigs invasion in the 1960's.
Today it is a beautiful 100-acre enclave of privacy that can still only be reached by boat. The island features a lovely restored inn, 116 private homes with Lilliputian garages (holding golf carts rather than cars since there are no roads), and a tradition of Florida fishing that bring anglers from around the world. Virtually every room at the inn displays a mounted catch of enormous proportions. In 1908 advertising entrepreneur, Barron Collier founded the Isaak Walton Club on the island, dedicating it to the 17th century author of The Compleat Angler. Walton Club member Edwin Vom Hofe invented the first Star Drag fishing reel, which is still used today, and old photographs crowd the walls, recanting its history and depicting members with catch larger than themselves.
We stayed in the Isaak Walton suite, a gigantic room with a Rococo bed and a preserved tarpon over the headboard. Hand carved furnishings, dazzling displays of antique marine memorabilia and a Jacuzzi that was big enough to wash your car filled the space. No one quite knows where the name "Useppa" comes from but an excellent little museum on the island suggests that it might be derived from the name of a famous Cuban fisherman whose moniker was Italianized into "Giuseppe." It’s thought that it was later bastardized into Useppa. There is also the legend of a pirate who imprisoned the Spanish princess Joseffa de Mayorga on the island—Joseffa’s Island later becoming "Useppa." Whatever the case, the island maintains its history by sponsoring archaeological digs and sponsoring events at the museum in a cottage near the inn.
Social activities, tennis, croquet and swimming are all enjoyed at this club, which continues to be members only and allows you to ferry over on your own boat. Useppa has the deepest harbor on Florida's southwest coast, handling yachts as long as 100 feet. Indeed, even Queen Elizabeth's Royal Yacht, the HMX Brittania, visited Useppa in 1992. Other famous visitors include the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts (yes, they all had to be approved and sponsored by members in order to stay on the island).
Room and nightly vacation home rates at Collier Inn and cottages range from $120 to $630. Vacation home purchase prices on Useppa run from $485,000 to $3 million and to apply for membership you must telephone Terry West at 239-283-4227. A one-time initiation fee of $1600 is required, and a $146 monthly fee is also applied. To see the properties available, go to UseppaPropertyCompany.com.