Cape Coral and Southwest Florida Feature Stories
Written by Eric Taubert Wednesday, 09 April 2008 00:00
My relocation to Cape Coral started, I assume, the same way most others have...with a stay at the Quality Hotel Nautilus.
I remember driving into Cape Coral for the first time. The toll booth. The bridge. The glistening waters of the Caloosahatchee River speckled with recreational boaters. I remember the tingly feeling I got at the high point of the Cape Coral Bridge, looking over a place which would soon become my new home. Canals and tropical palm trees. Boats in backyards. Cement houses. Lots of dark green and blue. It was just as I pictured it would be and so different from the places I'd known until then.
I passed the Freemason monument and water fountain at the entrance to the city, and everything felt like it was clicking into place. "Keep your eyes open for the Quality Hotel," I told my wife. "It should be right around here somewhere." And there it was. Just as generic a hotel as I'd ever stayed in on any of my road trips. Cheap. Clean. Efficient. Easy to find. And located right where I needed it to be.
In 2005, the Quality Hotel, was the most viable option in town for lodging. The Hampton Inn had not been built yet. There were one or two other hotels listed online, but poor customer reviews ruled those out. And a stay at the Quality Hotel is steeped in tradition. The parcel of land the Quality Hotel is built on was originally occupied by the Nautilus Hotel and Surfside Restaurant, the first hotel and restaurant in town. Staying in this place while I searched for my new home made me feel connected to the semi-recent pioneer past of Cape Coral. I liked the way that felt.
We pulled in and parked the car in the rear parking lot. The lot was almost full. There were two moving trucks in the back corner.
We checked into our room, lugged a bunch of stuff into the elevator, and crashed in road-fatigue to the bed. It had been about 10 hours since we left Myrtle Beach, South Carolina...and we were both sick of being in the car.
I looked at the pamphlets and fumbled with the remote to flick on the television. Wink News was on, and the stories they covered were as exotic as news in new places always is. Something about Nile monitors. Something about burrowing owls. Something about trying to bounce back from Hurricane Charley. I adored it. These were the stories of my future community. These were the stories I wanted to be telling.
I opened the sliding glass door to a balcony looking down on Cape Coral Parkway. It sounded like a city. It sounded industrious. Lots of running engines. An occasional siren. People waiting at the bus stop murmuring gossip to each other. At the time, construction was full force ahead, and migrant workers crowded the beds of pickup trucks on their commute home from hard days at work. I remember the skies becoming smeared pastel, swirling and changing with the steady advance towards dusk. I remember the huge United States flag flapping above Perkins in the intermittent breeze. Cape Coral felt like a place of opportunity, American opportunity, where the stories of American lives were unfurling in the coastal air and humid haze. It felt like a place that was accepting me, a place I needed to be.
"Maybe it's time for Margaritas." And like that, we composed ourselves and headed to the inviting Surfside Tiki Bar down by the pool. Plastic-cupped sour mix and tequila with ice cubes and slices of lime cooled our jangling nerves. Night had fallen. Headlights and streetlights and business signs mingled with the scent of night-blooming jasmine in the breeze. A few drinks later, and we'd exchanged life stories with the bartender and everyone else at the bar.
That night I barely slept. I lay in a not-quite comfortable bed, my head on strange pillows, and pondered my small place in the history of the Quality Hotel. How many others had checked into this room with intentions similar to mine? How many others had lay right in this spot wondering what their life in this new place would be like? How many others had traveled along this same path on their journey towards fulfilling a distant dream of relocating to South Florida? Out in the hallway, at an ungodly hour, a man was yelling at his family. I'm pretty sure it had something to do with moving.
The next morning was early to rise and crowded breakfast at Perkins. The smell of pastries and greasy bacon enticed me as I sat in the booth wrestling with the length and width of a News Press "Homes For Sale" classified ads section. We were meeting with the Realtor in an hour. Housing inventory was tight in those days. There wasn't much to look at, everything was under contract. On that morning, we had no way of knowing it would take three more visits to Cape Coral before we'd find the perfect house. We were overwhelmed with the new frontier before us and anxious to explore.
Our Realtor was to meet us in front of The Quality Hotel. After a not-quite satisfying breakfast, I went out and sat on the bench in front of Perkins to wait for him. Car exhaust wafted through the air. Birds flitted from tree to tree, communicating with other birds in the sing-song language we don't understand. Dump trucks groaned their way through lower gears as the Del Prado intersection stoplight turned green. And I just sat there, completely anonymous, trying to make acquaintance with the city of Cape Coral, while that immense American flag above me blew in whatever direction the wind told it to.
Now it's three years later. Today I decided to venture down to the Quality Hotel Nautilus to walk around and contrast how Cape Coral looks to the resident I've become.
I look at businesses that have changed owners multiple times since my arrival. I wonder what used to be in the building now housing Pearl Lounge. I read the sign telling me to "Brace" myself "For The New Martini's - Under New Ownership". I notice the surge in these roadside sandwich trailers that have been popping up in the parking lots of established and shut down businesses. Cuban Sandwiches. Gyros or Chicken in Pita. They remind me of certain roadside stands I knew up North. I always mean to stop at one, but never find the time.
I walk past the Tiki Bar. It's too early for drinks. The bar is still closed. The pool is empty.
I walk in the back door of the hotel and immediately take the elevator to the top floor. Once there, I stop and look out the thick, tinted windows towards the Cape Coral Bridge. The greens and blues are still just as exhilarating as I remember.
All these buildings were nameless to me when I first arrived here. Now, as I look across the landscape, I know what I'm seeing. Questionable Real-Estate-Guru, Russ Whitney's, Wealth Intelligence Academy. The backside of one of Cape Coral's fairly well-hidden post offices. Barry Anton's Hair Salon.
They all look the same, these rooms. Drab rugs. Rough and gaudy bedspreads. Old, boxy television. Nondescript furnishings. There are towels on the floor in the bathroom. From inside this room you could be anywhere in America. It's what's outside the window that counts. I walk towards the sliding glass window.
Disguise intact, I continue the subterfuge and immerse myself in the experience. I grab a quick cup of coffee from the continental breakfast and peruse the rack of pamphlets. 101 Things To Do in Southwest Florida. Southwest Florida Travel Guide. Beaches Must Do. Areas Best Maps. Activities and Attractions. Arts and Culture. Shopping. Dining. Boat Rides. When I first came the the Quality Hotel, this was a rack full of question marks. Now it's a rack of pleasant memories and things I'd like to do again. The Key West Express. Captiva Cruises. Eden Vineyards. The Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. J C Cruises. Sanibel Island Restaurants. These are the places and attractions that bring people to Southwest Florida. The lifestyle. The beaches. It's too bad so many of us top being tourists shortly after we move here. I talked to a year round resident the other day who told me, "It's been ten years since I've been to the beach." What a shame.
I grab a complimentary copy of USA Today from the hotel lobby and walk back outside.
I meander over to the same bench in front of Perkins where I first waited to meet the Realtor three years ago. I take a seat and put my camera gear beside me. This is the spot I imagined myself visiting when I woke up this morning. Now that I'm here, I strain to absorb the full experience of this place. Do I see it differently. Has it changed? Have I?
The traffic and car exhaust are just as I remembered them. The trees look taller, fuller. The birds still emit their melodic proclamations back and forth. In this moment I see myself as the same person I was the first time I sat here. I see Cape Coral the same way I did on that long ago day. Just another nameless guy sitting on a bench in Cape Coral.
That's when the door to Perkins opens up and the person who emerges from within looks at me with the same sense of recognition on her face I'm sure I had on mine.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" she asks.
"I'm pretty sure you do," I reply.
We go through the social motions until we've pinpointed the time and place we first made acquaintance with each other. It was a local business we both worked at for short stints on our journeys to where we are now.
And like that, the illusion dissipates. The false sense of anonymity withers away. Somewhere between who I am and where I'm at, the single vital change which has taken place through passing time becomes apparent within me. I'm no longer a stranger from out of town. I'm a recognizable member of this community, a small part of the working whole which is Cape Coral. Time and moments move on and slowly the foreign becomes familiar. We absorb our surroundings and they absorb us through some strange miracle of geographical osmosis. We mingle and merge and become a part of wherever it is we've chosen to be.
A smile breaks across my face as I consider the insight. I breathe in the thick, pollen-infused air. Before I gather my belongings and head back home, I linger on the bench a while longer and enjoy just being there. Overhead a Florida sun burns through faint wispy clouds and the giant American flag still dances with the wind.
(editor's note - Shortly after this story was written, the Quality Hotel Nautilus underwent a major renovation and it is now known as the Holiday Inn Express Cape Coral.)
---writing and photography by Eric Taubert
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