They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
In fact, most of the ones that were made like this have been torn down and replaced with cookie-cutter condominiums inhabited by folks in Bermuda shorts and black knee-length socks.
But Pirate’s Pointe Resort on the Little Manatee River remains a charming anachronism — which some might also use to describe owner Jonathan Shute, an escapee from New Orleans, where he was a big-time Cajun chef.
Now, he wrestles with the demands of keeping the raccoons out of the trash bin and the squirrels out of the attics of the little bungalows that make up this tropical garden paradise, most of which he rebuilt with his own hands.
A walk on the deeply shaded, shell-graveled paths here is a stroll through a South Seas jungle where a large portion of every palm and tropical flower known to man grows in a profusion that seems almost bewitched. Shute says there are at least 20 varieties of palm here. There’s a staghorn fern that probably weighs 1,000 pounds, hung by heavy chains from one of the grandfather oaks. The swimming pool is hidden in a tropical grotto, complete with splashing waterfall.
Shute has become an Old Florida innkeeper, but he can’t quite let go of his roots in cuisine: He offers packages where he tosses in blackened pork butt roasts from his 12-foot-long smoker, or maybe redfish on the half shell with drawn lobster butter and homemade double chocolate cake as part of the deal.
The place is about Ruskin charm, but for most who come here, it’s also about fishing. You sleep so close to the docks you can hear the mullet jump, and occasionally hear the snook or tarpon blasting bait right under the boats. The open water of Tampa Bay is 2 miles down river, and as skippers such as captain Jason Prieto can confirm, there are hundreds of snook and reds between camp and the bay to slow your journey.
For me personally, it does not hurt that all of this rests about 200 yards from the home on the river where I raised my kids, mowed my yard and buried my pets for more than 20 years. This place, for much of that time, was part auto garage, part tiny apartments for an assortment of Ruskin characters who made the place what it was — there are echoes everywhere.
The late Mel Berman, the beloved “Voice of Tampa Bay” from 970 AM radio, once got barbed by sting ray on a sundown wading trip down river, and captain Fred Everson, who lived here at the time, brought him to his cabin, heated up a bucket of water, plunged Mel’s foot into it and stopped the pain in less than 10 minutes, proving that this is one remedy that does work for this most painful of inshore maladies.
Captain Jeff Horne, who used to own the place next door, was cleaning fish with me one morning when his 3-year-old son wandered down to the dock and nonchalantly stepped off the end, to disappear beneath the coffee-dark waters of the Little Manatee.
“I guess he can swim?” I asked Jeff, who was stripping the fillets off a whopper trout at that moment.
“Who can swim?” said Jeff.
“Nope, not yet,” said Jeff, cutting off a second fillet.
“He’s in the river,” I advised.
Jeff dropped the knife, ran to the dock, plunged his hand in up to the shoulder and pulled his son straight up — amazingly, none the worse for the wear. And Jeff went right back to cleaning fish.
In summer, when the big rains would come, gators came down from the swamps east of I-75 and prowled around the docks, looking for pet dogs that wanted to go for a swim. Somebody shot one of the gators once, a 10-footer or so, and it swelled up and floated like a gator balloon, feet up in the air, up and down the river with the tide until it was eaten by the sharks.
The river is still like that today, and Pirate’s Pointe just “seems like it belongs to be there,” as one of my old Ruskin friends used to say of things that were that way.
Today, every little house has been refurbished inside and out, much of the work accomplished through the sweat, blood and tears of Shute, who has overcome recalcitrant bankers, pushy tax men, cancer and the ever-present hordes of Little Manatee River mosquitoes and no-see-ums to build, almost by sheer force of will, a one-of-a-kind last resort on the banks of this storied Florida river.
To see it for yourself, go down Shellpoint Road and hang a left at 18th Street. The city made Shute take down his camp sign, but everybody down there knows where he is, at the end of the street.
For more information, visit http://www. piratespointeresort.com.