Gasparilla Island: A hidden tropical paradise
April 13, 2011
Known as the tarpon fishing capitol of the world, Boca Grande is a picturesque mix of tropical Florida and New England. The town contains mansions and modest homes. Its population consists of locals and wealthy homeowners who spend winters there.
Boca Grande Pass is a premier tarpon fishing spot. Each spring and summer, when schools of massive tarpon move through the narrow Boca Grande Pass, anglers in high-powered boats juggle for position as they try to hook these silver kings that can weigh 200 pounds.
Clustered around the old train depot that brought industry to this pint-sized village near the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande, has evolved into a playground for the rich and famous — and regular folk as well. Five beaches line the western part of the island, and the grand Gasparilla Inn & Club centers the village commerce. Former Presidents George Bush and his son, George W. Bush and other family members frequent the inn regularly.
Visitors delight in the barefoot elegance, fine outfitters and the miles-long bike paths that traverse the island. Boca Grande is also a good jumping off spot for visits to nearby Cabbage Key (made famous by Jimmy Buffet’s song, “Cheeseburger in Paradise”) and the private Useppa Island. Cayo Costa is another easy trip, and offers perhaps the best shelling of anywhere in Lee County. All three are accessible only by boat.
Boca Grande is on Gasparilla Island, a barrier island shared by two counties. Although the greatest part of it is in Lee County, access by roadway is only possible from Charlotte County at the northern tip of the long and narrow island, which provides beautiful sights, as well as relaxing beaches with soothing sea water.
Access to the Boca Grande Causeway is a short distance west of the point where state roads 775 and 771 meet, where Gasparilla Road branches off and leads to the southern extremity of the island, some 7 miles away.
Driving from the mainland to the Boca Grande Causeway, travelers cross one of only nine swing bridges left in the state. The steel span is 213 feet long making it one of the largest operational swing bridges in the United States. It was the only privately owned bridge in the state until Jan. 5, 1998, when the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority bought it. The bridge turned 52 years old in 2010 and is the only toll-swing bridge in Florida. It operates 24/7.
Traveling the causeway onto the island is a breathtaking sight accented with ospreys, pelicans and other sea birds against a deep blue sky and brilliant blue-green waters. What started as a large Calusa Indian settlement turned into a booming fishing village in the early 1900s, when a rail line was running through to export fish, as well as phosphate being mined there.
One of the first landmarks visitors see as they travel down the main road toward town is Uncle Henry’s Marina, which stands on the site of an old Calusa camp. Later on, it became the hub of the fishing industry on the island.
Since it has evolved into a paradise for vacationers, such “snowbirds” as the Duponts, the Crowninshields, Rockefellers, and more recently the Bush family, have been seen enjoying all that the island has to offer.
Gasparilla Island and the village of Boca Grande have become winter retreats for the wealthy to escape cold and snowy winters. Beautiful accommodations, including the glamour of the Gasparilla Inn, await those who wish to spend a winter rubbing elbows with some of the richest people in the world.
Boca Grande has grown nearly to its limit. Preservation of historic structures and the island’s natural history is zealously overseen by Boca Grande Historical Society, Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, Barrier Island Parks Society, and a community panel with the goal of keeping the sedate, laid-back pace of island living a staple of Gasparilla for years to come.
No fast food restaurants, chain stores or gas stations are allowed in Boca Grande – just small, quaint specialty stores with inventories ranging from tourist chic to high-end Rodeo Drive, as well as dining opportunities of all kinds.
Don’t miss Banyan Street
Banyan Street is one of the most remarkable avenues on the island. Planted by a wealthy entrepreneur almost 100 years ago, these huge trees line the block and form a perfect shady canopy. Visitors stop and linger to see the old carvings from long ago and admire the sprawling branches of these magnificent trees.
Gasparilla Island beaches are maintained by the Florida Park Service, and they encompass five separate beaches and parking areas: Lighthouse Beach at the south end of the island, Seawall parking area, Dunes parking area near the historic Amory Chapel and the Rangelight parking area near a historic rangelight maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. It is now called the “Gasparilla Island Light.” Entrance fees to these parking areas are $2.
All beaches are “swim at your own risk.” There are no lifeguards on duty. Strong tide warnings are posted for the Lighthouse Beach at the south end of the island as it pokes into the brisk current of Boca Pass.
For more information on any of these sights, or for accommodations in Boca Grande, contact the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce at (941) 964-0568.