Boca Grande: Little gem that straddles Lee and Charlotte County
Boca Grande is located at the southern end of Gasparilla Island and straddles the line between Lee and Charlotte counties. The island, which is located at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, midway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, is famous for its pristine public beaches, historic sites, celebrity visitors and world-class fishing. If you are arriving by car, head south from Placida onto the Gasparilla causeway, over the toll bridge and onto the island. As you travel over the causeway, take your time and watch for the nesting pairs of bald eagles that call Gasparilla home. If you are fortunate, perhaps you will see dolphin rolling in the bright emerald waters, but at the very least, take in the peaceful setting, and prepare yourself for a pleasant island visit.
Gasparilla Island has been protected from over-development and regarded as a historic district by the federal government since the 1980s. Buildings dating from the 1800s and several other historic sites are scattered throughout the island and can all be visited in a single outing by the ambitious day-tripper. Of course, no trip to the island would be complete without a visit to the Gasparilla Lighthouse, built in 1890, as well as the light keeper’s house and museum.
Visitors may choose to travel about the island as the locals do and rent a golf cart from one of several rental agencies. Golf carts are welcome almost everywhere on the island because they do not pollute and they are smaller and easier to park than cars. Another popular mode of transportation is bicycles and many visitors come to the island just to spend the day pedaling along the breathtaking vistas that seem to be at every turn.
The gem of the island is the Gasparilla Inn, located in Boca Grande. Over the years, the inn has played host to a veritable who’s who that have included movie stars, famous authors, presidents of the United States and just about every other breed of the rich and famous imaginable. Impressive and elegant, the inn consists of a large frame Victorian Hotel with a classic portico – perfect for press conferences – and a series of cottages built around the spectacular golf course. Recent guests to the inn have included former President George Bush and the former first lady, Barbara Bush, former Governor Jeb Bush and his family, as well as several other members of the Bush clan. Visitors may be surprised by who they see around the island, as celebrity visits are always kept low key, which is one of the reasons that the inn is so popular.
The town of Boca Grande itself is a delightful mix of casual restaurants, tiki bars, fine dining establishments, high-end boutiques and curious little shops that offer unique items that may only be found in this place and at this moment. Everything is relaxed here and moves at an island pace. If you are looking for fast food or harried salespeople, look elsewhere. This is a place where fishermen mingle with business magnates and retirees and nobody notices or cares. So relax. Stop by and order a leisurely lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes and soak up the atmosphere. Before long, you will come to realize this is what a vacation is all about.
On the other hand, there is one aspect of island life that may not be quite so relaxed. One of the main attractions of this island is fishing and nothing in the world can prepare the angler for the excitement of catching immense tarpon in the Boca Grande pass, which is known as the “Tarpon Capital of the World.” From the spring through the summer, anglers from all over the world descend on Boca Grande for the opportunity to fish for tarpon that sometimes weigh in excess of 200 pounds.
Boca Grande is home to some of the finest sand beaches in the world. Several state parks and Lee County Beaches – all with easy access – make a trip to Gasparilla Island a must. Parking is free along the island with the exception of state parks and most of the locations are equipped with public restrooms and changing areas. The beach at Gasparilla Island State Park – at the south end of the island – can be subject to “rip tides,” so take care if swimming there.
Island restaurants and the lighthouse museum at the south end of the island, along with the Maritime Museum, which is centrally located in Whidden’s Marina on the harbor side of the island, make for a nice diversion and a break from the tropical heat of the midday sun.
A bike path runs the entire length of the island and the slow pace of traffic makes biking a pleasure. As long as you are willing to take your time and share the path with golf carts and joggers, you will have a great time. If you don’t have your own bike, you can rent one from one of several bike rental agencies located on the island, including almost every resort hotel.
Keep in mind, however, that fishing is still one of the primary activities around the island. Anglers can fish for grouper, snapper, kingfish, tuna, pompano, mackerel, tarpon, kingfish, cobia, amberjack, wahoo, mahi-mahi, marlin, and just about any other game fish you can think of. In the backwaters, anglers will find redfish, snook and trout. If you are unfamiliar with the area, or would like someone to show you the best spots, numerous charters, guides and party boats can be found throughout the island.