Boca Grande, Florida, on Gasparilla Island was a busy and important place for the fresh seafood trade up to the early 1900's. It was a place of colorful characters who earned a hard living from the Gulf and Bay. Their spirit is still here.
Now it is mostly an island of leisure; an island of vacation homes with perfect tropical charm; an island of sporting Tarpon fishing tournaments. Some good things have been lost, some good things have been gained. There is still a touch of yesterday here if you make some effort to look for it.
On the road of life, sometimes it's good to look over your shoulder to see where you came from and remember the people that made it all happen. There's plenty of history to see and enjoy on Gasparilla Island if you have an interest.
Boca Grande is the perfect place to find quiet sophistication and luxury blended with the charm of old Florida, the influence of old money and new, without compromising on a beautiful natural environment with brilliant beaches, clear blue and green water, and lots of tropical vegetation everywhere.
The Boca Beacon Island Newspaper - very informative. Keeps you in touch with what's up on the island.
Where is Gasparilla Island?
The island is a short drive south of Englewood, Florida right by a little town called Placida (say it plah-SEE-dah). The whole area is on the Cape Haze peninsula which sticks out into Charlotte Harbor. The island extends south into Boca Grande Pass, overlooking Cayo Costa Island State Park.
To get onto the island you have to cross three privately owned bridges, including one draw bridge. The toll is steep--$6 per car--and keeps the riff-raff out (except the ones that have money). The causeways would be great for parking, fishing, and launching kayaks, but they are owned by the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority and are posted "private, no trespassing."
Gasparilla Island Beaches
Once on the island there isn't much to do until you arrive at the street-end beach access points beginning about 19th Street off Gasparilla Road. These beaches allow dogs but have no restroom facilities. Parking is limited, but free.
The four main public beach access points on Gasparilla Island are part of Gasparilla Island State Park system. They require an entry fee. The four state park accesses are:
- Sandspur Beach (has good restrooms & picnic shelters)
- Seagrape Beach (has port-o-potty)
- Seawall Beach (has port-o-potty and is next to South Beach Grille)
- Lighthouse Park on Boca Pass (excellent restrooms & basic picnic shelter)
Both Sandspur Beach and Lighthouse Park have lighthouses. The one at Lighthouse Park also has a small museum with a lot of nature exhibits. Kids will love it too.
All you have to do to find the state park beaches is simply drive south on Gulf Blvd. You can't miss them. Gulf Blvd dead-ends at Lighthouse Park. There are no lifeguards on any of the beaches.
Even if you don't do the beach at Lighthouse Park you should at least climb up the steps to the lighthouse and sit on the veranda a while to enjoy the incredible view of Boca Grande Pass and Cayo Costa Island on the other side. And check out the museum if it's open. It does have limited hours and days during the summer months.
Back in the old days fishermen used to stretch "stop"nets across the pass during the mullet runs and catch "two or three hundred thousand pounds" of mullet according to one old-timer. Can you imagine? Today you are more likely to see a few dozen boats fishing for tarpon with hook and line. Most of the nets used today are for casting for baitfish.
Although the water at the beaches gets deeper more quickly than on beaches like Siesta Key or St. Pete Beach, it's safe to swim at any of the beaches except for the Lighthouse Park beaches. They are too close to Boca Grande Pass which has very strong currents.
Shelling on Gasparilla Island
Boca Grande is not know for amazing shelling, but there are plenty of shells to be found, especially after strong cold fronts or storms in the Gulf. And of course you are not limited to looking on the beach. Put on your mask and snorkel and look in the shallow water too. Your best luck with shelling may be at Lighthouse Park at Boca Grande Pass.
Fishing on Gasparilla Island
Boca Grande has got to be one of the most historic fishing towns in Florida. It's right at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, which was the center of U.S. commercial mullet fishing until the 1995 net ban. According to one report, the area produced over 24 million pounds of mullet every year.
Today the island's fishing focus is on sport and recreational fishing, with the most sought-after species being Tarpon, Snook, Redfish, and Speckled trout. You can't even pick up a local publication without seeing dozens of advertisements for local fishing charters.
Boca Grande Village
This tidy little, and entirely upscale, "village" is a mix of well-kept homes flush with tropical greenery (including cash). While many of the beach houses are more grandiose, the homes in the village are smaller, but still well-appointed and meticulously kept.
The commercial area is just a few blocks wide and long and is great for walking, boutique shopping, and cafe hopping.
Boca Grande has historically attracted the moneyed who want to step out of the limelight for a quiet vacation. J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Jimmy Buffet, and former President George Bush and family have sought refuge here. Brit Hume of Fox News often broadcasts commentary from Boca Grande.
It is the 100 year old Gasparilla Inn that provides the backdrop for the activities of the well-to-do, just a few blocks from where John and Jane Doe are relaxing on the beach after having driven the kids over from Englewood and paying the $6 toll.
The Gasparilla Inn is on the National Register of Historic Places and strives to offer an environment of "extreme comfort and friendliness." Of course it's not the only game in town. There are plenty of places to stay on the island, though there are no chain hotels or Old-Florida mom-and-pop motels. Most visitors stay in one of the many private rental homes or condominiums.
Why Come to Gasparilla Island?
If you're in the area, it's convenient to get to. The nearby islands are boat-only access. That includes Cayo Costa to the south, and Little Gasparilla, Don Pedro Island, and Palm Island to the north. Between Englewood Beach and Charlotte Harbor, Gasparilla Island is the only place where you can get to the beach without having a boat.
Gasparilla is a beautiful island with amazing tropical trees and flowers. It's upscale all the way. The island has no giant condominiums, so it doesn't look overbuilt like Marco Island or Longboat Key.
It's a small island and has no traffic lights. Lots of people use bikes and golf carts for transportation on the island, using the many dedicated paths.
If you want to skip the usual tourist atmosphere of Clearwater Beach or Fort Myers Beach or Cocoa Beach and have more discriminating tastes, Gasparilla may be what you are looking for. But, be prepared to pay a little extra for it. A week-long stay on the island is not for the masses.
What if You're on a Budget?
A tight budget should not prevent you from enjoying a day trip to Gasparilla Island. There's a convenient Publix grocery store nearby in the town of Placida. Stop there and pick up some sandwiches, or bring a cooler full of food from home. By bringing your own food, the only expense you'll have other than gas is the $6.00 toll and the state park entry fee, which right now is about $3.00. I suggest you use the state park beaches because they provide restrooms. Personally, I'd recommend the Sandspur access at about 1st Street West and Gulf Blvd, particularly if you are planning to go swimming.