Boca Grande is like a Floridian Brigadoon. It is as enchanting as it is distinctive, as untouched by time as it is by snow. And from my first visit to the island to every excursion that has followed, I’ve never been to a place that is more transformative.
This island is more like a mind-set than a destination. It’s as if the Boca Grande experience is the embodiment of those signs you see decorating vacation homes: “Gone fishing” or “Fuhgeddaboudit” or “On beach time.”
From the moment that one crosses over the Gasparilla Island bridge (where turquoise waters seem to stretch as far away as you begin to feel) there is an immediate effect; your shoulders relax, your smile comes out, and your cares fly out the window into the blue skies above.
There are numerous forces which combine to create this sense of arrival and escape. Here are nine of them:
1. Away from the hustle and bustle
Located 50 miles south of Sarasota and 15 miles from Englewood, Boca Grande is the main attraction on Gasparilla Island. The island is seven miles long and just one mile at its widest. By car, the ride out to Boca Grande is fairly uneventful, one lane roads and open expanses of land make you wonder about the first people who braved to venture so far. (The Calusa Indians settled on the island around 900 AD.) Once you reach Boca Grande, you are back in civilization but it’s as if you’ve stepped into a movie filmed in the first half of the 20th century – relaxed, friendly, and pristine.
2. Pirates, phosphate, tycoons, and trains
The history surrounding the three-square mile island can be found in more than the colorful street names (though boy would I love to live on Damfino, Damficare, or Damfiwill Street). Residents share a venerable stewardship of the area’s past. The island was named after an infamous pirate, Jose Gaspar, who is said to have stored his accumulated booty in the region. It became a sleepy fishing town but when phosphate was discovered in 1885, the south end was transformed into a major deep water port. Wealthy American and British sportsman followed once word of the unequaled tarpon fishing reached them. With phosphate demand high world-wide, a railroad was built to help with shipping and along with it came wealthy northerners. The town formed around the railroad station and the building blocks of Boca Grande as we know it began.
3. Straight out of a bygone era
Boca Grande is protected by a piece of state legislation meant to preserve the ecosystems on Florida’s barrier islands called the Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980. It ensures that no more than five dwelling units can rest on an acre and limits building heights to 38 feet. There are no high rises, no chain stores, no traffic lights, no big supermarkets, and almost no crime or tourist traffic. The old railroad was transformed into a seven mile bike path that is always in use. The renowned Gasparilla Inn & Club has been a mainstay on the island for 100 years; within its classic setting, today’s compulsion to be plugged in all the time takes a back seat to experiencing real life as it happens.
4. Won’t you be my neighbor?
While much of the world seems to be getting more concerned with safety, Boca Grande is still the kind of place where you can feed your kids breakfast in the morning and then let them go play all day. With the 2012 census tallying only 1,705 residents, the small town atmosphere ensures that everyone is looking out for each other. The largest population block comes from the Midwest but there are also many people who come from along the East Coast. Wealthy winter residents blend with longtime year round residents and fishermen. Names like Vanderbilt, duPont, Crowninshield, and Bush are among those who have been drawn to the island’s low key atmosphere over the years.
5. Go fish
Anglers from all over the world have been attracted to the area for hundreds of years and with good reason. The Boca Grande Pass is located at the south end of Gasparilla Island. Reaching depths of 80 feet, it is the deepest natural inlet on the Gulf of Mexico. Many thousands of tarpon converge there from April through August. The average catch will run between 80 and 120 pounds. Kevin Hyde, Realtor with the MSC Boca Grande real estate office explained, “There are places in the ‘Back Country’ where one can fly fish on pristine grass flats for Tarpon, Snook, Redfish and numerous other species and not see another angler or boat all day.”
6. Collective Conservation
Residents know they are living in a special place. As such, there are significant efforts to preserve it for future generations. Recreational anglers have long been drawn to Boca Grande but today the message is conservation, education and sportsmanship. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have made tarpon a catch-and-release-only fishery. Charlotte Harbor is one of Florida’s — and even the nation’s — few remaining healthy estuaries and efforts are being made to keep it that way. Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park is minutes from Boca Grande and protects 42,000 acres and 70 miles of shoreline. Mote Marine Laboratory opened a new satellite office in January 2013 that will help ensure a long-term sustainable use and conservation of the marine ecosystems. The entire community is coming together and is continuing efforts to respect the land and the sea.
7. Leave your car at home
You may (or may not) need a car to get onto Gasparilla Island but once you are there, it stays in the garage. Golf Carts are the preferred method for getting around town. Bicycles are also a popular mode of transportation thanks to the bike path that runs the length of the island. Boating around the island is a way of life. “With crystalline waters that easily rival the Caribbean,” Hyde pointed out, “the visual impact is stunning, yet getting out there is the ultimate. My wife, Nancy, and I often hop in the boat for a short run down to Cabbage Key or Useppa Island for lunch then stop by one of the secluded beaches on Cayo Costa State Park for a bit of shelling, swimming, and wildlife viewing. It is not uncommon to see Manatees, Eagles, Osprey, and Dolphin, and if you are lucky deer, bobcats, fox, and the extremely rare and endangered Florida Panther.”
8. Seven miles of powdery white beaches
The entire length of Boca Grande has been bestowed with pristine beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Pick almost any point on the island and the azure waters are within walking distance. Fourteen understated Gulf beach accesses are sprinkled among grand beachfront estates where sunset views are your entertainment and white sands, your playground.
9. Homes of comfort, grandeur, and character
Mainly a residential community, the homes in Boca Grande are varied and elegant. Though many of them follow an island aesthetic, you won’t find identical cookie cutter homes here. Like the unique character Boca Grande projects, each home follows suit; contemporary tropical architecture mixes with coastal chic, Mediterranean, and old-Florida style homes.
Does Boca Grande hold a special place in your heart? Are there any reasons I missed? Let me know in the comments!