Florida's Gasparilla island: beachcombing, biking, fishing and no traffic lights

December 15, 1991|By Diana C. Gleasner

Pristine shell-strewn beaches, fragrant tropical flowers and not a single traffic light on the entire island.

Year-round sunshine tempered by breezes from the Gulf of Mexico.

Best tarpon fishing in the world.

Streets that make a statement -- really: Dam If I Know, Dam If I Care and Dam If I Will.

No wonder Katharine Hepburn adores the ice cream in Boca Grande. Her handwritten note posted in the Loose Caboose says: "That ice cream is perfect -- Wow!" Of course, you might not see it amid the general accumulation of stuff -- the fuzzy alligator wearing sunglasses, the antique vacuum cleaner on the wall or the sign: "Stop -- Look -- Listen -- Proceed when train is coming.".

Not to worry. There hasn't been a train here in years.

The preferred transportation is bicycle, and the bike path extends the length of this lush, seven-mile sliver of land. Lots of folks prefer parking their cars and relying solely on pedal power. Better for the blood pressure.

Come to think of it, the entire island of Gasparilla is good for the blood pressure.

Stash the alarm clock. You'll know when the sun emerges and when it slips into the Gulf. If you must know how long it takes to reach tournament-size tarpon, the answer is "not long."

Listen up. The major sounds on this tranquil island are gulls calling or maybe the soft whisper of a dolphin breathing unless (and this is a big unless) you're at Laff-A-Lott on a Saturday night.

Where is this rare find? One of a string of barrier islands scattered along southwest Florida's coast between Tampa and Fort Myers, Gasparilla is about an hour's drive south of Sarasota. Bordered on the west by the Gulf of Mexico, on the north by Little Gasparilla Pass, on the east by Charlotte Harbor and on the south by Boca Grande Pass, the island is accessible by bridge ($3.20 toll) or boat.

Boca Grande (Spanish for "big mouth") Pass, one of Florida's deepest natural inlets, accounts for its early history. Calusa Indians were drawn to its rich fishing grounds. Railroads that once carried phosphate mined in central Florida to the island's deep water harbor later transported distinguished guests for the winter season.

Today, Boca Grande's population of nearly 800 more than triples during winter and spring. Visitors come for their own reasons, which range from exhilarating angling to somnolent afternoons under a palm tree.

The Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce consists of a personable woman in the Island Bike N Beach shop who'll give you a map and offer to "tell you anything you want to know." Ask where to get the best breakfast in town, and she'll suggest Loons on a Limb.

Best undiscovered art gallery? Next to the Theater Restaurant. Best local nightspot? Laff-A-Lott. Best place to have your Wall Street Journal delivered? Fugates. Best local news source? The Boca Beason ties with the local librarian.

The best grouper sandwich? Millers Marina. The best onion rings? Also at Millers. The best clams? The Killer Cajun Clam Strips at -- where else? -- the Casual Clam Cafe. The best dinner? Local sentiment favors the Temptation, with the Pink Elephant (islanders call it "The Pink") a close second.

Apparently, the folks staying in the grand old Gasparilla Inn are quite happy with their fare, or they wouldn't return with such astonishing regularity. In 1911 when the 20-room inn was newly opened and so empty it echoed, the first inquiry came from a socially prominent Bostonian. Before granting a reservation, the manager asked her to wire both a social and a bank reference. When the word got around that this hostelry catered to the "right" people, the right people appeared and stayed the season.

There are still two seasons on the island, the social season from November to April and the tarpon season from mid-April to July. The Gasparilla Inn, open from mid-December to June, has expanded to 150 rooms (with the addition of cottages) and boasts the only golf course on the island.

What to do on Boca Grande? True beach lovers don't need anything more than dazzling white sand, a view of the distant horizon and the gently lapping, Perrier-clear Gulf. Others enjoy shelling, birding and all manner of water sports from fishing to windsurfing.

Grab your bike (rentals available) and wander the back roads. Island architecture, blessedly free of high rises and time shares, is an electic mix of Spanish-style stucco (note the community center and the Catholic church), elegant walled mansions of the rich and famous and the more humble dwellings of fisher folk.

Be sure to include the library -- a distinctive pink stucco affair with coquina-rock walls, oversized cypress doors and an intimate courtyard -- in your ramblings. Browse the library's shell collection (donated by Henry Francis duPont and ask for "Walking Tours on Boca Grande" or buy a copy at Books in the Sand.

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