Tucked away at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, at the northernmost point of Lee County, charming Boca Grande awaits your discovery.
Among the upper islands that dot Lee County’s spectacular Gulf of Mexico frontage, you’ll more often hear the names North Captiva, Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key and Useppa. But there’s another almost forgotten jewel to be admired, separated from Lee County by land, water and in some ways, time itself.
It’s Boca Grande, a quaint, historic and quite charming destination at the southern end of Gasparilla Island — and island that’s part Charlotte County to the north, and Lee County to the south.
Whether for a day trip or an extended stay, Boca Grande is another side of Southwest Florida not to be missed. If you have access to a boat, it’s a spectacular outing just north of Cabbage Key across Boca Grande Pass, where eventually you’ll encounter the iconic Gasparilla Island Lighthouse before docking. If by vehicle, well, the trip is a little more laborious and not as visually spectacular, but easy to navigate.
This writer and his family have had the occasion to travel to Boca Grande by both means — and one sunny December day, we found the destination as quiet, slow paced and delightful as we had our first visit two years ago.
Corey Anglin is Public Relations and Special Events Manager for the Gasparilla Inn, a 103-year-old resort in “downtown” that’s the flagship property for the community. “Boca Grande is classic ‘Old Florida,’ with the coastal elegance of another era,” she says. “It’s like being in a different time, and it’s very charming.”
Those very words describe the Gasparilla Inn as well — a 163-room property of classic guestrooms, cottages and vacation homes. The resort reflects “southern genteel” in the best sense, while offering a gorgeous 18-hole golf course, state-of-the-art pool and fitness center, contemporary amenities, plus Gulf of Mexico beachfront.
Local fisherman, who found the waters rich and plentiful, established Boca Grande in the late 1800s. As word of this fishing frenzy spread, wealthy families from the north began to move in. Then in the early 1900s, phosphate was discovered — valuable for fertilizer and many other products — and shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on a railroad station and railway that would make transport to Port Boca Grande (and then to ocean-bound freighters) fast and easy.
Today, many of these local fishing families are now third or fourth generation residents, who share their community with names like Vanderbilt, DuPont, Rockefeller, Bush and other personalities and celebrities. They’re bound by a common love of Boca Grande, and a casual, neighborly co-existence. As for the railroad station, it’s now a centerpiece of unique shops, boutiques and restaurants — while the railway has been converted to a bike and golf cart path, two of the best ways to explore.
An area highlight each year is what’s called “The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament.” Founded in 1991 and held this year May 19-20, fishermen pay to play (entry fee $5,000) and vie for $80,000 in prizes. It’s a catch and release tourney, with judge boats tallying first place ($30,000) and second place ($20,000) for most tarpon caught, as well as first and last catch of the day ($7,500) each day. “Get yourself a good Boca Grande fishing guide, and you’re there,” advises Marcy Shortuse, President of the Boca Grand Chamber of Commerce and editor of two local publications.
“It’s a charmed and charming community,” she adds. “We’re kind of eclectic and still very ‘Old Florida’ with a lot of tradition. You’ll find millionaires mingling with working fishermen, and by looking at them you wouldn’t know who’s who. And that’s cool.”
Story by John Sprecher | Photography by Milissa Sprecher Photography & Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau