Boca Grande bike trails and historic village make delightful daytrip
It may have hosted Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Audrey Hepburn, the entire George H. W. Bush family and more recently Nick Saban and Tucker Carlson, but the elite island of Boca Grande is still a place where regular folks can have a grand Old Florida experience.
I have to admit, I was always put off by Boca Grande.
First, it seemed like this island on the Gulf coast was far off the beaten path. (It’s not; it’s a 40 minute drive off I-75 at Port Charlotte.)
Then, there’s the toll to reach the island — $6, my excuse for passing it up because I never had enough time to justify it.
And there aren’t many affordable places to stay. The famous lodge, the historic century-old Gasparilla Inn, offers rooms starting at $400+ a night in season and boasts, among other things, certified croquet lawns. (And if anything says “not for your kind,” it’s competition croquet.)
But Boca Grande is a favorite among the rich and famous for good reason: It’s beautiful, unspoiled and preserves an Old Florida world that may be more attractive now than it was when it was a bustling phosphate-shipping center 100 years ago.
It’s so special, in fact, that Travel & Leisure magazine named it “America’s Best Small Beach Town” in August 2023.
Here are six reasons why it’s worth visiting Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island:
- There’s a scenic bike and golf-cart path that runs 6.5 miles, the length of the island, past some great scenery.
- The historic downtown is full of quaint old homes, churches and stores. We particularly love Whidden’s Marina, a ramshackle waterfront complex that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
- The fishing has been drawing anglers for more than 100 years. It is one of the best places in the world to fish for tarpon.
- The beaches have white-powder sand and are good for shelling. There are even “secret beaches” where you can’t park, but which you can access on foot or bike.
- There are two picturesque lighthouses, one of which you can tour — the only lighthouse you can tour on the west coast of Florida.
- You can have lunch at the elite Gasparilla Inn dining room or Pink Elephant Restaurant to experience a place that hosts presidents and celebrities, or choose another of the excellent restaurants on Gasparilla Island.
Our big discovery on visiting: That the 99% can visit Boca Grande as a satisfying day trip – and see why the 1% winters there.
If you can’t find affordable lodging on the island, stay nearby in unsung but attractive Englewood, Punta Gorda or Port Charlotte.
Here’s the itinerary for a perfect day: Bring your bikes (or rent them) or rent a golf cart and to tour the island. Explore the historic downtown buildings. Have lunch in a café or bring a picnic. Stroll or swim at the gorgeous beaches and admire the picturesque lighthouses. Tour the lighthouse museum at the tip of the island.
Together, it makes a great day.
Boca Grande: From fishing village to phosphate port to resort
Boca Grande, population 1,700, began as a fishing village and it is tarpon-fishing that still makes it famous world-wide. (The season is April to August. Here’s a link to the local fishing guide association, which has 70-plus members.) There’s something about the swift waters of Boca Grande Pass, the deepest pass on the Gulf coast, that tarpon love.
The fishing village became a shipping point for phosphate mined along the Peace River in the early 1900s. Railroad tracks were laid from Arcadia, a grand train station was built, and the Gasparilla Inn opened during this time.
Wealthy northerners arrived by train and Boca Grande began its life serving the rich and famous.
The downtown is fun to explore because so many historic churches, stores and homes have been not only preserved, but prettified to postcard perfection.
There are no chain restaurants, no high rises, nothing to spoil the quaint resort town. You will find, however, gift shops, boutiques, cafes and, during the season, whole fleets of golf carts parked.
Bikes and golf carts in Boca Grande
Where the railroad tracks once ran, a paved bike and golf-cart path now extends the length of the island, 6.5 miles. (Members of the DuPont family bought the right-of-way for this path when the railroad stopped operating.)
The bike path is the sort I like – scenic, paved, separate from cars and trucks, with destinations along the way to make touring fun.
Golf carts are the most common form of transportation on the island and bicyclists should be prepared to give them right of way because, basically, they’ll insist on it.
Visit downtown Boca Grande
If you visit Boca Grande, be sure to explore the three-block-long downtown and admire the lovely Gasparilla Inn. Its past and current visitors are a who’s who and it is frequently ranked one of the best golf resorts in the world.
If you want to get a taste of the place, the inn’s dining room is open to the public. (But dress nice: There’s a dress code here.) Note: The main dining room does not get the rave reviews like another Inn restaurant, the Pink Elephant, which is located in another building.
Boca Grande treasure: Historic Whidden’s Marina
Whidden’s Marina is similarly historic, but the opposite in ambiance. We loved this rusting ramshackle marina at the end of 1st Street at Charlotte Harbor.
Founded in 1925 it is still run by the Whidden family and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Inside there is a small maritime museum, a jumble of old fishing tackle and motors that was visited a few years ago by the History Channel’s American Pickers.
Outside in winter, a menangerie of animals delight families who stop by on their golf carts.
One more cool thing about Whiddon Marina: If you watch their Facebook page, you’ll see when “the shrimp boat” comes.
Once or twice a month in season, a shrimp fishing boat docks at Whiddon’s Marina and sells fresh shrimp off the boat. The Facebook page will have a notice: “The shrimp boat is in today.”
Boca Grande: Beaches and lighthouses
Be sure to hang out at the beach. The shelling here, like on nearby Cayo Costa, the remote island state park directly across the pass, is excellent, especially in winter. The sand is powdery and white; the water is sparkling and turquoise.
Gasparilla Island State Park stretches along the island’s southern end, with four parking lots that provide access to the beach.
The area served by the first and last lot also have picnic tables and shelters. Admission is $3 per vehicle; $2 for bicyclists and pedestrians.
At the southern tip of the island is the oldest building on the island, the 1890 Port Boca Grande Lighthouse, home to a small well-rated museum full of local history, old photos and artifacts.
The Port Boca Grande Lighthouse reopened Feb. 5, 2024, after being closed since Hurricane Ian in 2022. It was originally used to guide ships into the Charlotte Harbor. The lighthouse, visible from up to 12 miles away when lit, is the only lighthouses open to the public on the west coast. Hours are Wednesday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Closed Tuesdays.) It is closed during the month of August.
The beach wraps around the lighthouse, offering outstanding views in every direction.
The lighthouse itself doesn’t fit one’s expectations—it’s not tall and statuesque. For that, stop at what is called the North Range Light, a lighthouse located at the park’s first parking lot, which is not open for touring but is a spectacular sight.
Here’s a fun challenge for explorers: There are 14 rustic walking paths leading From Gulf Boulevard to the beach, according to visitfortmyers.com. They are unmarked and you can’t park there, but finding them would make a bike ride. (Not all offer beach access.)
Boca Grande restaurants: Have lunch or dinner
One of the best ways to enjoy your day trip to Boca Grande is to plan a lunch or dinner at one of the several excellent restaurants.
On our visit to Boca Grande, we studied the restaurant choices carefully because there are several popular spots that specialize in fresh fish — and that’s what you want in a fishing hotspot like this.
We settled on the Pink Elephant, which is operated by the Gasparilla Inn in a handsome building a block away from the main hotel. The Pink Elephant is expensive, but we had an exceptional dinner (fresh snapper for me; fish tacos for my husband).
The Basil Refresher gin cocktail was outstanding. Dress here was casual (men in shorts and golf shirts) and they do not take reservations. It’s open for lunch, when prices are more affordable.
Downtown, there is a historic spot that also gets outstanding reviews: the Temptation, nicknamed “the Temp” by islanders. The ambiance is a throwback to a hundred years ago.
If you’re in town for breakfast or lunch, a favorite is the Outlet at the Innlet, an affordable waterfront cafe.
There are several more places visitors love, including Sisters, which is a casual pizza spot downtown, Scarpa’s Coastal, a more upscale Italian restaurant, and the 3rd Street Bistro, which has an eclectic menu and beautiful patio.
Beach towns MUST have a good ice cream shop and for that, the Pink Pony is a winning bet.
Planning your visit to Boca Grande
- Hotels and motels from the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce.
- If you want more than beaches, don’t visit in August, when much of the island closes, including the Gasparilla Inn, the lighthouse museum and popular restaurants, such as the Temptation.
Things to do near Boca Grande:
- Gasparilla Sound, the body of water you cross to each Boca Grande, is a terrific place to kayak.
- The nine-mile Cape Haze Pioneer Bike Trail is a rails-to-trails path that basically ends at the Boca Grande Causeway. (The causeway is too narrow for either pedestrians or bicyclists to safely use.)
- Nearby Punta Gorda is a charming historic town with moderate prices. Here’s a Florida Rambler roundup of things to do in Punta Gorda.
- Two other exceptional beach state parks are nearby on barrier islands. Here’s a Florida Rambler story about Don Pedro State Park and Stump Pass Beach State Park.
Recommended destinations near Boca Grande:
- Camping at Camp Venice
- Oscar Scherer State Park
- Legacy Trail and Venetian Waterway Park
- Kayak to Mound Key Archealogical State Park
- Calusa Blueway kayak trail
- Cayo Costa State Park
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.