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Boca Grande: Old Florida island on the Gulf is worth the trip & toll

Last updated on May 8th, 2021 at 12:26 pm

Boca Grande bike trails and historic village make delightful daytrip

The llighthouse at the end of Boca Grande, a Gulf Coast Florida island.

The lighthouse at the end of Boca Grande, a Gulf Coast Florida island with well-preserved historic buildings. (Photos by Bonnie Gross)

It may have hosted Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Audrey Hepburn and the George H. W. Bush family, 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.

Whidden's Marina in Boca Grande is a historic marina that is fun to visit. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Whidden’s Marina in Boca Grande is a historic marina that is fun to visit. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Here are six reasons why it’s worth visiting Boca Grande:

  1. There’s a great bike and golf-cart path that runs 6.5 miles, the length of the island, past some great scenery.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The beaches have white-powder sand and are good for shelling.
  5. There are two picturesque lighthouses, one of which you can tour.
  6. 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.
The bike trail on Boca Grande, a Gulf Coast Florida island, is the best way to tour the picturesque island. (Photo: David Blasco.)

The bike trail on Boca Grande is the best way to tour picturesque Gasparilla Island. (Photo: David Blasco.)

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.

Bring your bikes (or rent them). 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.

The train station in Boca Grande has been converted into a complex of shops and the popular Loose Caboose cafe. The bike path runs alongside. You can see tracks adjacent to the trail on the right. (Photo: David Blasco)

The train station in Boca Grande has been converted into a complex of shops and the popular Loose Caboose cafe. The bike path runs alongside. You can see tracks adjacent to the trail on the right. (Photo: David Blasco)

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.

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.

The Gasparilla Inn is one of the largest surviving resort hotels in Florida. Opened in 1911, it attracted J.P. Morgan, Henry duPont and Florida railroad and resort tycoon, Henry Plant. Other guests from that era included Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and portrait painter John Singer Sargent. The inn continues to attract VIPs; President George H.W. Bush and the extended Bush family have visited many times. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The Gasparilla Inn is one of the largest surviving resort hotels in Florida. Opened in 1911, it attracted J.P. Morgan, Henry duPont and Florida railroad and resort tycoon, Henry Plant. Other guests from that era included Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and portrait painter John Singer Sargent. The inn continues to attract VIPs; the late President George H.W. Bush and the extended Bush family have visited many times. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

The sign captures the ambiance at Whidden's Marina in Boca Grande. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The sign captures the ambiance at Whidden’s Marina in Boca Grande. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

Farm animals, including several pigs, chickens and a goat, share the space at Whidden's Marina in Boca Grande. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Farm animals, including several pigs, chickens and a goat, share the space at Whidden’s Marina in Boca Grande. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Outside in winter, a menangerie of animals delight families who stop by on their golf carts.

Boca Grande: Beaches and lighthouses

Be sure to hang out at the beach. The shelling here, like on 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.

The beach at Boca Grande, a Gulf Coast Florida island.

The beach at Boca Grande is unspoiled and offers great shelling in winter. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

At the southern tip of the island is the oldest building on the island, the 1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse, home to a small well-rated museum full of local history, old photos and artifacts. The beach wraps around the lighthouse, offering outstanding views in every direction. The lighthouse museum is open seven days a week November to May; is closed Mondays and Tuesdays June through October and is closed every day in August.

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.

The Gasparille Island Lighthouse on Boca Grande is located in a state park with an expansive white sand beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The North Range Light on Boca Grande is located in a state park with an expansive white sand beach. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Boca Grande: 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, so consider your choices at TripaAdvisor or Yelp.

Planning your visit to Boca Grande

We loved the whimsical streets signs we encountered as we bicycled around Boca Grande. (Photo: David Blasco)

We loved the whimsical streets signs we encountered as we bicycled around Boca Grande. (Photo: David Blasco)

Things to do near Boca Grande:

The oldest church on Boca Grande, a Gulf Coast Florida island.

The oldest church on Boca Grande. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Recommended destinations near Boca Grande:

From the Editor:

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