Boca Grande bike trails and historic villageÂ make delightful daytrip
~ 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. (Itâ€™s not; itâ€™s a 40 minute drive off I-75 at Port Charlotte.)
Then, thereâ€™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 arenâ€™t many affordable places to stay. The famous lodge, the historic 101-year-old Gasparilla Inn, offers rooms starting at $385 a night in season and boasts, among other things, certified croquet lawns. (And if anything says â€œnot for your kind,â€ itâ€™s competition croquet.)
But Boca Grande is a favorite among the rich and famous for good reason: Itâ€™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 Â center 100 years ago.
What we discovered on a recent visit is that the 99% can visit Boca Grande as a satisfying day trip â€“ and see why the 1% winters there.
If you canâ€™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 cafÃ© 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, population 1,700, began as a fishing village and it is tarpon-fishing that still makes it famous world-wild. (The season is April to August. Hereâ€™s a link to the local fishing guide association, which has 70-plusÂ members.) Thereâ€™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 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 and cafes.
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 â€“ paved, separate from cars and trucks, with destinations along the way to make touring fun. Itâ€™s a little too popular, however: 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, theyâ€™ll insist on it.
If you visit Boca Grande, a few places you should make a point to see:
- Explore the three-block-long downtown and admire the lovely Gasparilla Inn. Its past and current visitors are a whoâ€™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 innâ€™s dining room and Pink Elephant Restaurant are open to the public. (But dress nice: Thereâ€™s a dress code here.)
- Whiddonâ€™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 1926 it is still run by the Whiddon 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 year ago by the History Channelâ€™s American Pickers.
- 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 islandâ€™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 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.Â The lighthouse itself doesnâ€™t fit oneâ€™s expectationsâ€”itâ€™s not tall and statuesque. For that, stop at what is called the North Range Light, a lighthouse located at the parkâ€™s first parking lot, which is not open for touring.
- 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.
Planning your visit to Boca Grande:
- Renting bikes and golf carts: Island Bike’n Beach, 333 Park Ave., Boca Grande, (941) 964-0711
- Hotels and motels from the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce.
- If you want more than beaches, donâ€™t visit in August, when much of the island closes, including the Gasparilla Inn, theÂ lighthouse museum and popular restaurants, such as the Tempation.
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-mileÂ Cape Haze Pioneer Bike TrailÂ 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. Hereâ€™s a Florida Rambler roundup ofÂ things to do in Punta Gorda.
- Two other exceptional beach state parks are nearby: Don Pedro State Park and Stump Pass Beach State Park.