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Boca Grande lives at a relaxed pace

BOCA GRANDE

The best of many good things about a weekend visit to this storied village on Gasparilla Island may be this: Once you've arrived at your hotel or cottage you can park your car and forget it.

Seven miles of bike/golf cart/walking paths stretch from the famous Boca Grande Lighthouse on the southern tip of the island almost to its northern terminus. Bike and golf cart rentals are ample. The good life has a slower pace here.

As hurricane season wanes, the social season begins to pick up here, gaining full steam as Christmas approaches. Well-heeled vacationers have found a home away from home at the Gasparilla Inn & Club since 1913. This still regal dowager commands center stage at the north edge of the village. Guests put up in hotel rooms in the historic main building or in cottages scattered nearby.

To the east of the hotel an emerald robe of a golf course sweeps gracefully toward Charlotte Harbor. I don't play golf, but these spectacular links, designed by Pete Dye, made me think seriously about taking it up. Two blocks west is the hotel's beach, spa and tennis club.

My newfound favorite among Boca Grande's many dining options is Temptation, a superb and friendly chef-driven restaurant with a Wine Spectator rating hiding behind a bland facade at 350 Park Ave. Inside you'll find a dining room and bar/package store straight out of Florida's unpretentious past. The place looks as if it hasn't been substantially tampered with since FDR was in the White House. One of the best things on a terrific menu is the grouper served on a bed of sauteed brussels sprouts with roasted garlic, shallots, prosciutto and Parmesan and topped with an orange-scented beurre blanc. Heaven! And if fried green tomatoes are on the menu, do not fail to share a plate with your traveling companion.

Across the street, along a row of outfitters, a variety of shops and fishing guide bookers, is a serene green oasis called Sam Murphy Park. Enter its shade and wind your way to a bench near the reflecting pool to borrow a bit of its peace to take home to temper the daily grind — unless, of course, the celebrity couple du jour happens to be tying the knot that day. Then it's paparazzi time. For example, Sara Blakely, the Clearwater native who became a millionaire with her Spanx hosiery line, was married to Jesse Itzler, co-founder of Marquis Jet, on the grounds of the Gasparilla Inn last month.

Katharine Hepburn was a frequent visitor to the island for years, and the Bush family has spent several Christmases here. Boca Grande is good enough for the movies, too. Scenes from Carl Hiaasen's Hoot were filmed here, along with Out of Time, starring Denzel Washington.

Did I mention that sport fishing is huge here? Everybody knows about the summertime tarpon fishing, which draws anglers from around the globe as well as journalist Tom Brokaw, but catch-and-release fly fishing for redfish and just good old take-the-kids-out-for-a-day-on-the-water are big fun, too. Charters and guides are as plentiful as golf cart rentals.

For landlubbers and the thrifty, a leisurely tour on foot or by bike or golf cart of the historic core of Boca Grande is the ticket. A McMansion or two has intruded on a streetscape dominated by perfect little gingerbread cottages and Mediterranean-style homes dating to the '20s, but even the upstarts are pretty well camouflaged in island vernacular. Plenty of shade and not too many cars make a day of architectural noodling a real treat.

One of the better known residential blocks is Banyan Street west of Palm Avenue. Great-grandfather examples of the impressive tree that gives the street its name form a tropical canopy overhead. The expansive shade invites visitors to slow to an amble and stop often to look up.

A couple of must-sees along the way are the Spanish Mission-style Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church on Park Avenue between Banyan and Third streets and the pink precincts of the Johann Fust Community Library at 10th Street and Gasparilla Road, which houses, among other treasures, a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible.

And finally, there's the beach, which on Gasparilla Island is long, broad and famous for fossilized shark teeth. Many streets in the village dead end at public beach access points and are easily reached by foot or bike from the hotels. Another fine option, especially if you're day-tripping, is to drive south from the village on Gulf Boulevard to the Boca Grande Lighthouse. Stop along the way at any (or all) of the beachside parking lots provided by Gasparilla Island State Park ($2 day use fee covers a carload) for a grand day of shelling, snorkeling or just dreaming over an open book.

John Bancroft is a freelance writer based in Bradenton.

.If You Go

Boca Grande

Getting there: Gasparilla Island is at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, about 85 miles south of the Sunshine Skyway in Lee County. Vehicle access is by way of a toll bridge/causeway ($4 round trip) or you can come by boat and tie up at one the local marinas. If you want to skip the traffic and get your island groove on right away (and if money is no object), contact Boca Grande Seaplane for pickup along St. Petersburg's downtown bayfront, Tampa's Davis Islands or other watery locales. The one-way fare for up to four passengers (pack light) is $400. Pilot (and third-generation tarpon guide) Mark Futch probably could fly the route blindfolded. He's logged 18,000 hours at the controls of a seaplane since 1987. To book, call (941) 964-0234 or toll-free 1-800-940-0234.

Being there: In addition to the grand old Gasparilla Inn & Club (www.the-gasparilla-inn.com, or call toll-free 1-800-996-1913 for rates and reservations), there are many lodging options, from other hotels and motels to house and condo rentals. A good starter list of accommodations, restaurants (including the highly recommended Temptation), shopping and services, with phone numbers and links to individual Web sites, is available online from the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce at www.bocagrandechamber.com, or call them at (941) 964-0568.

On the Web

For a gallery of photos of Boca Grande, go to travel.tampabay.com.

Boca Grande lives at a relaxed pace 10/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 12:54pm]

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