GASPARILLA ISLAND — Boca Grande is known for its tarpon fishing, golf carts and fresh seafood plucked from the Gulf of Mexico. But for 100 years, the tiny fishing village has harbored a well-kept secret: It has a world-class resort that counts itself among the best in Florida.
For more than a century, the narrow pass that marks the mouth of Charlotte Harbor has been a popular destination for anglers hoping to battle Megalops atlanticus, the "silver king" of game fish.
Tarpon fishermen travel from all over — England, Japan, Russia — willing to pay up to $1,000 a day for what could be a short but exhilarating fight with these chrome-bodied brutes that can weigh more than 250 pounds and jump 6 feet in the air.
W.H. Wood, an angler from New York, is generally credited with starting the tarpon fishing craze when on March 12, 1885, at nearby Punta Rassa, he caught the first tarpon on rod and reel. By the 1890s, Florida's sport fishing scene had caught the eye of the national press, including the New York Times, which called Florida's gulf coast "the Paradise of Sportsmen."
Soon well-to-do sportsmen began flocking to Boca Grande, but there was only one problem. These wealthy Northern guests, accustomed to the finer things in life, needed a place to stay.
The town was originally built around the railroad line and phosphate docks, but by 1909, local entrepreneurs realized that tourism could be developed. By the winter season of 1911-1912, an upscale hotel was open for business, catering primarily to wealthy businessmen tied to the town's commerce.
The original 20-room structure was a simple Frame Vernacular style, but the owners quickly hired a prominent Tampa architect to expand the building in the popular Queen Anne style of architecture, and renamed the hotel the Gasparilla Inn for the 1913 season.
Within a year some of the regularly returning fishermen formed a private fishing club — the Pelican Club — which helped to ensure a steady stream of diehard anglers for decades to come.
The inn had its share of celebrity guests as well in those early years, tycoons J.P. Morgan and Henry DuPont and Florida railroad magnate Henry Plant. In the years that followed, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone also graced the inn's halls.
Barron Collier and his corporation bought the hotel and surrounding property in 1930 for $150,000 and installed a neoclassical facade on the west side of the building, which made for a much grander entrance.
Several decades after Collier's death, a syndicate that included DuPont heir Bayard Sharp bought the property. For the next 40 years, Sharp worked to maintain the integrity of the inn while preserving its Old Florida charm.
Today, 100 years after it opened, the Gasparilla Inn has 137 rooms — 63 in the main structure and 74 in the surrounding cottages. The Inn & Club still has great service and that classic charm, but you'll find more families on holiday here than tycoons of industry. The inn is currently owned by the William Farish family. Farish, former U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, is married to the former Sarah Sharp, the only daughter of the late Bayard Sharp.
The hotel has its devotees, fourth- and fifth-generation vacationers who come for the fishing, solitude and world-class sunsets. Accommodations can be pricey, but packages are available and good deals can be found if you travel at off-peak times.
The inn offers a variety of dining options. For the well dressed, the formal dining room offers white-tablecloth service for both breakfast and dinner. The Pink Elephant, a block away, has a more casual lunch and dinner menu, but the steaks, chops and seafood rival anything you'll find at a four-star restaurant on the mainland.
Families will find the Beach Club's light fare ideal after a long day in the water. The view of the sunset from the pool deck is among the best in the state. If you're heading out early on a fishing trip, check out the Inlet's breakfast or the best coffee and doughnuts (hot out of the oven) at the Inn Bakery a short walk away.
Golfers will appreciate the inn's waterfront greens, a Pete Dye Signature Course that features a par 72 championship spread that stretches out over 6,811 yards. Holes 12 through 17 play directly along Charlotte Harbor.
Dye himself is rumored to favor the 15th hole, a par 4 dogleg to the left, but the "island within an island" design has five sets of tees for players of all skill levels. But be advised — there are no tee times. To play, you must be a member or guest of the inn.
There's also a full-service marina with wet and dry slips, which should be expected. After all, the inn started off as a place for fishermen.
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]