Driving over the Boca Grande Bridge brings back 30 years of memories vacationing on Gasparilla Island with my children, relatives and family friends. It still has the same homes, the same shops, the same restaurants and the same ambiance from those bygone days. Rather than a been-there, done-that vacation, it’s a so-glad-to-be-back respite.
This pristine, 7-mile-long island that separates Charlotte Harbor from the Gulf of Mexico is just 90 minutes by car from St. Petersburg — I say by car because many visitors arrive via boat. This is, after all, the tarpon fishing capital of the world.
The first order of business is to rent a golf cart, the main mode of transportation on the island. On past visits, my mom, my daughter and I would drive to the white sandy beach, where we’d alternate between sunbathing and body surfing in the crystal-clear water. My father, husband and son always had another objective: catching the largest tarpon in the pass. The silver game fish can grow to as big as 8 feet long and 280 pounds. Boca Grande draws anglers from around the world who pay big bucks to compete in tournaments where they can win bigger bucks. During peak tarpon season, mid-April through June, up to 40 guides can be trolling the same location at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor.
This summer, I ventured back with just my husband, and we were lucky to book a room at the historic Gasparilla Inn & Club, the oldest wooden hotel in Florida. These days, the inn, which closes at the end of July and reopens in October, recommends making reservations a year in advance.
Built in 1913, the Gasparilla Inn is the heart of the island community. It has been refurbished through the years, but continues to reflect Old Florida charm with its pale yellow wooden frame, white pillared entrance and gabled roofs. The guest rooms, like the inn’s common areas, are filled with wicker and rattan furnishings and chintz patterns of soothing pale pinks, greens and yellows with plenty of seashells and palm fronds.
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We arrived in time for supper in the main dining room, one of the few restaurants in Boca Grande not decorated with giant, mounted tarpon. But we heard plenty of tales of the catches of the day from anglers in the room while we started our meal with a creative Caesar salad plated with a tightly wound wheel of romaine topped with a Parmesan crisp and cherry tomatoes.
Next came fresh grilled pompano with caper and brown butter sauce. The key lime pie with bruleed meringue and raspberry coulis might have been the best we’ve ever eaten. The pucker-power punch of lime told us we were getting the real deal and not a Persian lime ripoff, the sweetness from the meringue neutralizing the tang.
The main dining room adheres to a strict dress code from Dec. 19 through April 30, requiring men to wear jackets and ties. (You know a place is steeped in tradition when it follows something called the “social season.”) The resort also owns the Pink Elephant Restaurant, which is walking distance from the inn. It serves steaks, chops and seafood for lunch and dinner — our favorites include fish tacos and Southern tomato pie, with layers of roasted tomatoes and lemon ricotta cheese, finished with olives.
The Gasparilla Inn has 163 rooms — 63 in the main house, 67 in surrounding cottages and 33 suites. For golfers and tennis players, the resort offers a Pete Dye 18-hole golf course and Har-Tru courts. Unique to the inn is the Croquet Club, featuring a full championship English Rule croquet court where traditional white clothing is required of players.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the resort was developed by officers of the American Agricultural Chemical Company of Boston, which operated a phosphate shipping port on the island. In those days, the inn hosted inventor Thomas Edison, tycoons like Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone and movie stars including Katharine Hepburn. The inn was a favorite hangout of President George H.W. Bush and his family.
Many of the visitors today still arrive by boat and dock at the full-service marina. For tarpon fishing, it’s safest to hire a professional fishing guide to navigate boat congestion in the pass. “Boca Grande has got more tarpon in May or June than any known spot in the world,” Capt. Dave Markett said. “Certainly, during the latter weeks of May and the early weeks of June there is a significant population of truly giant tarpon — fish that are estimated to be 50 to 70 years old and 180 to 250 pounds.”
On the days we visited, Markett had been hired by two women who caught a massive tarpon after “fighting the fish for an hour and 20 minutes until it was unhooked, revived and released,” he said.
Downtown Boca Grande has several shops, including The Palm on Park Lilly Pulitzer Signature Store and Fugate’s, a former drugstore that sells everything from greeting cards and household gifts to apparel. The upscale women’s boutique at the back of the store carries swimsuits, clothing, handbags, beachwear, shoes and jewelry.
Before we arrived, we asked the concierge at the inn to book us a reservation at The Temptation on the downtown’s main street, Park Avenue. I’m glad we planned ahead because it was booked solid for a couple of weeks.
We have been eating at “The Temp” since our first trip to the island. We sat in the same teal-colored banquette where our children and friends used to join us. The dimly lit restaurant looks like the backdrop of a 1950s movie and still has a working cigarette machine in the back room. We ordered the restaurant’s signature pan-seared snapper with lemon, garlic and apple juice and the gold brick sundae, vanilla ice cream topped with a frozen nutty, chocolate crust.
Boca Grande isn’t cheap: Our fairly small room at the inn was $305 a night during an off-season week. And rentals at the Boca Grande Club can go for upwards of $6,000 a week during the social season. Most fishing guides charge upwards of $1,000 for a three- to four-hour tour.
Even the toll booth to enter the island has increased its prices over the years. The toll for cars is $6 a trip — but definitely worth the price of admission.
The Gasparilla Inn & Club is at 500 Palm Ave., Boca Grande. gasparillainn.com. You can contact Capt. Dave Markett of Sport Fishing Guide Services at 813-455-3056.