The woven, twisted limbs of banyan trees form a canopy over a seaside trail that leads to pastel-colored shacks with striped canopies. Iguanas of all sizes lumber across the walkway and stare down from the trunks of palm trees. Miles of powdery-white beaches and turquoise water are unspoiled, offering a quiet place to enjoy the amazing views and perhaps do some shelling or snorkeling. Dolphins frolic just beyond the surf while pelicans soar past. This isn’t some exotic, foreign island – this is the hidden Florida gem of Gasparilla Island.
If you are thinking about a trip to the beach as a quick spring getaway or you are planning your summer vacation and want somewhere a little more remote and less touristy, or if you are looking for a place to live where the pace is slower and life is easier, consider this unique area located about an hour northwest of Fort Myers and an hour south of Sarasota. Perhaps due to it being situated between these two powerhouse cities, or the fact that there are so many tourist hotspots in the area (Siesta Key, Captiva Island, Sanibel Island, and Venice, for example), or its out-of-the-way location, Gasparilla Island has skated under the radar with tourists for decades, leaving this pristine island with an old-world essence.
Gasparilla is named for a pirate who supposedly buried his treasure on the island. It has always been fairly uninhabited, home to only a handful of fishermen and their families until the late 19th century. In 1848, a military outpost was established and eventually a small area of the island was platted for a town. The Gasparilla Inn opened in 1911 and the island became a playground for the very wealthy. Today, the Gasparilla Inn, an elegant Southern belle with lacy balconies and haughty pillars, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Boca Gande is the only town on Gasparilla Island. It is a delightful little historical
village that has kept its “Old Florida” charm – the downtown is filled with quaint shops in shabby-chic and funky little huts alongside elegant plantation-style structures. You won’t find fast-food chains or even stoplights in Boca Grande, just local seafood joints, art galleries, and little boutiques. A bike trail meanders along the seven-mile stretch of what used to be railroad tracks, when phosphate was the little seaside community’s biggest commodity. There are no gas stations on the island, and cars are easily outnumbered by golf carts and bicycles.
As for the iguanas – the theory is that a few managed to escape from captivity and made themselves at home, thriving in the warm, tropical climate. A population boom took place and a few years ago, the iguanas outnumbered people 10 to one. The town has worked to bring the iguana population under control, however, and there are far fewer around these days — but they are still very much a part of the island landscape. These black spiny-tailed iguanas can grow quite large – often about three feet long – and are considered the fastest-running lizard on earth.
Boca Grande is the Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World and fishing is a major pastime. The beaches are also ideal for shelling and finding shark’s teeth. Because Gasparilla Island is so isolated, beachcombers will find the powdery beaches strewn with shells much more inviting than some of the more “touristy” destinations. You are also likely to see plenty of wildlife, such as manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, and osprey. Residents and visitors alike enjoy boating, fishing, shelling, sunbathing, snorkeling, swimming, and just watching the stunning sunsets.
Gasparilla Island State Park takes up the southern tip of the island, surrounding its
“shining beacon” of a landmark, the Gasparilla Lighthouse. The 104-year-old lighthouse was built in 1890 to light the way for cattle barges destined for Cuba. Today, the lighthouse contains a museum and gift shop. The lamp is maintained by the US Coast Guard. Gasparilla Island State Park also includes picnic areas and gorgeous beaches.
When you are looking for a serene respite from your hectic day-to-day schedule, consider heading to Gasparilla Island and the tiny town of Boca Grande – it is an idyllic, top-secret Florida location that will relax and recharge you.