Gasparilla Island – no Pirate Hideout anymore!
Gasparilla” is the name of the island and “Boca Grande” the name of the village. This cool piece of land offers seven miles of wide, pristine, sugar-white sandy beaches. Located midway between Sarasota and Fort Meyers, Gasparilla is the last pearl in a string of barrier islands, beginning with the first pearl Anna Maria Island some sixty miles further north.
Just in case you already fell in love with Boca Grande and don’t want to read all the way to the end you can start your home search here.
Gasparilla Pass made the Island to what it is
The pristine white sandy beaches stretch the entire Gulf side of the island, and they stand in beautiful contrast with the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, the island is bordered by Charlotte Harbor, a 750,000-acre estuary. At the south end of the Isle is the Gasparilla Pass, the deepest pass on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This pass is a one-mile water barrier between Gasparilla Island and Caya Costa, which is another beautiful tropical enclave north of Sanibel.
Boca Grande, which means „Big Mouth“ in Spanish, got its name because of this deep water gap between the two islands. The pass is actually so deep that ocean-going cargo vessels can use it as a thoroughfare. And that is exactly the reason, why it played such an important role in the history of Gasparilla Island.
No Thrill, no real Excitement
Before 1885, not too much was going on the island. Fishermen from Cuba came here because the fishing grounds around Gasparilla were just so fantastic. No trip was considered too far or too dangerous. So, fishing was good. Fishing some hunting was popular on the island, and a few settlers had already convinced themselves that this was going to be a great location sometimes in the future.
One can say that this island was still in the state of hibernation when suddenly something important happened. 1885 was the number on the calendar and this year was meant to become a great game-changer.
Phosphate rock, which is partially fossilized excrement from dinosaurs, was discovered on the banks of the Peace River near Punta Gorda. How exciting is that, right? Well, but it actually turned out to become fascinating for Gasparilla Island. Phosphate, an essential ingredient of fertilizer, was on demand. All developing countries in the world needed fertilizer, and the price for phosphate went straight through the roof.
The Harbor became more Important
First, the phosphate was barged down the river and hauled to Boca Grande. From there it was shipped with clippers, later steamboats, worldwide. However, that wasn’t efficient enough. The next step was to convert the south end of the island into a functioning deep water port. A lighthouse was built to guide the ships through the pass. 1905 a railroad was laid
from Arcadia to that deepwater port which made a real difference. A railway station was added, and the fishing village slowly morphed into something …else. The journey began.
The railroad did not only transport phosphate and supplies to Boca Grande. People also used the train to get there. Some were „ordinary“ travelers, but eventually, the people who were arriving on the island changed. Wealthy American and British sportsmen came and made the island to what it is today. The first upscale resort had opened in the roaring twenties, more Hotels and Inns popped up later. Churches were built; shops and single-family homes and mansions for the newcomers had to be constructed. The village grew continuously.
WWII made an Impact
In WWII the island became even more important for the USA. Because of the deep water harbor, it was used to ship supplies to the allies in Europe. Ammunition, dynamite, and mines were sent via Key West to Europe. The harbor was safe and conveniently located. German U-boats were terrorizing the ports along America’s Atlantic coast, but very few made it into the Gulf of Mexico. I was too dangerous for them. Very few were actually ordered into the Gulf of Mexico, and not too many of them returned home.
After the war, everything went back to business as usual. The trains were hauling phosphate, supplies for the islanders and …people. The cargo ships were loaded and sent to their worldwide destinations. The people stayed for the tarpon tournament, went fishing, stayed for a brief or long vacation or bought a home.
The Causeway changed the Island Life
The year 1958 became another significant game-changer. The causeway opened, and the town prospered even more. Now motorists were able to access the island whenever they wanted, and people started flocking to the Isle. The tarpon tournament attracted a lot of fishermen and spectators every year. The warm winter months attracted more snowbirds and vacationers. More people fell in love with this beautiful spot and wanted to stay for good. They bought a home and used it as a vacation/winter home. The real estate market was in its early phase, but it was already growing.
At the beginning of 1970,’s the deepwater harbor was still important. At that time it was actually still the 4th busiest port on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but there were already dark clouds on the horizon. The phosphate plant was not profitable anymore, and the harbor utilities were outdated. Competition, a new port in Manatee County, eventually took over. The new harbor had modern utilities and was easier to get access to by ocean-going cargo vessels. The size of the ships had increased during the last decades, and a bigger harbor was more suitable for them.
Toast! The End is near
1979 the last one turned out the lights. The phosphate industry came to a screeching halt. The railway was abandoned, the last oil tanks demolished and the harbor decommissioned. The skeleton of the pier still sticks out of the emerald-green water as a reminder that this once was a busy and prospering port.
The end of the phosphate industry was the unmistakable sign that the Islanders had to search for a new source of income. Tourism, real estate, and fishing became the new economic base of the island. Fortunately, there were some attentive people in the
Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association had a vision. Therefore they decided to petition the state to make Boca Grande a “Historic Island.” That step would hopefully keep its beauty, they thought.
Gasparilla Island – Historic Island
Well, it did work out that way! This idea was probably the best idea the Islanders ever had. Today Boca Grande is a quiet but thriving community, which was able to conserve its unique quality of life. It feels like a step back in time, into „Old World” Florida, a carefully preserved part of Florida’s history.
Boca Grande, that charming village in the middle of the island, is rich with all the amenities you ever need. There is a variety of excellent restaurants, a great grocery store, a well-assorted hardware store, a bakery and a variety of unique boutique type shops. No fast-food chains and no high-rise buildings exist, and there is no need for traffic lights. You won’t find a single one on the island. But there are plenty of 4-way stop signs.
Not “Car Free” but they are getting there
The old railroad tracks that once ran the full length of the island are long gone. They made way to a seven-mile-long scenic biking and hiking trail which is a part of the Florida Rails-to-Trails initiative. Many railroad tracks have been converted into bike trails in Florida over the last decade. The goal is to interconnect all of them shortly. One of these days you will be able to ride your bike from the panhandle all the way down to Key West.
Something else is also unique: Golf Carts and Bicycles are the favorite means of transportation on Gasparilla – at least for the people who live there. Therefore, you will not find a single gas station on the island. However, this does not mean that you cannot use your car. There are enough roads to get you everywhere, and there is also ample parking space available.
Go and enjoy – it is Worth it
At first glance, it seems like the island on the Gulf Coast is somewhat off the beaten path, but that is not the truth. The island is accessible by county roads, and a new, higher bridge is replacing the old one. Now even larger boats can pass without the need to open the bridge holding up the traffic on the street.
Take cash with you, the “pirate” working the barriers at the bridge wants six dollars in exchange for the passage, but that is a small price to pay. Boca Grande was, and still is, a favorite among the wealthy and famous. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, members of the DuPont family, Audrey Hepburn and the Bush family, liked the island. However, that doesn’t mean that “regular folks” can’t have that “old Florida” experience as well. Go for it and enjoy your day. You will not regret the six bucks. Nobody wants to see your tax returns.
Stay for a day or vacation, but bring your bikes or kayaks (or rent them) and explore the island. If you fall in love and want to buy a vacation home or stay forever, start your home search here.
Tour the lighthouse museum, have lunch in a café, get a nice 3000 calorie scoop of homemade ice cream, swim at the beaches or explore the canals with your kayak. You will love it!