Gasparilla Island and Boca Grande - Orlando / Florida Guide
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Gasparilla Island and the one small town on it, Boca Grande, straddle Charlotte and Lee Counties in south-west Florida, south of Sarasota and north of Fort Myers.
Strictly speaking Gasparilla is not an island as it is connected to the mainland by a causeway with a $4. 00 toll charge. Gasparilla is roughly 8 miles long by half a mile wide.
Historically Gasparilla Island was home to the Calusa Indians from around 800 AD. The Spanish Seminole Indians arrived in the area by the beginning of the 16th century and the Calusa’s had almost died out due to European diseases by 1750.
At that time the main industry of Gasparilla was fishing. The Boca Grande Pass (Big Mouth Pass) at the southern tip of the island is one of the deepest inlets in Florida. Boca Grande is known internationally for being the tarpon capital of the world. An annual tournament is held each May with the inlet being a sea of small boats attempting to obtain fish around 80lbs in their catch. Tarpon are an unusual fish as they have an air bladder and are able to survive in waters with little oxygen content.
Phosphate rock, used in fertilisers was discovered on the banks of the nearby Peace River and this product was barged down to Boca Grande to be loaded onto schooners before a railroad was built being completed in 1907. At this time the only buildings on Gasparilla were the lighthouse and the keeper’s cottage. For fifty years phosphate was shipped from Boca Grande until in the 1970’s it gradually became more economic to use the larger port of Tampa and the railroad was demolished in 1979.
Wealthy Americans discovered Gasparilla and during the warm winter months many reside at the Gasparilla Inn either within the hotel or its accompanying self-catering cottages. The island has a largely old world feel about its private houses from wooden clapboard to slightly more modern town houses used by part-time residents. A school for primary age children has recently been rebuilt following damage which occurred during hurricane Charley in 2004.
So what is there in Boca Grande for the modern day visitor? The free museum, open Wednesday to Sunday at the southernmost tip next to the lighthouse gives a fascinating insight into the lives of the early families in the 1920’s when phosphate was in its heyday. Downtown Boca Grande consists of two main roads with a crossing at what was the railway station and is now a popular restaurant. Bars are tucked away amongst lush foliage and electric golf carts are the main form of transport for the residents.
Amongst the sand dunes near the lighthouse live a colony of 20, 000 iguanas, they scurry in and out of their holes and are reluctant to be photographed! ! Whilst an attractive sight to see these non-native lizards are a pest to the locals as they invade their homes and attics and do immeasurable damage particularly to properties left empty during the summer months. Many thoughts on how to rid the island of these spiny creatures are currently under discussion.
In 2007 the beaches which run from the southern tip along the full extent of the west coast of Gasparilla were revitalised and I am sure are some of the most solitary stretches of sand to found in Florida.
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