Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Doing Boca Grande in a day

The Loose Caboose is located in the historic railroad depot.
Travel writers can’t resist gushing over Boca Grande’s reputation as a posh, exclusive island retreat favored by the rich, the famous and the politically powerful.

And while this seven-mile stretch of sand tends to play host to its share of Fortune 500 CEOs, Hollywood A-listers and former presidents, locals will tell you there’s more to Boca Grande than name-dropping.
Located on Gasparilla Island, Boca Grande is split between Charlotte County to the north and Lee County to the south. The Charlotte County portion includes the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority toll plaza.

It’s where you leave the mainland behind. It’s also where you leave $5 behind. And if you ignore the three sets of towering speed bumps, odds are you’ll be leaving your muffler behind.

A 10-minute drive south begins on the scenic causeway that leads to the heart of downtown Boca Grande, a two-block stretch of Old Florida sprinkled with upscale restaurants and shops. Everything from Lilly Pulitzer sun dresses to Orvis fishing duds to the world’s most unique drug store, Fugate’s – which isn’t a drug store at all.

But that’s Boca Grande.

Locals, and there are a few hundred of them year-round, tend to start their mornings at the Outlet at the Innlet, a reasonably priced breakfast ritual for those on the go. There is indoor seating, or you can eat on the deck overlooking Boca Grande Bayou. The restaurant is owned by the posh (there’s that word again) Gasparilla Inn and Club.

On weekends, the Inn offers an endless breakfast buffet where trust-funders and fishing guides rub elbows in the historic main dining room. It’s not cheap, but you’ll likely be able to skip meals for the next few days.

Other early morning choices include Caffe Boca, the Grapevine and the 3rd Street Cafe.

There’s really only one way to do Boca Grande, and that’s by golf cart. Most of the village’s streets can be navigated this way.

There is a seven-mile-long cart and bike path that parallels Gasparilla Road and Gulf Boulevard, the only two streets that are off limits to cart traffic. But check the rules.

You can rent them at a number of locations. Prices at Island Bike ‘N Beach on Park Avenue (aka, Main Street) are typical, ranging from $25 for two hours to $90 for a full day. For those into pedaling, $25 will put you on a beach cruiser for eight hours. When things are busy, booking in advance is suggested.

Parking in the downtown commercial district can be a challenge, especially during season. But carts and bikes tend to make their own parking spaces in Boca Grande, all while traveling at a pace that’s in sync with island time.

Despite its small size, Boca Grande has more public beach access than all of Charlotte County. And its beaches are, indeed, public – and free.

The county-owned beach accesses are clearly marked, and can be found between First and 19th streets. Parking is where you can find it – another argument for renting a cart or bike. There are no facilities.

Boca Grande, like Charlotte and Sarasota counties, isn’t immune to beach politics. Nobody can chase you off – there’s no wet sand-dry sand nonsense – but be considerate of those whose homes overlook the gulf.

The Gasparilla Island State Park beaches can be found to the south of First Street. The most popular beach is hard to miss. Sitting in the shadow of the towering Gasparilla Island Light (formerly the Rear Range Light), the beach offers rest rooms, outdoor showers and picnic facilities.

Admission is $3 per car (or golf cart) and is collected through an honor system. Other state park beaches can be found to the south, but they offer fewer amenities. They also tend to be less crowded.

At the south end of the island is the historic Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum. The lighthouse and adjoining Gulf of Mexico beach are part of the state park system.

The park is bordered by the gulf to the west and world-famous Boca Grande Pass to the south. Swimming in the Pass is prohibited and extremely dangerous. And currents on the gulf side, where swimming is allowed, can be brutal at times. The park offers full facilities.

No Boca Grande day trip is complete without a stop at the lighthouse museum. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. The museum is operated by the non-profit Barrier Island Parks Society and tells the island’s story through a host of exhibits and displays. The view from the lighthouse porch more than justifies the trip.

Another must-see is Whidden’s Marina. Overlooking Charlotte Harbor on First Street, this 1920s-era slice of Old Florida was once the hub of island life. Continuously owned and operated by the descendents of Sam Whidden, the working marina is home to the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum. If you’re lucky, the shrimp boat will be in.

Lunch? Depends on your mood. It can be as simple as a Dolphin Cove, Caffe Boca, Grapevine Gourmet or Hudson’s sandwich to go. Or you can opt to linger over fresh seafood at PJ’s Seagrille, Millers Dockside and Eagle Grille, 3rd Street Cafe, The Pink Elephant, the Loose Caboose or The Temptation. If a view is what matters most, South Beach sits astride the Gulf of Mexico.

The Temp, as locals call it, dates back to the 1920s and is the definition of Old Florida. The exterior, with its signature martini glass neon sign, opened the 2003 Denzel Washington thriller “Out of Time,” one of two major motion pictures filmed on the island in recent years. The butcher block at the end of the bar is where locals tend to roost while depleting the world’s supply of Moscow Mules served in the Temp’s trademark copper mugs.

Across the street, PJ’s and its collection of small shops is located in the building that was once the island’s movie theatre. Check out the aquarium inside Fishtales as well as the Patti Middleton murals and Emil Alzamora sculpture.

Choose one for lunch, another for dinner. It’s hard to go wrong. For something different, steer the cart to the north end and Patrick’s Thai Bistro. Sisters in the village features affordable Italian fare. All offer prices that are reasonable considering the quality and service you’ll get.

But remember, this is Boca Grande.

Because Boca Grande isn’t much larger than one square mile if you scrunch it together, finding your way around doesn’t require GPS. If you get lost, simply drive towards the afternoon sun or ask a local.

They’re easy to spot. Just look for someone in no particular hurry to get anywhere in particular. Then slow down, smile and relax. You’re on island time.