When my sons were in that most wonderful stage of childhood – just out of diapers, but not into $130 sneakers – we spent a month at Boca Grande. And each day we would hunt for buried treasure.
The boys believed everything their father told them back then. They believed the sand dollars they found were coin of the realm and used them to buy candy at Hudson’s, the only grocery store, receiving their change – in a deal I’d worked out with the cashier – in tulip shells and whelks. They believed that if a blue crab bit you on the toe while you waded through the surf it would not let go until it heard the sound of thunder. They believed sea grapes made raisins and sea oats fed horses.
And they believed above all, wide-eyed and full of wonderment, in the pirate Jos¿ Gaspar.
I told them how Gaspar, having conducted his scurrilous pirate business, would always return to his hideout here at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor. I salted the sand dunes with dime store doubloons, and we were always led to them by the treasure maps that miraculously washed ashore each morning in corked bottles, not unlike the ones containing the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay my wife and I had sipped at sunset the day before.
“There is treasure all over this island,” I told them. “Jos¿ Gaspar went to his grave not telling anyone where he buried it.”
OK, so I might have embellished a bit. But I’m certainly not alone in jazzing up the tale of the Spanish nobleman who is said to have stolen a ship from his country’s navy, assembled a band of renegades, and spent the better part of four decades, beginning in the 1780s, looting and plundering along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
As for whether Gaspar really existed, well, historians are skeptical. They quibble about the extent of reputed exploits and dispute whether, when faced with capture in 1822 by a U.S. warship masquerading as a British cargo vessel, this Gaspar character really did wrap an anchor chain around his waist and leap overboard to a briny death.
But popular acceptance has a way of outmuscling academic debate. Gaspar’s hideout eventually acquired his name, Gasparilla Island, although everyone calls the place Boca Grande, after the only town on the island.
Tampa, 85 miles to the north, has adopted Gaspar as its patron rogue, and the city’s annual Gasparilla Festival has become a rousing, yet decidedly more family-oriented, version of Mardi Gras. To the south, Captiva Island, which shares stardom in shelling circles with Sanibel, is said to have taken its name after Gaspar used it to imprison the more comely female passengers from ships he plundered.
And virtually no year goes by that some scoundrel isn’t arrested hereabouts for ripping into an Indian mound (protected under Florida law) with hopes of unearthing artifacts – or perhaps what Gaspar might have left behind.
I tend to believe the Gaspar legend, mainly because I think Mother History possesses a fine sense of irony and has seen to it that Boca Grande’s reputation as a safe hideout has only been enhanced over the years. Granted, those who hunker down there these days are a slightly more reputable sort: financiers and industrialists, the occasional ex-U.S. president or movie star. But if they were to take a dashing view of their accomplishments, I dare guess none would likely object to being called, say, a buccaneer of commerce. And they recognize in Boca Grande a place where they can disappear.
“Boca Grande appeals to them because we don’t make a big fuss over them. We’ve seen all kinds of money and importance come through here and it has long since stopped impressing us,” says Dusty Hopkins, publisher of the Boca Beacon, one of the island’s two weekly newspapers. “It’s not unusual to sit down at the bar in Miller’s Marina with a mullet fisherman on one side of you and a billionaire on the other – and you can’t tell the difference between the two.”
In other words, despite its beachfront family compounds and the pedigreed clans that have been returning to the island every winter for three and four generations, Boca Grande is no Palm Beach. And it diligently tries not to be.
In Boca Grande you can have old money or money so new that it needs to sit on the windowsill a few days to ripen in the sun. You can fit right in as long as you don’t flaunt it. Or as long as you don’t blow your cover, as many do, by mispronouncing Boca Grande.
“There’s this tendency by some folks to fancify it. They insist on calling it Boca GRON-day,” says writer David Futch, who comes from an old island family and who, like many longtimers, works part of each year as a tarpon fishing guide. “We don’t go for that la-di-da stuff. It’s plain ol’ Boca Grand, only we really try to do our best to de-emphasize the grand.”
There’s no promenade of pricey designer shops, no coveys of overdressed dowagers doing their luncheon thing. The four corners that mark the heart of Boca Grande are anchored by the post office, Fugate’s (a locally owned dry goods store that has been around for better than 50 years), Nabers’s Chevron station (the only place to buy gas on the island), and the old railroad depot, a two-story Spanish-style affair that has been lovingly restored and is now home to an ice-cream parlor, a caf¿, and gift shops. At The Temptation bar and restaurant, known simply as “The Temp” by locals, the decor is endearingly 1940ish, and the big band music piped in on the loudspeakers is likely to originate from the original 78- rpm records.
It is possible to cover what passes for downtown in an hour on foot, making a de rigueur stop at Banyan Street to ooh-and-ah at the canopy of intricately tentacled banyan trees that gives the oft-photographed thoroughfare the air of an outdoor cathedral.
Beyond that, the attractions are blissfully basic – fishing, boating, and long walks on what, by modern Florida standards, is a relatively secluded beach. There are no tiki bars blaring bad music, no parasail or cabana concessions, and no overly friendly strangers who’ll engage you in conversation while you’re beachcombing, then try to sell you a time-share condo.
The enduring placidity of Boca Grande would surely please Peter Bradley. After phosphate was discovered in 1887 along the Peace River, which empties into Charlotte Harbor, mining companies needed a convenient port. Enter Bradley, president of the American Agricultural Chemical Co. He saw to it that railroad tracks were extended to the island in 1907, across Gasparilla Sound, by his Charlotte Harbor & Northern Railway Co. The line came to be known by its underpaid employees as the Cold, Hungry & Naked.
Around the same time Henry Flagler was plotting his railroad down the east coast of Florida, building grand hotels all along the route from St. Augustine to Miami. Not to be outdone, Bradley laid out Boca Grande, lining its oyster-shell streets with coconut palms and bougainvilleas and, in 1912, building the Boca Grande Hotel. (Through various renovations and additions, it lives on as the Gasparilla Inn.)
Bradley was a man who valued his peace and quiet. So much so that he wouldn’t allow the train to blow its whistle on the island. And while islanders were welcome to grow vegetables and keep cows and pigs, Bradley strictly enforced a rule stating that no one was permitted to have a rooster.
That tranquillity was maintained even after the island was “discovered” by wealthy northern society. Francis B. and Louise Crowninshield first stepped down from the train in Boca Grande during the winter of 1915, booked a room at the hotel, and promptly became enraptured by the island. Louise talked her brother, Henry Francis duPont, into joining them for the next winter. And before long, various other duPonts and their well-to-do friends were heading south.
To the great amusement of the locals, railroad workers, and commercial fishermen who mostly lived in the interior part of the island, well-removed from a tidal surge should there come a bad storm or a hurricane, these part-time islanders began building their compounds right on the dunes. Thus originated the term “beachfronter,” which remains a title of social distinction and, occasionally, derision.
“Anyone can build a house on the beach, but that doesn’t automatically make them ¿beachfront,'” wrote Betty Barndollar in her history of Boca Grande. “Nor are all the homes of ¿beachfronters’ on the beach. It’s a difficult term to analyze, but everyone knows who is and who isn’t ¿beachfront.'”
Thanks to those beachfronters, Boca Grande enjoys certain amenities uncommon in an island community of 700 year-round residents – a well-staffed health clinic and a Spanish mission-style community center complete with a full calendar of cultural events.
But easily the most impressive landmark on the island is the library, built by a wealthy lawyer, Roger Amory, who figured his hometown of Boston already had too many libraries.
He hired famed architect Henry Richardson Shepley to design the splendid, pink-walled repository with polished limestone floors and massive, hand-carved doors. At one end of the open-air reading room, which looks out on a courtyard lush with island foliage, there’s a glass case containing the impressive shell collection of the late Henry Francis duPont. Officially known as the Johann Fust Community Library, after the German banker who loaned Johann Gutenberg the money to construct the first movable-type printing press, it’s a fitting commemoration for an island whose high-powered residents eschew the limelight.
Today’s beachfronters tend to be second- and third-generation descendants of those original winter visitors, and they return without fail each year to enjoy what is officially known on the island as the “social season.” It runs roughly from mid-December to mid-April, with most activity orbiting around the Gasparilla Inn and its private beach club.
While Boca Grande is taken from the Spanish for “big mouth,” owing to the shape of its harbor, the constabularies of the social season are notoriously tight-lipped about discussing its well-heeled participants.
“Not to sound too highbrow or anything, but the kind of people who stay with us really prefer that we keep quiet about them,” said the inn’s manager, Stephen Seidensticker. “The inn, as a whole, shuns publicity. We don’t really advertise or anything like that. It’s what our people want. It’s just the way we are.”
To stay at the inn during the social season is to be transported to a setting not far removed from what the Crowninshields might have found. A guest arrival and departure list is posted daily just off the lobby and is an object of close scrutiny by those wanting to know just who is who. Since rates are based on the American plan, everyone gathers together at breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the high-ceilinged dining room with a view of the golf course. Meticulously manicured croquet courts sit out back. And until just a few years ago, guests weren’t issued keys, since none of the rooms had locks.
A certain gentility is expected of guests at the inn, something I was reminded of during my first stay there some years ago. My wife, eight months pregnant with our first child at the time, had slipped off to our room for an afternoon nap. I grabbed a book and headed for the cozy lounge. For the better part of two hours I was the only patron and spent the time chatting with the bartender, an engaging fellow who graciously shared information on which mangrove flats I should wade to catch redfish and snook. Suddenly he looked at his watch and said: “Mr. Morris, it is a pleasure to have you as a guest, and I have enjoyed our conversation. But I am afraid I must ask you to leave.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Because it is four o’clock,” he said. “And gentlemen are expected to be in jackets.”
Duly chastened, I went to my room, put on a blazer, returned to the lounge, and finished pumping the decorum-minded bartender for angling tips.
No sooner does the social season end than Boca Grande eases into another tradition that has spanned decades – the pursuit of that giant, leaping member of the fish family known as the tarpon. At the inn’s cypress-paneled Pelican Club (yes, that is a stuffed brown pelican above the door), framed and mounted on the walls are what, on Boca Grande, passes for the ultimate sporting trophy – tarpon scales, plucked from prized catches over the decades. Hundreds of scales, many double the size of a half-dollar. While the ink has long since faded on some, others bear still readable handwritten inscriptions like: “107 lbs., caught by Andrew Givens, May 17, 1922.”
Those early anglers headed out into half-mile-wide Boca Grande Pass in canoes and rowboats to do battle in the often choppy waters with fish that could reach upward of 200 pounds. Back then, the catch was considered “official” when a tarpon was brought in on one side of the boat and released on the other¿often after it had swum across the partly submerged boat.
Nowadays the boats are decidedly more seaworthy. With some 40 licensed captains in the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association and thousands of other serious anglers making their pilgrimages each tarpon season, the local expression, “You can walk across the pass by stepping on all the boats,” is not always that great an exaggeration.
The height of the fishing season is marked by “The World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament.” It takes place each July, with the boat landing the largest tarpon winning as much as $100,000. The conservation-minded event requires all catches to be released.
“We go to what some might think are extreme ends to make sure no fish are killed,” said Mark Shevitski, the tournament director. “We’ve rigged up a scale that allows us to weigh the tarpon on the water and then immediately set them free.”
The tarpon run generally slackens in late summer, beginning what is rarely observed in Florida anymore – a much-welcomed “off season.” For the past dozen years or so, my family and I have rented a place on Boca Grande during its languid Augusts, when many of the businesses and restaurants hang out closed until after labor day signs, and traffic to the island slows to a veritable trickle. Until 1958 the only way to reach Gasparilla Island was by train or ferryboat. Since then it’s been connected to the mainland by a causeway. The $3.20 toll, coupled with the scarcity of overnight accommodations – other than the inn, there is only a motel on the island – keeps the crowds at a decidedly lower density than at Sanibel or Sarasota. Still, there are those who fear Boca Grande risks overpopularity.
“It would be just fine with me if they raised that toll to ten dollars,” says Carolyn Nabers, a third-generation islander whose husband, Clyde, runs the gas station. “We have too many people coming through here gawking as it is.”
That’s especially true since the island became a favorite getaway for George and Barbara Bush. Rather than slipping off to Kennebunkport or Camp David after his loss in the 1992 presidential election, Bush chose to nurse his political wounds on Boca Grande. He came at the invitation of friend Bayard Sharp, local scion of the duPont family and owner of the Gasparilla Inn. Since then the Bushes have slipped in and out of Boca Grande, fishing, golfing, and, during the spring, heading to nearby Port Charlotte, site of spring training for the Texas Rangers, the major league baseball team whose owners include the Bushes’ son, George W.
While Bush wasn’t the first U.S. president to become entranced by Boca Grande (Teddy Roosevelt went after “devilfish,” or manta rays, in Boca Grande Pass), his visits caused considerable hubbub. The result? Tour buses have begun showing up on the island.
That has created something of a strain on people like Isabel Joiner, one of two sisters who own Whidden’s Marina. Built in the early 1930s by Joiner’s father, the marina is about as far removed from the refinement of the inn as can be imagined. A warren of rickety fishermen’s shacks, a rusted mobile home or two, and a growing accumulation of overturned boat hulls border the dirt parking lot.
There’s a pet turkey in a cage by the door and a slew of overfed cats that like to nap by the fish-cleaning tables. Inside there’s a little bit of everything – bait, tackle, beer, old bottles, patent medicines, dolls, and doodads galore – all set out with no particular order in mind.
Joiner, a large woman in her late 50s, runs the place from an easy chair in front of her television set, flanked by two lazy dogs – B. B. and Buddy. Regulars eventually find what they are looking for and leave money by the cash register or make change for themselves.
One of the island’s first tour buses, a double-decker loaded with sightseers from St. Petersburg, once broke down outside the Pink Elephant restaurant. The driver walked to Nabers’s gas station hoping to get a jump-start.
“I told him I was sorry,” said Clyde Nabers, “but I really didn’t need the business. I’m still not sure how he ever got that bus started. But I am sure we don’t need tour buses on Boca Grande.”
That calls to mind the story of the island’s first newspaper, the Boca Grande Journal, which folded in 1947. The paper went out of business because local merchants stopped advertising. But they did this for an altogether uncommon reason: They felt their ads were bringing in too much business.
According to historian Barndollar, “If they had wanted to work that hard they wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”
Ah, blessed indolence. Now that is the real treasure on Boca Grande.