I have returned to my Tampa house on the Interbay area and everything is fine. The electricity did not turn off. However, my home office was without Internet, telephone, or TV so I had to wait until the people at Spectrum got their show on the road. I don’t know many people in the Florid Keys which took the biggest hit but in prayer to them I am featuring Boca Grande, my favorite little West Coast island.
BOCA GRANDE, on the dual county island at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, is best known as America’s tarpon fishing center. Other than a small phosphate export port, Gasparilla Island was famous for its fishing plutocrats until the construction of a private toll bridge by Robert Baynard in 1955 and the discovery of the isolated island’s charms by successful Tampa Bay area professionals who could build expensive beach villas a few hours from metropolis.
WHERE TO START: Start in front of the island’s pride, at the corner of Fifth Street and Palm Avenue, the: (1) GASPARILLA INN (1912), a large pale yellow frame Victorian hotel with a Classical portico and a colony of cottages and rooms built around the golf course. An Arcadia phosphate executive Peter Bradley allied with James F. Gifford, President of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad, to build the luxury winter resort. It’s hotel registrar may read like a “Who’s Who”, but you won’t get to read it for low key privacy is the rule here.
DRIVE EAST ON FIFTH AVENUE along the golf course toward Boca Grande Bayou.
TURN RIGHT ON BAYOU AVENUE toward HARBOR DRIVE and the yacht basins. There’s charter boat centers and places to stop for lunch. In tarpon season there will be fishermen from around the world. In the peak of the winter Katherine Hepburn could be seen eating with some retired school teachers.
I once went into the Railroad Depot for a snack and Barbara Bush was devouring an ice cream cone.
CROSS WEST AVENUE past the (3) COMMUNITY HOUSE and the (4) COMMUNITY CENTER. PASS PARK AVENUE and TURN RIGHT ON GILCHRIST. THEN, if your car fits, TURN RIGHT ONTO (5) BANYAN STREET, an amazing gnarl of shady banyan trees planted on both sides by Peter Bradley.
Millionaire dollar beach houses and simple stores is Boca Grande.
TURN LEFT ON PARK AVENUE. On your right is the interesting: (6) OUR LADY OF MERCY MISSION CHAPEL, a replica of a Spanish style mission with brick floors, but featuring a circular entrance way. You should stop to go inside to admire the fine woodsmanship and the real Madonna Icon of Russian design.
GO TO THIRD STREET. On the corner to your right is the (7) BOCA GRANDE THEATER (1924), now used as a restaurant and sometimes showplace. If you enter you’ll see an unusual open atrium, an odd theatrical design.
A few doors down is the (8) CHAMBER OF COMMERCE. At the end of the block on your right is the POST OFFICE. On your left is (9) FUGUTES(1916), the town’s mini-everything store founded by Jerome Fugate Sr., and visited by everyone sooner or later.
Across Fourth on the right is the famous (10) BOCA GRANDE RAILROAD DEPOT (1910), an impressive two story structure which now houses antique and gift stores and an ice cream parlor/restaurant. The brick structure with the arcaded loggia was the last depot for the Charlotte Harbor & Northern Railway.
TURN LEFT ON FOURTH AND LEFT ON GILCHRIST AVENUE, the route to the southern tip of Gasparilla Island. On your left is the (11) ST. ANDREWS EPISCOPAL CHURCH, a country-style church. Go inside to view the round stained glass window over the alter and notice the communion rail kneelers in needlepoint.
At the end of the block is the (12) UNITED METHODIST CHURCH with a plaque to Mary Frances Thompson. A HALF MILE DOWN Gilchrist you’ll see the (13) COAST GUARD LIGHTHOUSE (1927), a narrow electric beacon designed to replace the notable antique. at the island tip. Across the street was the site of the BOCA GRANDE HOTEL (1930), a three story, 200 room resort by Italian immigrant Joseph Spadara. Hurricane Donna destroyed it in 1960.
CONTINUE DOWN TO THE SOUTHERN BEACH to the 13 acre Gasparilla Island State Park. You’ll have to walk down the beach to the beautiful (14) GASPARILLA ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE (1890) and its matching keeper’s house. By the parking lot is a little seaman’s CHAPEL popular for waterside weddings. This is my favorite lighthouse in Florida, not just because it was near where I lived in Englewood, but because there is a museum inside and it has two neat structures. A 145-mph hurricane went across the island ten years ago and sucked goods out of the gift shop, but did not hurt the structures.
A Chapel For Sailors
SHELL COLLECTORS SPECIAL: STOP BY THE JOHANN FUST LIBRARY (1949) on Gasparilla on 9th Street to see the shell collection donated by winter resident Henry Francis DuPont. Another interesting spot is JOURNEY’S END (1914), on the Gulf at 18th Street, a complex of four two story cottages built of virgin pine from Arcadia.