When I had to get my house tented for termites, it was the perfect excuse to take the dogs to Gasparilla Island on Florida’s southwest coast. Named for the pirate Don Pedro Gaspar, this barrier island is a great beach getaway where you can get your fill of fresh seafood and tropical fruits, too.
From Miami, I-75 will take you to Exit 170 in about three hours. Then it’s another 45 minutes through Port Charlotte and south to the Boca Grande Causeway ($6 toll, but free dog biscuits!) to the very laid-back Gasparilla Island. From the causeway, you get a good view of Gasparilla Pass. On the left, you see the old railroad trestle, once the connection between the island and the mainland, where trains carried passengers and phosphate. The railway line is now a path for bikes, pedestrians and golf carts leading to the center of Gasparilla’s diminuitive town, Boca Grande. The center of the island revolves around the stately Gasparilla Inn & Club, a splendid wooden building listed on the National Register of Historic Places with cottages scattered around the lushly landscaped streets. Check with the front desk for weekly horticulture and historic tours. In keeping with its island elegance, there’s a dress code for dinner, and the Inn is closed from July 5-Oct. 8.
Among the handful of restaurants in Boca Grande is Temptation. “The Temp,” around for 70 years, is a classic joint with that aged whiskey smell where the drinks are strong and the fish is fresh. The South Beach Bar and Grille’s location on the beach makes it an excellent choice for an early dinner at sunset. The Third Street Cafe’s outdoor garden is dog friendly, and they’ll cook your catch. If you want to do some fishing, check out the 1926 Whidden’s Marina and the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum next door. The pace on Gasparilla is so leisurely, a 24-hour stay felt like a week’s R & R.
Peaceful ParksLeaving the island, I decided to stop on Pine Island (via US 41 and Burnt Store Road) to see how their mango trees were faring. Passing through the funky artist galleries in Matlacha, I headed north to the tiny town of Bokeelia. Here, you can rent the rustic Jug Creek Cottages on state park land. Tropic Star also offers lunch cruises to Cabbage Key and ferry service to the incredible beaches of Cayo Costa State Park, only accessible by boat.
On the way back I had to stop at Great Licks Ice Cream for some of Queenie’s homemade ice cream, a local favorite. Next door, the chalkboard outside the Blue Dog Bar & Grill looked promising for my next visit, maybe for Mullet Mondays, where they serve specialties like Mullet Bombay, local fish coated with an herb paste of coconut, cilantro, mint, chilies and garlic steamed in a banana leaf.
Just before heading east on I-75, I visited Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero, where I watched a huge python slither across the park road. My stroll through the colony was snake-free, and I toured the park and buildings that belonged to the Koreshan Unity, who believed that the entire universe existed within a giant, hollow sphere. You can take guided walking tours and rent canoes here. Every Sunday in the summer there’s a farmers market selling honey, local produce, freshly caught seafood and crafts.
Pine Island Fruit
The largest island off Florida’s Gulf coast, Pine Island is home to nurseries and fruit groves where mangos, papaya, lychee, longan and citrus thrive, plus plenty of fresh fruit, vegetable and fish markets. When I stopped at Fruit Scapes Nursery, the mangos weren’t ripe yet, but they had fresh calamondin bread. Another good choice is Promised Land Mangos for seasonal mangos and year-round honey. Every July in nearby Cape Coral, the Mango Mania Tropical Fruit Fair celebrates their harvest in a two-day festival.