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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Going Boca Nuts
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Aug 23, 2007 - 11:33:23 PM

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Old Florida is still alive in well in the island community of Boca Grande - less than two hours driving from the Tampa Bay area can transport you back there. Pictured above, the historic lighthouse at Gasparilla Island State Park at the Boca Grande Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. Mitch Traphagen Photo
BOCA GRANDE
- Years ago, my wife and I sailed our little sailboat out of a growing storm in the Gulf and into the quiet of a marina in Boca Grande.  Our boat was the smallest in the marina.  That evening, we walked into town to find an ATM machine to get cash for an unplanned dinner out.  The Gulf had beaten us relentlessly; the boat was a mess and we were exhausted.  We had just arrived in Florida and not only was our boat small, the balance of our checking account was as well.

We walked down a broad thoroughfare lined with Banyan trees and the stately homes of Old Florida and wealth.  We were liveaboard sailors and out of element in such a place.  It was dark by the time we found the bank in town.  As I stood in line praying the soulless machine would answer my request for cash, a woman walked up and stood behind us in line.  She was excessively happy and overly chatty, telling us how she had moved to Boca Grande a few years prior and how wonderful life was and how much she loved the town.  She ended her monologue by saying with a far too cheery voice, "I guess you could say that I'm just Boca nuts!"


It was almost something out of a skit from Saturday Night Live.  Fortunately, the banking gods smiled on me just then, and rather than loudly announcing my poverty for all to hear, the machine instead delivered some of my few remaining dollars.  We bid the woman a good night and quickly walked away.


It would be 12 years before I would return to Boca Grande.


Driving from the Tampa Bay area, there is no sign directing traffic to Boca Grande; nor is there a direct route to the island community.  Perhaps that is how it should be.  Despite a wave of change that has rolled over Florida in recent years, on this drive there is still evidence of how things used to be.


Exit 191 off I-75 is surely one of the quietest exits along the Gulf coast.  There are no convenience stores or any of the homogenous restaurants found virtually everywhere in the country.  For more than 12 miles on the two-lane highway towards the coast, there is little of anything save for a view of what once was on the formerly quiet side of Florida.  Even nearing the town of Englewood, there is only the Ramblers Rest Resort and Campground, along with a convenience store or two and a few marinas.  


The marinas, a few anyway, are still old style with names to match.  Rather than wispy, mildlly irritating terms conceived in marketing departments such as Pelican Pointe Yacht Harbour and Resort, complete with a canyon of recently built yet mostly empty condominiums, there is the Stump Pass Marina.  I don't know if Stump Pass has a tag line but it's certainly not something contemporary and nonsensical as "Pelican Pointe Life... For Living."  Instead, it would likely be, "Boats, Docks, Beer and Bait."  In other words, the real Florida.


It isn't a real town without an ice cream shop: Boca Grande has the Pink Pony. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Even before arriving on the island, it is clear the pace is still slow here.  On this adventure, I stopped two separate times in the same large grocery store on the mainland.  Both times, there was a short line of elderly men using the free blood pressure machine near the customer service desk.  Somehow, I don't think they were there out of concern for high blood pressure, but rather to see if they still had blood pressure.  Yes, the pace is that slow, but considering the alternative, that is not such a bad thing.


In a different sort of way, Boca Grande is the very definition of the real Florida.  Fishing and wealth have a long history in the community, beginning more than 2,000 years ago with the Calusa Indians fishing in the pass and Charlotte Harbor.  The latter began shortly after the train tracks were laid and wealthy northerners learned they could comfortably and peacefully spend their winters away from their cold urban homes.  


And so it goes today.  The Calusa have long since disappeared but fishing is still a major enterprise.  Today, however, it is not so much for survival as it is for sport - and indeed, it is world-class.  Except for a hundred feet preserved downtown as a reminder of what was, the train tracks have also disappeared.  Where they once ran through town, a narrow park was created complete with a path for walkers and golf carts amid the shade of the Banyan trees, palms and other foliage.  Today, the wealthy and powerful arrive via other means.  In the case of the President of the United States, a frequent visitor, that would be by helicopter.


With the exception of those with trust funds, it is likely that most of the newer property owners are older - it takes time to accumulate the level of wealth required for entry.  Space is at a premium in Boca Grande and the real estate prices reflect that.  But that's not to say the island is old or overbuilt - there are parks and green space and wide, expansive beaches that greet visitors as they cross over sand dunes and wild oats to face the stunning vista of the sea.  Nor is it an exclusive enclave for the wealthy.  Downtown is an eclectic mix of old style, home-grown businesses that were once the signature of Florida, along with new, upscale businesses that arrived in a wave of cash.  There are restaurants and galleries; small shops and a bakery; and, of course, real estate offices.  Somehow, in Boca Grande it all works well together.


On a hot day in August, the town is quiet.  At one restaurant, two waiters enjoy the shade of a veranda and a cool breeze courtesy of the Gulf of Mexico, relaxed and smiling despite the lack of customers.  The community bulletin board is almost completely devoid of notices and advertisements and even the Banyan trees seem to bow down their heads to the relentless summer sun.  


But there is life here.  For many tourists, this is the time to enjoy paradise at price they can afford.  Golf carts, often driven by the children of the tourists, still ply the streets and young men fish along the beach near the channel while their equally young wives soak up the sun and read books about paradise from within paradise.


On that August day, a park bench under the magically cool shade of a Banyan can serve as a portal to dreams. From such a place, books could be written and lives could be planned out.  The quiet of the off-season only enhances the experience.  Respite can be found here; respite from the pressure of life and traffic and the often-hard realities of the world presented around the clock in the daily news.  


In contrast, on this island, the headline of the community newspaper, The Boca Beacon, reads, 'Coyote Rescued from Bridge.'  The story goes on to tell that a passing boater reported seeing the animal stranded on swing bridge.  Vessel traffic was held up for an hour while rescuers retrieved the coyote.  They reported she was frightened and exhausted but seemed healthy.  She was taken to the Wildlife Center in Venice for a medical evaluation with the hopes of being able to release her back into the wild.


That is the news from Boca Grande.  That is the real Florida - and there is precious little of it left.

The powerful winds of Hurricane Charlie in 2004 severely damaged the Banyan trees in Boca Grande. But as this view down Banyan Street shows, the recovery has come along nicely. Mitch Traphagen Photo
From a park bench under a Banyan tree, I thought back to the woman who accosted us at the ATM machine all those years ago.  Many people in her situation would have looked down their noses at two young, tired sailors who were clearly out of their element.  But she welcomed and engaged us - just like it used to be in Florida and occasionally still is today.  She was also probably somewhat correct in saying she was nuts, not that there's anything wrong with that.  Certainly, she couldn't have picked a more perfect and beautiful place to be so.



To get there:

From the Tampa Bay area take I-75 south to exit 191.  Go west on River Road approximately 12 miles; take a left on Pine Street for 11 miles; go right on the Boca Grande Causeway for six miles.  There is a $4 toll for crossing the causeway.  Downtown Boca Grande is contained within a few square blocks between 5th and 3rd Streets.  Gasparilla Island State Park, containing a historic lighthouse is at the south end of the island.

Boca Grande Accomodations:

The Anchor Inn:  450 4th Street, 800-741-3074
Innlet on the Waterfront:  1150 E. Railroad Avenue, 941-964-2294
Island House Inn:  5800 Gasparilla Road, 941-964-4443
The Gasparilla Inn and Club:  500 Palm Avenue, 941-964-2201

Finding Florida is an occasional series in the Observer News.



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