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Travel The other side of Florida

December 30, 2018

Thumbing through our trusty Florida travel guide, I came across an entry for Boca Grande, a tiny town on Gasparilla Island off the state’s Gulf of Mexico coast. It sounded good: Off-the-beaten path and well-recommended for visitors weary of more glamorous (and touristy) Florida destinations.

Now, seeking some quality beach time, my wife and I headed down Alligator Alley, a highway in the southern part of the state that links the state’s east coast with the west. Gasparilla Island is connected to the Gulf coast by a causeway north of Fort Myers — or, if you plan right (we didn’t) more quickly and more scenically by ferry from Captiva Island, which is also near Fort Myers and also reached by causeway.

Boca Grande proved to be a pipsqueak jewel of a town that, half-deserted, was clearly a haven for well-heeled snowbirds, as they’re known in Florida. The town was chock-a-block with Mediterranean Revival and Key West-style mansions which channel colonial New England. Graceful palms and towering banyans with massive green canopies lined the streets.

Golf carts, many sporting pastel paint jobs, zipped past, apparently the preferred mode of transport.

We set about exploring. Chic boutiques abounded, but there was also a general store with a vintage gas pump painted bright pink and a parking lot for golf carts; it sold, among other things, wine and beer, rotisserie chickens and every type of quick-supply good that arriving snowbirds might need. Next door, an old-time ice cream parlor was a magnet for children and adults alike. A funky department store sold every kind of Florida geegaw, but also stylish fashions.

The island attracts its share of notables, among them the extended families of the two Bush presidents, who sometimes descend en masse for holiday celebrations and sports fishing trips. (Former First Lady Laura Bush recently visited to attend a charity event.) The families have often stayed at the old school Gasparilla Inn and Club, which includes a shingled main house that you might otherwise expect to find on Nantucket, bungalows and a golf course. Wicker chairs on the front porch invite siestas; drinks are served on the back porch, which overlooks the private golf course.

After a quick sandwich lunch at the locally favored Pink Elephant, we decided to check out the local beaches. At the foot of almost every street on the island’s west side, they were easy to find. (Charter fishing boats tie up at the marinas on the east side.) The Gulf waters, crystal clear here and the other places we visited, bore no sign that, just a month or so before they’d been toxic with a rare (but not unknown) phenomenon called red tide. (Red tide is thought to be connected to fertilizer-laden runoffs from sugar plantations inland.) The toxins in the water had been dispersed by October storms, including Hurricane Michael, which brushed the area on its way north to the Florida Panhandle.

Next stop was Sanibel Island, to the south, where pristine beaches are, thanks to a quirk of geography, strewn with tropical seashells, a huge draw for my wife. We had visited Sanibel many times before and, as was our habit, made a beeline for Lighthouse Beach. We parked (after my usual grousing about the usurious $5 an hour parking fee) and hit the sand. Robin collected shells while I caught some rays. That night, we feasted on delicious crispy duck in a cassis sauce (me) and spaghettini primavera (Robin) at Traditions on the Beach at the Island Inn. It had been the meeting point on earlier visits for beach tours with marine biologists from the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.

Despite a smattering of stylish shops and restaurants, Sanibel Island is largely unspoiled. Its marquee attraction is the 6,400-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, a National Fish and Wildlife Service preserve with expertly guided tram tours, bicycle paths and a two-mile-long boardwalk through watery mangrove forests and over seagrass marshes. The preserve teems with wildlife, including alligators and 245 species of birds. A concession offers boat and kayak tours.

Farther south, Marco Island’s beach stretches for six miles, but, lined with hotels and condos, offers only limited public access. Tigertail Beach, several miles away, sits on a tidal lagoon in one of the world’s best habitats for nesting shorebirds. A café sells light fare, beer and wine and there’s ample parking.

Dinner on Marco Island was at the Snook Inn, a casual waterfront eatery on an inlet. The dining room, a refuge from the blaring live rock in the outdoor bar, featured picture windows with views of passing boats, some of which docked at adjacent piers. My Caesar salad with seasoned blackened shrimp was superb. Robin had grilled shrimp on her salad, also excellent.

Like Boca Grande, Naples, just a few miles from Marco Island, is home to many in the one percent. We met a friend who drove down from Sarasota, 115 miles north, for a margherita-pizza-and salad lunch at cheerful Campiello Ristorante and Bar on Third Street South, the quieter if no less elegant of the city’s two restaurant rows (the other is Fifth Avenue South).

Afterwards, we went exploring, noting that an information booth bore a sign that read “Concierge,” fitting in this ritzy town. Island Company, one of many fashionable clothing stores, caught our attention with its nautical blue and white facade. Inside, Kayleigh Aron, a sales person, welcomed us warmly and offered us a complimentary glass of rum.

Driving past blocks of mansions—some looked like smaller versions of the grand summer “cottages” of the 19th Century robber barons in Newport, R.I.—we found the Naples Pier, which stretches from the beach far into the Gulf of Mexico. Families frolicked in the turquoise water and pelicans dove for dinner, fish they’d spied from high above.

Life was good.

Martin W.G. King is a freelance writer.

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