BOCA GRANDE on GASPARILLA ISLAND, FLORIDA’S WESTSIDE
We’re back to those fixed docks again, climbing up and down to get on and off the boat. At least we have dock hands to help with the lines at these fixed docks unlike other places on the Eastern seaboard. In fact, come to think of it, there always are dock hands to help with the lines in Florida. As is the case with these fixed docks, one minute you are level to the dock and a few hours later you are three feet below and having to climb up, or crawl up to get on the dock from the boat. At least we are getting caught up with our stretching exercises and Ziggy can’t get into mischief hopping on and off.
LIMITED STAY AND STORM COMING
It is beautiful here in Boca Grande, a magical place and it will definitely be on my very favorites list. Everything is manicured, beautiful and I might add a bit expensive. There’s only one other marina on the island but it is located at the opposite end of the island and not convenient to the village so not worth mentioning here. There are only a few slips at the marina so they tell you up front that your length of stay is limited. Even before we arrived, we were told we had to leave by Thursday because a yacht club group was coming in.
We had one brief day of good weather and then it was going to turn again for the worse and of course it would be right when we have to leave on Thursday. Rats. We’re definitely not interested in anchoring out at Cayo Costa Nature Reserve in stormy weather. So we were discussing what else to do, where to go next that would be sheltered. There aren’t a whole lot of options around here. We could head south to Sanibel Island again but we spent a good bit of time there last year. We could head down to Everglades City again but then we’d been there too and also it was a long way out of the way. Just as we were discussing our options, the dock master came by knocked on our window.
OWNER’S PRIVATE DOCK
“If you don’t mind we can put you up at the owner’s private dock next to the “Patriot”. Well, the “Patriot” is this magnificent 90 foot + or - sports fishing yacht that is the focal point of the whole marina and well the whole area. We didn’t know quite what to say as they took us by surprise and we were in the mindset that we had to leave. Mmmm, stay a few more days? It sounds good to me as I really like this place. While we pondered the idea, the dock master said to just let him know what we decided. We decided to check the owner’s private dock out because we couldn’t see it behind the wall and let him know.
We walked over and through the closed door that said “private.” Okay, this will be great. We have a great spot, quiet and private and great view of the island across and down the channel, both ways. In our present spot we are crammed in between tall boats on each side and couldn’t see a dang thing. “Yes, we will take that spot!” Are you kidding? We’d be nuts to pass on that.
So we moved over to the new location. Now we had a secure place to weather out the storm. We didn’t have to worry about moving on to a location much farther away. It gave us more time to enjoy Boca Grande. We could still now consider going to Cayo Costa if we wanted when the weather calmed down. Best of all we had total privacy and a great view. We watched the constant activity across the channel as the ospreys flew back and forth with fresh fish caught in their claws, still wiggling, I might add. In the early morning and evenings it was the parade of herons and egrets doing their low tide walk along the water’s edge searching for anything that moved.
As the new storm was approaching, it was growing mighty cold again but we were able to still do a lot of walking. The charming town was close by so it was never a problem to get there and never a dull moment admiring the architecture, sampling the cafes, doing a bit of shopping or at least a lot of looking. Most people on the island travel by golf cart but during the cold weather it was too bitter to have the wind blowing on you in an open cart. We preferred to just walk. We were finally getting some exercise again.
STATELY OLD GASPARILLA INN
The town or rather village is cute as a bug and I guess the main attraction over the years and the reason for being is the big old hotel, the Gasparilla Inn, built in 1912. It is a historical gem, lovingly cared for and has commanded some important visitors like the Vanderbilt’s, the DuPont’s and now the Bushes. There is a kind of East Coast snootiness about it. Jackets are required in the main dining room for dinner and for a beach community that could be considered a bit much, at least where I come from, but here on the East coast you wouldn’t consider it too unusual. I guess we won’t be eating there this trip as there’s no room for fancy clothes in our small lockers on the boat.
How did this magnificent old hotel come to be on this remote and a bit hard to get to island? The answer would be the railroad. Now a day’s though, only the remnants or impression of the old tracks remain. The raised linear mound of earth where the tracks were once laid has been transformed into a nice walking/bicycle/golf cart path. The big draw over the years of course was that this area provided the best tarpon fishing in the world but sadly the big specimens are a thing of the past. We still marvel at some of the trophy sized stuffed tarpons that now find their days spent decorating storefronts and restaurant walls, and pictured hanging from hooks on docks in old sienna colored photographs and usually the fisherman or fisherwoman standing nearby in early 20th century dress. Tarpon fishing is still a big draw for the area but it is a bit more nostalgic.
What are tarpon? All I can say is they are huge fish. We first saw them in Key West swimming in the harbor and were shocked at the size of them, some 4 feet long. Gone are the days when hopes and the challenge of catching a big monster sized fish were foremost and now only the footprints of that lifestyle are still in place and glimpsed here.
Just before the storm hit, the weather warmed up a bit, just enough to finally and just barely tolerate riding around in a golf cart. So we rented one from the marina for $50 a day. I think we might have driven up and down every street maybe even more than once admiring the grand old banyan trees and beautiful old houses, and just a short ride away was the long stretch of a most beautiful beach. We also drove to the end of the island where the inlet to the Gulf is, just to see up close the beautiful Boca Grande lighthouse. We decided to come back sometime one afternoon before we leave when the sun wasn’t so bright so we could get a picture of her as she was really special.
Did I say there were only two marinas on the island? Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Whiddens Marina just down the street and I guess that would make three marinas on the island. It was quite remarkable place and a bit comical to find this rustic gem by any standards mixed in among these multi-million dollar properties. It was, how would you say, a marina store and boat rental place, maybe by the farthest stretch of the imagination. How it has survived the influx of moneyed influences here is a mystery. It is the last holdout of funkiness on the island and I don’t think the word “maintenance” is in their vocabulary.
It took us two days before we actually could put foot in the place. The first time we came by we were accosted by an energetic big black dog whose bark was loud but harmless and whose chaise was hesitant with no real substance. His pal, a funny little beagle, sneaked around, hiding in the bushes until we were near enough so that he could comically try to pounce on us in surprise. He too was timid and a bit of a phony because after his bloviated failed attacks he would high tail it back into the bushes only to temporarily wait for his next failed opportunity. But despite their full-of-hot-air attacks, they kept us at bay because of the cacophony of noise the whole situation created. It became quite a ruckus as Ziggy and the two dogs joined in a barking contest to see who could bark and growl the loudest and the most abundant. If this scene wasn’t disruptive enough it soon included loud yelling coming from inside the rickety old building ordering the black dog and sneaky beagle to “knock it off”. We scooted on by as quickly as we could as it was just too much commotion for the neighborhood and us to handle.
But finally, we managed to drop in one day when the dogs happened to be out. All we can say is …what a place. You have to go see it if you come here. I don’t think they have ever thrown anything out since the inception of this place and it is old. There is useless junk everywhere, piles of it. Some of it is hanging on the side of the building and even from the trees. I teased and prodded and finally got Larry to go inside pretending to look for some obscure marine part. The only intent was to see what was inside. Was it as crazy inside as outside? I wondered as I waited outside with Ziggy. I tried to look in but the windows were crusted with years of dirt, most likely having never ever been washed. There was a small patch on the window where someone had wiped away the dirt to make for a peep hole, but all you saw was junk piled so high that it was impossible to see very far in.
I marveled at all the junk and flotsam. Why would anyone want to keep this useless stuff that it’s only purpose now is serving as some strange decorative motif for this pitiful but character filled rotting building? I wouldn’t call it shabby chic, maybe shabby crap.
Suddenly I was startled by a noise close by that sounded like a snort. It was coming from behind some, well, what else, more junk. I carefully cocked my head to see what it was and low and behold there lay two humongous coarse haired pigs sleeping in the dirt. Also within this small chicken wired homemade coral was some strange bed partners, a couple white geese! Okay this is crazy place!
By now Larry has come out the door, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. I pointed out the pigs and then anxiously asked what it was like inside. He said the place is as you would expect full of junk, so much so that you can’t see or walk. He said you couldn’t even see the old woman that minded the store. He said he couldn’t only hear her when she asked if he needed help and smell the cigarettes she was smoking.
I’m sure it’s days of operating as a “business” are numbered but surely someone will consider making it a museum of sorts before putting another luxury home in its place because it is definitely one for the records.
Island Golf Carts
NOT THE SEASON? REALLY?
The marina where we stayed is really nice, small but nice. They have a nice restaurant and bar downstairs right at dock level with both inside and outside seating and a more upscale restaurant on the second floor. One night we put on the best duds we could find in our small clothes lockers and ate in their more upscale restaurant upstairs. We were surprisingly the only people there and had the whole of the restaurant staff waiting on us. Could the absence of people be a result of the bad economy we wondered or the cold weather because the food and everything else was great? Even the marina slips were empty except for the boats that were coming in for the yacht club outing but they were only staying two days and then the docks were scheduled to be empty again. The waiter told us the season doesn’t start until February and then it is busy right through July. That surprised us.
At the beach
Boca Grande is a lovely place to be stuck in, even in bad weather. We enjoyed exploring every nook and cranny, even the canals by dinghy and the kayak. Still the cold temps were severe and our trips down the canals evidenced that by the many dead fish we saw floating belly up. We saw too many carcasses of snook, pompano, tarpon and many others. They all were affected sadly.
One day Zig and I kayaked back by the mangrove island across from our boat. The shallow waters back there were literally filled with fish huddled together miserably crowded and struggling to find space in these warmer waters. Many were swimming near the surface trying to keep warm from the heat generated by the sun. It was eerie seeing this. I’ve never kayaked through waters filled with so many fish struggling to stay alive. It was upsetting. No wonder we saw so many osprey flying by with fish in their claws. They had easy pickens’ here. These fish were an easy target in these shallow waters all crowded together with no escape. Ziggy was enthralled with the whole thing and speechless having never been on the bow of the kayak with so much activity. The fish were literally jumping out of the water to get out of our way.
The long beautiful beach just a short few walks away is fantastically pristine and surprising filled with thick crunchy shells underfoot, more so I think than Sanibel which is world famous for collecting shells. Maybe this beach is the West Coast’s best kept local secret as the locals instead send all the shell hunting tourists over to Sanibel. The beach went on as far as the eye could see and the water was that beautiful turquoise color.
We took one last ride on our rented golf cart to the end of the island again. We had just one intent and that was to get a picture of the lighthouse. This would be our last chance as you could see the mass of storm clouds rapidly heading our way. The one speed, and I might say slow speed, of the golf cart was struggling hard to get us there before dark. Fortunately we made it just in time to see the sun going down over the Gulf as the ominous dark storm clouds rolled in and just as the light tenders turned the watch light on. Perfect timing as two lovers headed past the light into the sunset.
NO END IN SIGHT
The weather just hasn’t been fun and there is more cold weather on the way with no end in sight. We were getting antsy and tired of dealing with the cold. It was a unanimous decision between us to start making our way to the eastside of Florida. It was too crummy to anchor out by Captiva Island again, and beach combing wasn’t fun because of the winds, rain and cold weather.
So it was decided, we were heading back to Fort Myers and then begin our way across Florida through Lake Okeechobee. I was looking forward to this experience having discovered the interior of Florida to be beautiful and absent of the masses of human snowbirds and boring tourist attractions.
ROCK & ROLL
We left beautiful Boca Grande after a stormy night that rocked everyone at the docks terribly. It was an uncomfortable to say the least. The night was filled with rain, thunder and lightning. The forecast today was finally good, the waters light choppy, winds 10-15 mph in our favor. The storm had finally blown through and was heading off to torment someone else for awhile.
We left quietly this morning from the “private” dock but not without a “goodbye” from the dock master who rain out the marina office and down the dock to wave and yell out a thank you for coming and staying with them. That was really nice of her. We were treated very well during our stay and the marina staff are extremely nice and helpful. It was a really great stay.
EFFECTS OF THE COLD
As we headed out the channel an osprey was sitting on her nest that is perched on top of the channel marker that marks the entrance to the marina. She watched us nonchalantly as we made our turn around it and headed down the marked path to the ICW. I couldn’t help but notice a large dead tarpon lodged on the shoal by the entrance. This unseasonably cold weather has been tough on everyone and everything. I read that the Florida farmers were able to save the strawberry crops by watering 24 hours a day, round the clock, during the severe winds to prevent freezing. Don’t ask me how that worked but it did. The oranges were able to be salvaged for juice. Even the fish farms were struggling. They struggle at 60 degrees but when the temps went far below 50 they were in big trouble.
Once we got out in Charlotte Harbor heading down the ICW it definitely was a bit choppy as the forecast predicted, even as we proceed to Pine Island sound. We were getting a good bit of sea spray over the boat which means we will also be washing the boat once we get to Fort Myers.
We passed Cabbage Island again which Larry mistakenly referred to as Chicken Island as we went by which made me laugh quite a bit. Hmm, chicken or cabbage? Maybe he has food on the brain this morning. It made me think of some of the funny names of places we’ve come across while cruising. I think there is a patch of little islands near Cape Cod or maybe it’s Connecticut that is called Chickens and Hens. Or, wait, maybe it’s a patch by the Channel Islands in California? No, that’s not right. Those are called the Potato Patch where the sea rustles up on the northern point of Santa Cruz Island and gets nasty. Oh well, cabbage or chicken, it was another place we had hoped to visit but this darn weather did not cooperate.
BAD MEMORIES NEVER GO AWAY
A big power boat was coming up on our hind quarter. I warned Larry. As he got nearer I was shocked when he actually slowed down to pass us rather than swamp us. That’s a first in Florida. Ironically though his slow wake was worse we think than if he had gone at a decent speed. Oh well, we appreciate the thought even though I had to run around the boat to stop things from sliding off counters as we weathered his aftershock. I still haven’t gotten over the frightful experience we had last year when we got waked by the “masked” boater when heading to Key Largo in Hawk’s Channel. It’s something that I guess I’ll never get over. I always agitated every time I see a fast boat approaching with a white swath of spray spreading out the back. I can compare it to the same fear I experienced when a big dog attacked Ziggy in Oregon years back that almost killed him. No matter how long ago it happened, and how friendly a new dog might be that gets close to Ziggy, that stinging painful memory comes back. I imagine the whole scenario again and get scared and pull Ziggy away. Try as I may, I can’t change the reaction to either of these situations.
It was a dark cloudy day as the tail end of the storm left the area and certainly didn’t look like a pleasant day to go out on a boat. It was also not good for picture taking but magically the sun peeked through the clouds just in time to shine a spot of light on Boca Grande Light as we left it in the distance. We passed Cayo Costa and I was content to take pictures of it from the distance instead of visiting. Off to our port were the old historic stilt houses again and Pine Island off is in the distance just behind.
USCG SECURITY ALERT
It’s always a surprise, when on the East Coast, to hear the USCG get on the radio cautioning boaters about whales in the area. I wonder why or if we do that on the West Coast? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I think it’s a pretty good idea because then careless boaters have no excuse for endangering the whales and it helps to give good boaters warning too. We heard them make the announcement more than once that morning giving the location of three right whales and warning boaters to proceed with caution. The Atlantic coast of Florida and Georgia are the only areas known to be a calving area for these endangered species and last we read there were as few as 400 still living so I hope it’s working.
It was flat calm through Miserable Mile today and no side currents to push us out of the channel that we could detect but once again we were confused with the markers at Shell Point. No one pays attention to the range markers and we now know why. If you follow the range line up you will find yourself in the shallow water, so against our good judgment we ignored the range markers and followed the deeper waters as everyone else with local knowledge did.
It was a calm easy day out on the water. The seas were a little choppy and then flat as we entered the Caloosahatchee River towards Fort Myers. Surprisingly though the water wretched up pretty bad as we reached Fort Myers. It didn’t make sense, as it was slack tide and we were protected up the river but again the winds came up wildly. The wretched condition was just imperfectly timed for docking of course. It wasn’t much fun to stop for fuel in 30 knot winds and then again to have to go out in the channel and re-enter the marina to dock again into our slip but all went fine.
Okay, so here we are again in Fort Myers. It’s our third time here and that’s a really strange thing for us. We knew where everything was immediately hoofed it down to Publix for some provisions and then came back to do a load of laundry at the marina. We settled in early for the evening getting ready for our trip tomorrow.
I’m really looking forward to our next leg. Who would think that you could go from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic by boat crossing the center of Florida? This will be very interesting I think.
Comments on the dead fish from a local newpaper: