Looking for a day trip or weekend getaway in Southwest Florida? There’s a good chance you haven’t thought about visiting Boca Grande. Here’s why you should.
For starters, Boca Grande is likely closer than you think. It’s located on Gasparilla Island, situated on the Gulf in Lee County (Fort Myers also is in Lee County). From our home in Bradenton, the drive there was a little under 90 minutes away. That means if you’re in Bradenton, Sarasota, or Fort Myers, Boca Grande is a getaway without feeling too far away. Boca Grande is close to Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda, both in Charlotte County.
A trip to Boca Grande could be the quiet, Old Florida destination you need for a break. To get to Boca Grande by car, you have to cross the Boca Grande Swing Bridge in nearby Placida, Florida. Pay your toll of $6 (be ready for it—they accept cash or credit card but no Sunpass), and you’ll cross over the only way by vehicle to reach North, Cole, and Gasparilla islands.
Once you make that crossing, your mindset starts to shift as you take in the calming view of the water. Boca Grande is calm by design, as it’s an affluent, hidden enclave that offers just enough to do for all ages without feeling overwhelming or as flashy as Naples or West Palm Beach. The Bush family has spent a lot of time there over the past few decades. Clemson University football head coach Dabo Sweeny and University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban both have been spotted there, according to Sports Illustrated.
You may have heard of Boca Grande if you’re into fishing—after all, it’s the Tarpon Capital of the World—but otherwise, it seems to keep a low profile.
Before we share a few things to do in Boca Grande, here are a few helpful history factoids:
- The Calusa Indians were the first inhabitants of Gasparilla Island. Researchers have since found 20-foot high shell mounds in the area filled with pottery and arrowheads.
- Sportfishing has always been a big attraction in Boca Grande. There are long-time fishing families still in the area.
- Phosphate, which is used in just about everything, is a big Florida commodity. In the 1880s, phosphate was discovered near Punta Gorda, about 20 miles away from Boca Grande. Factor in Boca Grande Pass as one of the deepest natural inlets in Florida (about 80 feet deep), and that led to the development both of the town of Boca Grande as well as the railway system reaching Gasparilla Island. In turn, that also would lead to the construction of two lighthouses on Gasparilla Island, which we’ll describe below.
- Wealthy people from the North came to visit Boca Grande as a vacation destination. In turn, the now-famous Gasparilla Inn was built in 1912.
Now that you know a little more about Boca Grande’s history, let’s take you on a little trip so you know more things to do during a visit to this Southwest Florida town:
1. Visit the lighthouses. Lighthouses have a quiet charm about them, so we rank this high on the list of things to do in Boca Grande. The two lighthouses are often confused—in fact, they even had the same name at one point due to a clerical error.
First there’s the Boca Grande Entrance Rear Range in Boca Grande, which has a more traditional lighthouse look. It’s the one closest to the actual town of Boca Grande, before you reach Gasparilla Island State Park. The lighthouse originally stood in Lewes, Delaware, but was taken apart and then moved to Boca Grande in the 1920s to help guide ships. The phosphate industry in the Boca Grande area died out in the 1970s. There was talk of demolishing the lighthouse in 2004, but that was met with much resistance. The lighthouse is now maintained by the Barrier Island Parks Society. You currently can’t climb to the top, but make sure to check the society’s webpage for updates.
Just about a mile down, drive to Gasparilla Island State Park and you’ll find Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum, built in 1890 and originally used to guide ships into Charlotte Harbor. It doesn’t have a traditional lighthouse look as you just climb up a flight of stairs to reach it. It’s now home to a museum and gift shop. The Port Boca Grande Lighthouse also is managed with help from the Barrier Island Parks Society. Due to COVID-19, as of October 2020, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was closed, although you can still walk around the exterior and enjoy the beach area in Gasparilla Island State Park. Park admission is $3. Check the lighthouse’s webpage to find out when it is usually open.
A recent article we wrote provides more detail on the history of Boca Grande’s two lighthouses.
2. Check out the beaches. Like any Southwest Florida coastal town, this is the obvious idea. The beaches are beautiful, with turquoise water, blue sky, and white, puffy clouds. You can search for shells and shark teeth, throw a fishing line in the water, or just relax in the Gulf.
3. Fish. In the Tarpon Capital of the World, you’ll find your share of anglers from around the globe, all ready for a fresh catch. “From Boca Grande Pass to Bonita Springs, fishing guides and amateurs alike try their hands at catching one of these powerful adversaries,” according to the Boca Grande Beacon’s 2020 Visitor’s Guide. In fact, a fully-grown tarpon can weigh 50 pounds or more, and they’re known to put up a fight. Thousands of tarpon gather in the Boca Grande Pass from April to August. You’ll also find plenty of other fish to keep you busy if you’re not ready for the tarpon challenge, including:
- Mangrove snapper.
Use your own boat, rent a boat, or get in touch with a local Boca Grande fishing guide to properly guide you.
4. Check out The Gasparilla Inn. Wealthy society members from Boston were the first customers of The Gasparilla Inn in the early 1900s. J.P. Morgan and Florida railroad tycoon Henry Plant stayed at the inn as well. Since its opening, the inn has maintained its elegant reputation, and it’s a historic hotel as designated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can golf, head to its beach club, play tennis, go to the spa, or enjoy a meal at several on-site dining locations. Whether you’re able to stay at the inn or not, The Gasparilla Inn is still worth a stroll to check out local history.
5. Go on a golf cart journey. Golf carts rule in Boca Grande—so much so that there are cut-out paths in the downtown area specifically for carts. There’s even a July 4th Gulf Cart Parade. If you spend time near Gasparilla Inn, you’ll see a whole fleet of golf carts waiting to take you around. Can’t snag a golf cart ride? Then biking is the second-best option. Boca Grande is flat and scenic, making it ideal for biking.
6. Take a walk down Banyan Street. Named for the massive and beautiful Banyan trees that line it, Banyan Street is so picturesque, it’s even popularly used for weddings. The picture here of Banyan Street is from photographer Paul Marcellini. The trees on Banyan Street were first planted in 1915 by the developer of The Gasparilla Inn.
7. Spend time in downtown Boca Grande. It’s a small town, but there’s still plenty to do in the downtown area. Here are a few highlights:
- Grab a bite to eat at some of its popular eateries, including Loose Caboose, Temptation, The Pink Elephant, and The Outlet on the Innlet. This TripAdvisor link will give you the scoop on the restaurants we mention here, as well as a few others. Many restaurants in town have outdoor seating.
- Go shopping. Boca Grande has its share of souvenir shops with Old Florida décor, souvenirs, Boca Grande-themed clothing and signs with witty sayings (one of our faves: Exercise all you want, you can’t burn off crazy). The downtown also has a quaint grocery store called Hudson’s with a pink old-fashioned gasoline pump out front.
- Check out the four-panel aqua-filled mural depicting life in Boca Grande.