Gulf Coast Gold: Boca Grande

By the time I get to Gasparilla Island, a glorified sandbar off Florida’s west coast that’s about an hour’s drive from Fort Myers or Sarasota and a whole lot harder to reach from everywhere else, Labor Day has come and gone. I’m seeking the warmth of the sun, and a genuine Florida beach town that will serve as an antidote to the forests of condos and hotels that line the coasts north of Miami and south of Tampa.

I find three generations of Joiner women relaxing in mismatched chairs at the far end of their marina, which has been trading in gasoline, tackle, snacks, sundries, and gossip since 1926. Isabelle Joiner, daughter of the founder, tells me she has been sitting in pretty much the same place, gazing out at the same inlet, for seven decades, going on eight.

There’s a heron perched on a log and sunlight filtering through the tall grass past a gas pump near the water’s edge. It might be 1950 or 1990, who could tell? “Oh, there’ve been changes,” Joiner replies. “We used to shuck and sell oysters from right in there,” she says, nodding toward the shack abutting the dock. “Can’t now. They need to be inspected.”

Birds pay a visit to the Gasparilla Inn's 18-hole, Pete Dye golf course. (Photograph by Steven Martine)
White ibis pay a visit to the Gasparilla Inn’s 18-hole, Pete Dye golf course. (Photograph by Steven Martine)

I’ve already figured out that it’s more fun to hang with the locals, an insular community of some 500 square-knot tiers, rum slingers, odd-jobbers, and historic preservationists, than the “beachfronters,” those part-timers who swell the head count tenfold at the height of the winter season in a blaze of preppy plaid.

But what makes Gasparilla special is that it takes both demographics to give the place its personality. Their interactions on the compact streets of the island create narratives that are part John Cheever and part Sherwood Anderson, accompanied by the lilt and thrum of a Jimmy Buffett song.

Katharine Hepburn, who owned property in the island’s only town, Boca Grande, was a beachfronter. So are the Bushes, Pappy on down, who arrive in force every Christmas and occupy a dozen or so rooms at the Gasparilla Inn, the lemonade-colored clapboard hotel at 5th and Palm that holds an outsize presence in the community.

While the Joiners wear fishing-derby T-shirts and faded shorts, beachfronters are resplendent in full Palm Beach regalia: lots of pink and green, and Vineyard Vines ties for dinner at the inn. If they putter around town in golf carts or on bicycles as if they know just where they’re headed, it’s because they do.

That’s the thing about Gasparilla: Those who’ve been coming down for weeks at a time all their lives have the same proprietary feeling as those who never leave.

The Joiners’ vistas haven’t changed in generations, but the Bushes’ haven’t, either. Merely renovating the inn’s dining room was a perilous undertaking. “Fortunately, most of our longtime customers understood it had to be done,” says the former hotel general manager, Jack Damioli, putting an emphasis on the “most.”

A 1980 ordinance called the Gasparilla Act restricted building heights, limited density, and banned billboards and neon. I can’t find anyone willing to argue against any of that. Just in case, the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association has created a photoshopped view of what the island might look like if the legislation didn’t exist, including a wall of condos rising from the shoreline. It circulates periodically as a frightful reminder.

At the inn I meet Cannon Jones, who works the front desk. Her dad, Yogi, bought property here in 1986, when she was a toddler. The family migrated down from Connecticut each winter holiday that followed. Cannon stayed north for college, but when Yogi died three years ago, she needed somewhere secure that felt like home. She knew exactly where that was.

Cannon was married beneath the boughs on Banyan Street, which had been barricaded for the occasion. Her groom, Nick Wenzel, is a local who has been “on island,” as they say, since puberty–fishing, guiding, loitering, part of the fabric of the place. I can’t help seeing Cannon and Nick as one of those royal marriages that unite two disparate domains.

Boca Grande Lighthouse, built in 1890 (Photograph by Steven Martine)
Boca Grande Lighthouse, built in 1890 (Photograph by Steven Martine)

One evening, just as the old-fashioned street lights start to blink on, I pedal my rented bike to The Temp to meet them for a drink. The restaurant is formally named The Temptation, but nobody calls it that. It’s nearly as much of a meeting place and gossip center as the post office, where the town gathers daily because there’s no home mail delivery. Cannon and Nick are the only ones at the bar. “In about five minutes, this place will start to fill up,” Nick says. It does, in a stream of ones and twos, nearly all of whom wander by to say hello.

Later we head across the grandiosely named Park Avenue for grouper at PJ’s Seagrille. Then it’s back for a nightcap at The Temp. I’m tipsy when I leave, but the moon is high and bright and the bike sturdy and forgiving. I pedal the three blocks to the inn in a state of wistful melancholy, wondering what it might be like to be young and unencumbered and living in this timeless town, or at least coming down for the season.

Ultimately, of course, what’s timeless about a beach town is the beach. The next morning I ride to the inn’s Beach Club, which isn’t the prettiest coastal access on the island but is easily the most outfitted. I walk past the tiki bar and the lunch buffet, clamber down the seawall, and launch myself into the water.

The sky overhead is spotted with clouds, while out toward Mexico it’s the hue of molasses. The gulf has a roar and roll of an ocean. I swim awhile. Then I settle into a whitewashed wooden chair and watch the weather come in, as it always has and always will.

This piece, written by Bruce Schoenfeld, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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  1. Mark & Kathy Futch
    United States
    August 5, 2014, 12:56 pm

    Good article Bruce and info on the Joiners and Whidden’s Marina. However, Ms. Hepburn did not own property in Boca but did have relatives there and I (Kathy) was her secretary for several years when she visited, as I was for many of the beachfronters. I do not know who set you up to interview Cannon Jones & her husband, Nick Wenzel, but the inference her father bought property “here” meant Boca Grande? And that Nick, “a local” has been “on island since puberty, as part of the fabric” what does that mean? He didn’t play with my children growing up in the‘70’s or ‘80’s living on Tarpon St. We, also, were married on Banyan St. but back in 1975, probably one of the first. The Futch’s settled at the North End on the Island in the late 1800’s and had one of the first commercial stop-net fishing operations and later became real tarpon fishing guides as is Mark (owner/operator Boca Grande Seaplane ) and other Futch family members now in their fifth generation. It”s a small Island, Bruce and the Coconut Telegraph runs deep.

  2. David Futch
    Santa Monica, CA and formerly of Boca Grande
    August 5, 2014, 12:31 pm

    Bruce Schoenfeld’s story on Gasparilla Island and its no-stoplight, sleepy town of Boca Grande, FL was both informative and bewildering. I enjoyed the opening segment on Isabel Joiner and Whidden’s Marina but the story devolved into outright falsehoods when Mr. Schoenfeld interviewed Nick Wenzel. Mr. Wenzel apparently told Mr. Schoenfeld that he was a local fishing guide. He is not. My family settled Boca Grande in the late 1800s and started the tarpon fishing guide business in the early 1900s. I used to be a fishing guide in Boca Grande and my brother, Mark Futch, and cousin, Steve Futch, still ply the family trade. No one in my family has ever heard of Mr. Wenzel nor is he a member of the Boca Grande Fishing Guides Association. My brother said he thought Mr. Wenzel was a mate on someone’s boat, but certainly not a fishing guide anyone knows. As for his wife being from a beachfront family, I find that difficult to believe since the beachfront crowd are descendants of the Vanderbilts and DuPonts and to my knowledge, no one in either of those families ever held a job other than being on boards of directors of each family’s various companies. Certainly none of them ever handed out keys at the Gasparilla Inn front desk which is what Mrs. Wenzel apparently does.
    I understand the writer was trying to segue into a good story with the addition of Mr. and Mrs. Wenzel, but Mr. Schoenfeld might have gone an extra step and asked Isabel Joiner about a local captain to interview, for example, Isabel Joiner’s son, Wayne, or her nephew, Cappy, two of the best tarpon guides in Florida. Cappy Joiner is one of the most quotable fishing guides I’ve ever met in my years as a journalist.
    Lastly, Katharine Houghton Hepburn never owned land or a house on Boca Grande but often rented the Griswold house on the beach when she visited. Hepburn’s first cousin, Arthur Houghton, did own a beach home on Boca Grande and that was her connection.
    David Futch
    Santa Monica, CA
    former editor of the Boca Beacon and the Gasparilla Gazette, both on Boca Grande

  3. Carol Damme Yates
    United States
    July 29, 2014, 9:08 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this ! Truly a piece of paradise !

  4. Caroline Rather Clark
    July 28, 2014, 10:05 pm

    Bruce… what an accurate and lovely article. You have captured us completely … Please return soon!