Off the causeway, boats anchor on the sand bar for some weekend socializing.
My first long afternoon’s ride in 14 months took me to Gasparilla Island, the quaint and very thin key island west of the Cape Haze Peninsula, and the small seaside town of Boca Grande, a vacation spot for presidents.
The Cape Haze Peninsula encompasses the towns of Englewood, Rotonda West, Cape Haze, and Placida, and is surrounded by the body of water known as Gasparilla Sound. Gasparilla Island lies to its west, and its outer shore meets the Gulf of Mexico. Both the larger peninsula and Gasparilla Island have no southern exit, so tourists (and trouble) pass it by on the way to Naples or Miami. All the better for the riding here, as the traffic is local and summer is off-season. From my new digs in the Port Charlotte area, a ride to the southern end of Gasparilla Island and Boca Grande is a little under an hour from my front door.
Florida is not challenging riding by any means, but key islands and coastal routes offer a truly beautiful tropical vibe, and the key is to enjoy it specifically for that reason. Riding long key islands on Florida’s Gulf Coast usually allows for some lowering of the radar for cross traffic (there is none) and an opportunity to take in the beautiful idyllic surroundings—the turquoise water, the royal palms that line the road, the white sand beaches, and everything from small pleasure boats to commercial fishing vessels to yachts out on the water on either side of the islands. It’s a relaxing vibe that offers its own kind of balm-to-the-soul scenery.
The toll for the Boca Grande Causeway—the only entrance to and exit from Gasparilla Island—is $6. That’s pricey when compared to the $2 it typically costs to cross to outer islands in other areas of Southwest Florida, but after all, this is the vacation spot of presidents. Because there is only one way on and off the island, there are few vacationers looking to drive a scenic route along the gulf. Golf carts are the most-used form of neighborhood transportation, and carts have their own paved right-of-ways next to the main roads. These factors combine to make street traffic very light, so roads remain virtually clear. The ride is worth the cost of admission, and exiting the island is free.
Riding thin key islands keeps cross traffic at a minimum.
Boca Grande Causeway parallels an aging rail line that was closed in 1981, after the first section of the causeway opened. The discontinuous sections of weathered and overgrown railway structure that parallel the causeway and stand idle in Gasparilla Sound lends an historic old-Florida feel to the ride. Small islands with colorful names like Dog Island and Bird Key are randomly distributed on either side of the road, where dozens of boaters park their small craft on sand bars near the railway to meet, socialize, cool off in the waist-deep 80-plus degree water, and enjoy cold beer on a hot day.
Florida in the summertime is very hot, of course, and being caught in traffic in midsummer can be murder. But light traffic on the key island yields a causeway without impediments to a speed-limit ride. The island breezes move perpendicular to the key, pulling the slightly cooler temperatures off the gulf and evaporating the worst of the heat as long as you’re making forward progress.
The second of two lighthouses on the island, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse is now a museum specializing in area history and native culture going back to 12,000 B.C.
Stops include several of the more upscale but welcoming marina and waterfront bar and grills, and a state park with public-access beaches and facilities, if you’re of a mind to shed the riding gear and go for a dip in the bathtub-temperature gulf; an inviting idea on a hot Florida summer day’s ride.
Trees hold sea shells on the seashore on Gasparilla Island.
Two area lighthouses (one a museum) add worthwhile cultural-historic stops for the day.
The Boca Grande Entrance Rear Range Lighthouse is what is known as a pyramidal skeletal lighthouse. Prefabricated and less expensive to construct than the traditional brick and mortar variety, these structures could be disassembled and relocated when necessary, and that’s how Gasparilla Island got this one.
Built in 1881 by the Phoenix Iron Company of Trenton, New Jersey, it was originally used in Delaware from 1881 until 1918, before being disassembled and shipped by rail to Miami, eventually finding its way to Gasparilla Island in 1927. There it was reassembled, painted white, given its grand name, and re-lighted at its new location in 1932. Located right next to the road at about the 7-mile mark, its height is such that it can be seen from almost the entire key. It’s an easy stop to explore the landmark.
Riding on to the southernmost point on the island brings you to Gasparilla Island State Park, which is home to the second lighthouse in less than 2 miles, the Gasparilla Island Light Station. It’s the oldest structure on the island and originally went into service in 1890. A very different style from its skeletal-styled companion, this original live-in lighthouse is now home to a comprehensive museum featuring historical information covering area societal and cultural history dating back to 12,000 BC. Public facilities and showers at this park give the best opportunity for that swim in the gulf.
The Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was originally designed for family life.
Schooled on local history and with a re-regulated body temperature after the swim, you will find the ride back out of Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island continues to be grand all the way to the Cape Haze Peninsula. If you’re up for more coastal riding, heading north and exiting out to any of Manasota, Casey, or Siesta keys are good choices for more Gulf of Mexico views.
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They say “life is full of surprises,” long a statement of well-worn rhetoric; I’m reminded once again that surprises can and do indeed happen, and in sometimes marvelous ways a person might never expect. For me, the remarkable opportunity to re-acquire my faithful companion Honda that had been with me for many years and many travels—and so bringing motorcycling back into my life—makes this turn of events feel even providential in nature. I’m happy to roll with that idea.