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Captiva Cruises features adventure for residents, visitors to Gasparilla Island

By Staff | May 22, 2009

Diane Bouchard looked like a kid on the day before school. She kept smiling, moving about and scanning for the ride she was waiting for.

But Bouchard, a Maine resident, wasn’t waiting for a big yellow bus to take her to a new classroom. Instead she squealed with delight and her face broke into a wide grin when the Play Time touring boat pulled up to McCarthy’s Marina on Captiva during a recent trip to Gasparilla Island.

Gasparilla Island, located in both Lee and Charlotte Counties, is known for its rich history in the phosphate shipping business, million dollar tarpon fishing competitions and quaint shops and restaurants.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard and about 15 others – tourists from around the nation and world – hustled in line to get on the boat owned by Captiva Cruises.

The local cruise company specializes in local adventures to neighboring islands Cayo Costa State Park, the privately owned and exclusive Useppa Island and Gasparilla Island, the once famous shipping port.

The cruise to Gasparilla

The adventure began as Capt. Keith Smith steered the well-cushioned and shaded boat away from Captiva and toward Gasparilla Island.

With equal measures of charm and local history knowledge, Smith narrated about all of the local landmarks and points leading up to Gasparilla.

The vessel rocked gently in the light gulf current and glided through Red Fish Pass created by vicious storms in the 1920s.

Teal-hued waves slapped against the boat as Smith pointed to various spots of interest along the Pine Island Sound, the waterway that leads from Sanibel and Captiva to Gasparilla.

A smattering of stately looking homes pepper North Captiva as it juts out into the waters. Departed prolific artist Robert Rauschenberg’s home and studio came into view. Smith explained a little bit about living on remote North Captiva island, which is only accessible in some parts by air and boat and others by boat only.

He pointed to a lick of of land that functioned as an airstrip. Because of the remote living, the 300 residents, 60 of which are full-time, must supply their own electricity. Utilities do not reach some parts of the remote island, Smith said. Propane and solar power are often used in its place. Many of the homeowners out on North Captiva are pilots and fly to and from the island.

Along the trip to Gasparilla passengers had an opportunity to see the fish houses sticking out of the water. These houses that were built as a way for fishermen to preserve their catches and have a place to stay after work are now part of the National Registry.

Cabbage Key, a privately owned island originally bought for $2,500 in the 1920s grabbed the attention of passengers during the trip. Filled with lush foliage and old Florida style cottages for rent, the island is a draw for those looking to relax and get away from everything. Cabbage Key supposedly led to the inspiration for singer Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” Smith said. Folks can check out the $1 bill he signed at the island’s only restaurant, known as the Old House.

Smith made a stop for passengers looking to spend the afternoon and shell at Cayo Costa State Park. The island located between Captiva and Gasparilla is known for its world class shelling and natural beauty. Camping overnight is available through the state park’s boat Tropic Star. There are no amenities such as stores, restaurants or electricity.

Useppa Island is the next island along the chain before getting to Gasparilla. The privately-owned island is where former President Teddy Roosevelt used to stay and for a period was leased as a military staging area by the CIA during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in the 1960s.

Approaching Gasparilla, the waters deepened as Smith steered the craft through the Boca Grande Pass. The pass near Gasparilla used to be the biggest waterway for ships to travel in the early part of the 1900s. Gasparilla Island became the largest shipping port for transporting phosphates from other parts of Southwest Florida.

Eventually Tampa Bay became the largest shipping port after it was dredged. The nearby waters are widely known for drawing large tarpon and silver kings. These fish, which can grow well over 1,000 pounds, helped shape Gasparilla into a place for the wealthy to vacation and enter world-class fishing competitions.

Passengers became excited shortly before arriving at Gasparilla. For some like Minnesota resident Nancy Maxwell, the idea of an exotic shipping port for the wealthy seemed pretty far removed from her everyday working life.

“I do not know what to expect,” she said. “I have no expectations.”

Gasparilla Island

The boat docked at Gasparilla around 11:30 a.m. Passengers have three hours to spend in Gasparilla. This allows for time to grab a lunch at one of the quaint eateries and restaurants, tour the island and check out some shopping.

Smith pointed out a few of the key places to eat and sites to see including the old lighthouse built in 1890.

The Loose Caboose, a former railroad, is the a fun place to grab a fresh-caught grouper sandwich or fish basket. The staff are friendly – ask for Betty Moore – and are not afraid to share Gasparilla’s rich history, including tales of giant tarpon catches. The Loose Caboose still has the old railroad tracks in front of the establishment. After lunch, if you are feeling a bit decadent, the Loose Caboose has a variety of homemade icecream including birthday cake which has a buttercream frosting taste.

Down the street, Temptations bar and restaurant is a point of interest and intrigue. The restaurant dating back to the 1950’s menu is filled with seafood entrees and salads. According to Capt. Smith as well as restaurant staff the strawberry salad is a must-have.

Aside from friendly servers, fresh food and its award winning extensive wine list, Temptations boasts another kind of spirit – one of the unearthly kind.

Servers Bonnie Eibe and Duncan Henry eyes lit up as they told the story of Dora. The woman who has been alleged to make an appearance at the bar now and then used to supposedly be a piano player and according to the servers, Dora can get a bit cantankerous at times.

“She has been known to knock pictures off the wall,” Henry said.

Back in the warm Florida sun and away from tales of ghosts and their adventures, golf carts driven by folks of all ages whiz by. Golf carts are a way of life on Gasparilla. With small, narrow streets, the slow moving and battery-operated golf carts allow residents and visitors a fun and easy way to get around.

Jackson Portell, 15, enjoyed some time in a golf cart with his dogs Augie and Daisy. Portell said everyone including kids 15 and older use golf carts. And for those wondering what else the youths of affluent Gasparilla do with their time, one has to look no farther than the aquamarine waters.

“We swim and go bridge jumping,” Jackson said with a shrug.

Aside from tarpon fishing, golf seems to be of the main recreational activity for adults. The Gasparilla Inn features a smooth green expanse of rolling golf courses.

The stately Gasparilla Inn is known as the presidential Bush family’s getaway.

Inside, a sense of early American charm and sophistication fills the large hotel which is listed on the Historic Hotels of America.

Locals and folks who work on Gasparilla look forward to spotting movie stars and celebrities that visit.

“As soon as we hear a celebrity’s coming we all get excited,” said Falon Mills, a server at Temptations and staff of Italiano Insurance.

Mills has waited on Hollywood glitterati Chris O’Donnell and Oliver Platt. She likes both of them, especially Platt.

“He comes out here a lot,” she said. “He seems like a nice, family guy.”

And as far as the community goes, like Sanibel and Captiva, Gasparilla is warm and friendly.

“Everybody is your neighbor here,” Mills said. “It’s just one of those communities.”

The Lighthouse and museum attached to it portrays life as it was during Gasparilla’s shipping era. It is located toward the end of the island. Staff in the museum are helpful and interested in answering questions about the island and its history.

After the last rented golf cart was shut off and the group of passengers formed a line at the dock waiting to go back to Captiva, people chatted about their adventure on Gasparilla.

“We liked the lighthouse, said Ed Krizek.

His wife Caroline adored the whole island.

“It’s quiet,” she said. There’s not a lot of commotion.” “We had a great time.”

On the boat again, passengers settled in for the hour or so ride home.

Maxwell mused about her experience on Gasparilla after finding a spot on the boat to relax.

“I like the quaintness of it, even though it’s modern.” she said.

Smith chatted about the area’s history during the trip back as well as pointing to possible places to spot large sea mammals. Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins were spotted flipping about in the waters. Manatees can also be seen, especially during the summer months when the waters are warm.

To book a cruise, call Captiva Cruises at 472-5300.