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Explore the Gulf Islands

By Staff | May 28, 2009

A chain of barrier islands protect the entire western shoreline of Charlotte County, from Englewood to Boca Grande, and each is more beautiful than the next.

Manasota Key

Manasota Key is located at the extreme northern end of Charlotte County, just across Lemon Bay from Englewood. Visitors love this island for its upscale relaxed lifestyle and its four distinct unspoiled beaches, known for excellent shelling and the unusual fossilized sharks’ teeth that wash ashore with each tide.

There are no highrise buildings or traffic lights here. A single two-lane road meanders through a tree-shaded canopy the length of the island, with pristine beaches on the gulf side and a sheltered bay on the other.

Colorful beach umbrellas sprout along each of the beaches which all have easy access from Beach Road. At the northern end of the island is Manasota Beach which offers free parking, picnic tables, showers, restrooms and lifeguards.

Down the road to the south is Blind Pass Beach, known locally as Middle Beach, which has no lifeguards but does have free parking with picnic tables, showers and restrooms. There’s also a nature trail with dunes and wildflowers, and nearby is The Hermitage, a retreat for visiting artists.

The most popular beach on Manasota Key is Englewood Beach which features a boardwalk suspended above the sea oats and sand dunes that’s ideal for nightly sunset viewing. Parking is by the hour, but be careful not to overstay your time as fines are stiff. There are no lifeguards, but picnic tables, a children’s play area, basketball courts, volleyball nets, showers and restrooms are all available. Nearby are several beach shops and popular eateries that offer excellent seafood, tropical island music and sunset cocktails.

At the southern end of Manasota Key is Stump Pass Beach State Park, an incredibly beautiful and essentially unspoiled piece of old Florida that might help you visualize what the Spanish explorers found when they first made landfall in this region. With hiking trails throughout the park, this is a place where you can walk from the Gulf of Mexico to Lemon Bay on the opposite side of the island. Crystal clear water, natural flora and indigenous wildlife abound in this location, and the beaches of Stump Pass are perhaps one of the best places in the entire island chain to collect both sharks’ teeth and seashells.

Don Pedro & Little Gasparilla

Accessible only by boat, Don Pedro Island and Little Gasparilla Island are a small slice of paradise, easily seen from the mainland but purposely remote. Home to the Calusa Indians for thousands of years, the islands were discovered by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s and became hangouts for pirates and smugglers for hundreds of years before giving way to homesteaders and developers in the 20th Century.

In 1969, a local developer purchased the island and began a plan to build condos and luxury homes on the beaches. During the development of Rotonda and Cape Haze, a free ferry service was established from Cape Haze, and the island became little more than a private playground for potential buyers and newly landed residents. In 1984, Don Pedro once again went up for sale and was purchased by the state as part of the “Save our Coasts” program. The ferry service to the island was stopped, and the islands for the most part became natural preserves with limited access.

Today, the islands can be reached by private boat or kayak, and the state has provided docking, picnic and restroom facilities for visitors. Shorebirds and other indigenous wildlife are present in abundance, and this is another incredible spot for shell collectors.

Palm Island

As for the developed part of this small chain, Palm Island is accessible by a car ferry that is maintained by the exclusive Palm Island Resort and by water taxi which carries guests to the resort’s Rum Bay Restaurant, home of Red Beard the Pirate. The cost for crossing on the ferry, which also serves the residents of this small island, is prohibitive unless you are a guest of the resort or a resident with a pass.

Cayo Costa

To the south of Gasparilla Island, and easily visible from the state park at the Boca Grande Lighthouse, is another island preserve accessible only by private boat or ferry. Cayo Costa has miles of beautiful beaches and is rich with slash pine forests and mangrove. Pristine and remote, this barrier island is a slice of primitive paradise. Visitors here are much more likely to see manatees and dolphins in their natural habitat than almost anywhere else in the region. For the bird watcher, this island may provide a lifetime of sightings in a single day.

Visitors here can swim or snorkel in the surf, enjoy the sun on the beautiful beaches and picnic in the shade of ancient trees. Because of the shift in tides, shelling is especially good during the winter months on this island. Extensive nature trails provide opportunities for hiking and off-road bicycling. Of course the fishing is great here, and anglers can fish from their boats or just throw a line out into the surf.

If you would like to stay overnight, the park offers primitive cabins and tent camping. Ferry service to Cayo Costa runs daily from Punta Gorda, Pine island and Captiva Island. For Information about Cayo Costa State Park, visit www.floridastateparks.com /cayocosta or call (941)964-0375.