This has been the summer of exploring Florida beaches. Typically, my best friend Genesah and I want nothing to do with the sticky saltwater, blazing heat, and sand. But this year the tides have changed. Recently we found ourselves desperately trying to outrun the red tide plaguing the beaches in Clearwater and the surrounding Tampa Bay area. So we decided to explore Gasparilla Island State Park in Boca Grande, Florida.
We’re both natives of Florida, but we are not native to exploring the beaches. Partly because our only experience with beaches consisted of going on the weekend when every inch of sand is covered with people. After a few weekday beach trips, I’ve discovered we are, in fact, beach people; if the beach has less than twenty people per mile and the average age is over 65.
Gasparilla Island State Park should not be confused with the Gasparilla invasion that happens in Tampa every year, though they both get their name from the same infamous Jose Gaspar. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you come here to party with pirates. The island did have many families with kids zipping around in golf carts though. Kids can be as menacing as pirates, so maybe it won’t be as much of a letdown for some. Gasparilla Island is mostly a quaint place to enjoy a beach vacation. The medians on the roads are lined with royal palms. Clusters of beach condos with names like “Paradise Pass” and “Sunset Cove Colony” block most of the initial views of the beach.
We had our eyes on parking at the lighthouse, which I drove right by in disbelief that this tiny parking area was for the beach. I kept going, trying to convince myself that was the parking lot. I wasn’t convinced until we made it to the “Calming Condo Colony” and every parking spot had clear and slightly threatening signs yelling NO PARKING! Kind of like the tiny barking Chihuahua of signs. Not in the mood to test the response time of the owners calling a tow truck, I turned back towards the lighthouse parking lot.
I guess I’m used to the expansive parking areas at Fort De Soto, where getting from the parking lot to the beach may be a journey in itself. By the time you make it to the sand, your hand has been mangled by the bags, umbrella, and beach chair straps embedded into your skin. Gasparilla Island is not like this. The sand from the beach met us at the edge of the asphalt. The limited parking also ensured my twenty people per mile rule would be upheld.
Storm clouds were building offshore as we arrived. We decided to explore the Gasparilla Island Lighthouse while the storm figured out what direction it wanted to go. Shaking my fist in the air must have persuaded it to dissipate because trace slivers of blue sky began to peek out as we walked around the lighthouse. The downside to visiting places during the week is not everything is open like it would be during the more popular times. The lighthouse was not open for us to climb to the top.
This is fortunate for Genesah because she is afraid of heights, but unfortunate for me because I love watching her attempt to conquer her fear. And by conquering her fears, I mean her legs wobbling by the seventh step, or her white-knuckles squeezing the life from the steering wheel as we drive up the Rocky Mountains. All while I’m uncontrollably laughing with tears rolling down my face because I’m the terrible friend who thought this would be fun.
The walking path around the Lighthouse is beautiful. Seagrapes and mangrove trees form archways over the walking path as the lighthouse peaks out from the top of the palm trees. Beams of light shine through the gaps in the trees, making it feel like a daytime laser light show.
We had our fill of walking and taking pictures around the lighthouse; it was time to set up camp on the beach. Unlike the beaches to the North, the Gasparilla Island beach warning flag was all green as it welcomed us into the shore. Once we staked out our spot, we grabbed our noodles and stingray shuffled into the water. The water was clear, and the waves gently rocked us back and forth as we bobbed in the water like two buoys.
It was then it dawned on me, we’ve turned into beach people! There’s something about the beach that is therapeutic. It could be floating in the clear salty water, the gentle sound of waves crashing on the shore, or our venting sessions that, from a distance, sound similar to the squawking gulls flying overhead. Either way, I always leave the beach with freshly buffed feet and a sense that I’m not crazy; I’m just surrounded by crazy people in my everyday life.
Places To Eat
Why does the beach make you feel like you’ve been marooned on an island for a week? In need of food and several glasses of sweet tea, we stopped at South Beach Bar and Grille for lunch. The patio opened into panoramic views of the beach. Rainbow-colored beach chairs were patiently waiting for people to fill them and watch the sunset over the gulf. I practically inhaled my grouper tacos. I didn’t think to take a picture of them until I had thoroughly cleaned my plate. The only thing remaining was the empty carcass of my lime used to squeeze over my meal.
A bit sleepy and full from our meal, we made one last stop for a coffee before driving home. The Pink Pony is an adorable pink and white painted house turned ice cream and coffee shop; located at the entrance of the Gasparilla Island downtown area. In the window is a bright pink pony made to look like it was from a carousel. If I were staying on the island for a few days, this would be my hangout. A stream of people were leaving with their hands full of sprinkled covered ice cream cones and shakes. My iced coffee was smooth and full of the caffeine I needed for the drive home.
We drove by the small shops and quaint bed and breakfasts as we started home. Large banyan trees divided the roadways and families in golf carts were scooting from shop to shop. It is an ideal place to disconnect from the world and enjoy a charming beach town. As we left Gasparilla Island, I felt refreshed and anticipate coming back to stay a bit longer to enjoy even more of what the island had to offer.