Sunday, May 06, 2001

Ride Florida ferry into Island Time zone

Little Gasparilla just for people, fish and sunshine

By Peter Bronson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        On Island Time, the hours melt and pool like butter in the bright forsythia sunshine. Days vanish behind you like a boat wake in turquoise waters. And a week measured by fishing, golf, chapters of Elmore Leonard and leisurely shell-hunting on the beach can flash by like a school of rays in shallow water, with languid grace and the deceiving speed of a cloud's shadow.

        “Spring break in Florida” is the long way of saying “paradise” for impatient Midwesterners still trapped in the dawdling chill of over-parked winter.

        Sanibel and Marco islands are practically Cincinnati south — big, comfortable, familiar. But anything reachable by car is only a semi-island. To cross into true Island Standard Time, take I-75 south about 90 minutes from Tampa, get off and go through Englewood on Fla. 775, then turn off the highway at Hideaway Beach and catch a ferry. The pontoon-boat taxi runs every two hours except when it doesn't — no cars allowed, just luggage, groceries and sunburned tourists.

    Condos and beach houses rent from $500-$1,500 per week and up. The best way to find them is to contact local real estate agents or the Engelwood Chamber of Commerce (941-474-5511).

    Fishing guides, who pick you up on the dock at Little Gasparilla Island, can be hired for $225 for a half-day.

    Greens fees at area courses range $30-$50, with cart, 18 holes.

    Restaurants with fresh seafood are close by.

        It's about five minutes across the water to Little Gasparilla Island, which lies directly north of Boca Grande but floats free — no bridges, no causeways, no SUVS, no cars.

        Once you're on the island, nested like an Osprey in a condo or beach house, it quickly becomes as obvious as wind in the palms that there are very few good reasons to consult the ferry schedule and leave.

        For those who are genetically predestined to shop, there's Boca Grande, with its resort “compounds” and upscale shops and restaurants. Little Gasparilla is named for the pirate Gaspar, who, according to legend, buried his gold on the island. It's a myth. All the gold is buried on Boca Grande — by tourists.

        For golfers, there are several good courses within minutes of the parking lot across from the ferry dock on the mainland. Wildflower, on Fla. 775 (par 62), has slow greens, short par-4s and 120-yard par-3s that give young golfers confidence and make veteran hackers believe the biggest lie since Bill Clinton broke 80: “Dang, I can play this game.”

        Tougher courses in the Rotunda development are nearby to give you a big slice of reality, right into the woods. Long Marsh is the local favorite.

        Little Gasparilla is connected to Palm Island and Don Pedro Island as beach sand has filled the hourglass gaps between them. That provides miles of white sand, flat and firm, to walk or jog with God's golden sunshine smiling over your shoulders.

        The water is crisp and inviting, shallow and relatively safe — and the color is a breathtaking, clear and dazzling blue-green like no crayon in the box.

        It's also crowded like fish stadium on Opening Day: snook, black drum, flounder, trash catfish, sea trout, rays, mackerel, dolphin, barracuda, grouper, redfish, bluefish, onefish, twofish.

        For years, the Englewood area has been one of the world's top tarpon fishing spots. At Johnny Leverock's Seafood House, large silvery disks are nailed to varnished pine boards, inked with dates and weights: “172 lbs, 1912” they say. “141 lbs., 1951.”

        The silvery relics are giant scales lifted from prize tarpon — a streamlined, tuna-shaped fish that looks like a Lake Michigan coho from a sci-fi movie, Salmonzilla.

        Tarpon are a primary target of fishing guides in backcountry and deep-water boats, and the Little Gasparilla area is a target-rich environment.

        “If a tarpon gets up to 200 pounds, you can imagine what eats a tarpon,” said our backcountry fishing guide, Scott Roe, whose name was his fishing destiny.

        What eats tarpon, he said, are 400-pound bullsharks and much, much bigger hammerheads.

        “Never trust a dead shark,” Mr. Roe said, holding an allegedly dead bonnethead, that looks like a smaller hammerhead.

        It's good advice.

        About five minutes after Mr. Roe gutted and cleaned the 4-foot bonnethead, he put it on ice and it jumped out of the cooler, snapping and thrashing like an automatic toe remover and the 18-foot fishing boat suddenly seemed as small as a teacup.

        Some people fill their vacation shopping cart with postcard experiences. Near Little Gasparilla, there are bike trails, historic sites where Spanish explorers landed in the 1500s, manatee exhibits, boat rentals, scuba diving, everglades adventures, dolphin tours, parasailing, state recreation areas and . . . whew.

        Too bad — missed the ferry again. Sentenced to another day in paradise on a peaceful beach under a flawless blue sky.

        Some of us are content to choose our vacation adventures the way we pick up shells on a beach — slowly and more carefully, taking home just one or two to turn over in our memories while we wait for summer in Ohio, dreaming of Island Time.

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Get to it