Travel & Outdoors | 26 July 2016Traveling the Pirate Coast Share article facebook twitter google pinterest Sometimes, the best places to visit are the hidden gems away from the hustle and bustle of big cities. Those are exactly the places Backroads of Florida highlights. So pack your bags and join us for a trip to the quiet and quaint Pirate Coast. The Victorian-style lighthouse on Boca Grande Island has been guiding boats safely into Charlotte Harbor since it was built in 1890. Few places in Florida can claim as long and layered a history as the tiny peninsula called Spanish Point. In 1867, John Webb and his family arrived at Spanish Point from Utica, New York, to start a citrus and sugar cane farm. They were successful and soon were producing cane syrup and packing their citrus to ship to market. As their fortunes grew, they built a resort for northern visitors who came by ship to relax beside the tropical beauty of Little Sarasota Bay. The Webbs originally chose this point of land because it was elevated and offered protection from storms. The elevation was not natural, however, but man-made. The point was home to large mounds built from the shells of innumerable seafood dinners and other trash cast off by a native civilization that had lived here for five thousand years. An extensive archaeological excavation in the twentieth century uncovered more than four hundred burial sites (including, inexplicably, one interred alligator), as well as a wealth of artifacts. Two anglers try their luck in the turquoise waters of Gasparilla Sound near Boca Grande. Today, Spanish Point is a living history museum where you can tour several buildings from the Webb pioneer era, as well as some from the early twentieth century when the land was the estate of wealthy widow Bertha Honorè Palmer. The most fascinating attraction here, however, is a low building that shelters part of the original archaeological excavation. Visitors can actually walk into an excavated trench into the mound, where behind glass walls are layers of accumulated shells and cast-offs that represent thousands of years of human habitation. From Spanish Point, the road winds its way along Little Sarasota Bay to a tiny causeway that leads just a short distance to Manasota Key. This island is unique, as one resident noted, because it “looks and feels the way much of coastal Florida did back in the 1950s—just a few houses, nothing pretentious and no high rises.” A narrow two-lane road traces most of the island’s eleven-mile length, passing attractive but simple beach homes and winding in sinuous curves through sun-dappled green canopies of live oak. The island boasts no museums or attractions and offers little to draw casual tourists other than ten or so miles of relaxing scenery. Fresh seafood is always for sale in the tiny town of Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island. Manasota Key is also home to several fine beaches. The prettiest, by most counts, is the beach at Blind Pass Park. Here, the road follows the beach for half a mile, offering splendid views, and the seldom-crowded, shell-strewn strand is the perfect place to stroll, sunbathe, and forget the world at large. Heading south from Manasota Key, the route follows Placida Road, which at one time connected several small fishing villages that once thrived along this shore. A short toll causeway connects Gasparilla Island and the town of Boca Grande to the mainland. The island is named for the swashbuckling pirate Gasparilla, who may be more of a myth than a real man. According to legend, Gasparilla was a dashing Spanish naval officer–turned–buccaneer who terrorized the Gulf Coast of Florida between 1783 and 1821, a period of almost forty years. During this time, Gasparilla, in proper pirate fashion, captured ships, killing the men but keeping the beautiful women as concubines on Captiva Island (hence its name). A Boca Grande shop that was once a gas station has old-time pumps that evoke nostalgia for the time when gas was under a dollar a gallon. Whether Gasparilla ever existed is open to debate, but what is true is that the drive down Gasparilla Island is lovely and serene. Toward the southern end of the island, a tall, steel tower lighthouse similar to the one on Sanibel can be seen rising high above the beach. This is not the historic Boca Grande Lighthouse, but a range light used by mariners to line up with other lights as they navigate channels at night. From here, it is just a short distance south to the real Boca Grande Lighthouse, an unusual, square Victorian structure with the light on the roof. The lighthouse was built in 1890 and manned until 1956, when it was automated. It was decommissioned in 1966 but recommissioned as a working light twenty years later after having been restored by a group of island citizens. Today, it is part of the state park system and contains a museum that relates the history of the island and the lighthouse. Surrounding the lighthouse on two sides is a stretch of beach that makes a charming spot to sit and watch small boats entering Charlotte Harbor or to pass the time with the locals who surf-cast from the rocks at the very end of the island. From here, it’s worth stopping for a few minutes to wander around the quaint little town of Boca Grande, browsing in the small boutiques or eating at one of the remarkably good restaurants that may or not be built on the very spot where Gasparilla buried his legendary treasure so long ago. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Away from the bustle of Miami Beach and the tourist extravaganza of Disney World, another Florida beckons to those looking for backroads adventure, quieter fare, or more discriminating fun. This is the Florida where backroads and secret splendors unfold in a landscape rich in the flavors and colors of ancient indigenous cultures, early European settlements, Civil War battles, and myriad Caribbean influences. Authors Paul Franklin and Nancy Mikula take you to every corner of the Sunshine State, from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys, with journeys along miles of spectacular coastline and forays into the wonders of lush interior forests, pristine lakes, and otherworldly swamplands. Florida is home to nearly a dozen national parks, forests, and seashores, and Backroads of Florida explores these attractions and many more, illustrated with breathtaking color photographs throughout. The book presents the background history and culture for Florida’s varied natural and human communities along with descriptions of the best destinations and sites to visit during your travels. 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