Our flats boat whizzes along the shoreline of Palm Island and into the Boca Grande Pass near Gasparilla Sound, where dozens of boats bobble in the Gulf’s steady push. Residential properties, condos, resorts and the like line the beach as we continue our hunt for tarpon.
Now, flash back more than a century ago to America’s Gilded Age and Florida’s west coast is, for the most part, untouched. Isolated and nearly unheard of fishing villages such as Anna Maria Island, Egmont Key and even Boca Grande are coastal havens for locals but off-the-map destinations for northerners.
It was only a matter of time before these pristine natural beachfronts would become discovered and developed. Much of the credit for that goes to Henry Plant, a man who purchased bankrupt railroad companies in the late 1800s and developed them into an extensive system that brought the well-to-do from as far away as Canada to his lavish Florida resorts.
In all, Plant built eight hotels to both accommodate sportsmen and cater to the rich. Each resort used the same tagline to lure fisherman from up north: come hunt the Silver King. The Tampa Bay Hotel, now the University of Tampa, gets much of the local credit for growing Florida’s tourism and Gulf Coast fishing. Steamships would cart guests along the coastline, stopping at quaint beach towns along the way. These trips shaped Florida’s history one stop at a time.
New York civil engineer and angler W.H. Wood put Florida on the world map when he became the first person in recorded history to catch a tarpon on a rod and reel. Wood later published a few stories about his encounter with the Silver King in the Scientific American and London Observer, making Florida an alluring destination for sportsman from all over the globe.
Today, it’s hard to find a unique vacation hideaway on the west coast of Florida that hasn’t become overpopulated, over hyped and for anglers, over fished. That doesn’t mean these private sanctuaries don’t exist.
Situated on about 130 acres less than 100 miles south of Tampa and St. Petersburg between Sarasota and Fort Myers, Palm Island Resort is Florida coastal life at its best: relaxing, secluded and all around breathtaking. The island is the sister property to the Useppa Island Club, a private island that was purchased and redeveloped in 1976 by Gar Beckstead. Gar and his brother Dean had a vision to build Palm Island, and together they planned and funded its construction.
Today, Palm Island has grown to a grand total of 160 condominiums, villas and homes. Each unit overlooks the ocean and has stilted, Old Florida-style architecture. There’s still some room for a few more residential properties on the 2-mile stretch that’s accessible only by boat or a short car ferry, the owners say.
Once on the island, life seems to slow down to sea turtle’s pace. Golf carts are swapped out for cars and the sounds of civilization are replaced with the constant, soothing sound of rushing waves. There are two restaurants and a bar, a general store, loads of fishing opportunities and sandy beaches everywhere.
During the summer months, tarpon fishing reigns supreme. At Palm Island, you’re located just north of Boca Grande, a.k.a. the tarpon fishing capital of the world. But you don’t have to travel into the busiest pass in southwest Florida to catch them. Palm Island has docks on location, a fueling station located at Leverocks Restaurant across the channel and skilled guides to help you nail one of the fastest, most high-flying fish of the sea. On a recent trip, a local guide helped us hunt and snag five massive tarpon on the waters near the resort.
At night, you can dine on seafood and other fine dishes with the locals at the Rum Bay Bar & Restaurant. The laid-back luxury lifestyle you’ll encounter is unlike any hotel or resort available anywhere in the state. No matter what your speed or your background everyone is cordial and inviting. It’s the kind of place that Jimmy Buffet writes about but without all of the fanfare and corporate licensing.
This true old Florida charm is one that can’t be forged or fabricated.
VISIT PALM ISLAND
GETTING THERE: Palm Island is located south of Tampa/St. Petersburg between Sarasota and Fort Myers. The entrance is located in Cape Haze, a town located about 20 miles off Exit 191 on I-75 south. Take a 6-minute car ferry across the intercoastal waterway.
ROOMS: Seasonal, daily and weekly rates vary based on your choice of resort amenities. Room sizes range from one bedroom/one bathroom villas for a couple or three bedroom/three bathroom suites that easily hold eight guests.
EAT: Leverocks Restaurant; Rum Bay Restaurant; Coconut Cafe
ON THE GO: Beach and water activities, golf, tennis, fishing, boating
TAKE IT SLOW: Sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, picnics and nature programs
CONTACT: For more information and complete directions, visit palmisland.com or call 800.824.5412