When you have a stupendous sportscar for the weekend, like the 550-horsepower Mercedes AMG GTC Roadster I’m driving, you need a great destination to cruise to.
Sebring or Palm Beach Raceway come to mind. But if you prefer not to wear a helmet or burn rubber for your weekend drive, there’s this tiny sliver of paradise, seven miles long, maybe half a mile wide, lapped by the Jacuzzi-warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Legend has it that the Spanish nobleman turned scurrilous pirate, José Gaspar, hung out here with his band of ruthless renegades back in the late 1700s. Today, this barrier isle halfway between Tampa and Naples, is known as Gasparilla Island, after Señor Gaspar, though everyone calls it Boca Grande.
On an island where laid-back style is a way of life, it’s key to arrive in style. And at this time of the year, it has to be in a convertible. A perfect destination then, for the sleek GT C Roadster, with its eye-searing yellow paint the color of the midday sun.
The true wonder of Boca Grande is that it has managed to preserve the feel and character of old Florida. There are no soaring high-rises, no ticky-tacky tourist shops or hyper-glitzy boutiques. The designer attire of choice here is faded Tommy Bahama and tattered Timberlands.
This is where a local fishing guide may be sitting at the bar of the Temptation restaurant next to some captain of industry. Or where you might see Tom Brokaw picking-up fishing gear at Boca Grande Outfitters. Or author Randy Wayne White having a scrambled egg breakfast at The Innlet.
To arrive at Boca Grande you pay your $6 at the toll bridge, cross the Intracoastal Waterway and cruise along the mile-long causeway onto the island. Top down in the Mercedes, the aroma of sweet, salty sea air instantly fills your nostrils.
We pull over to watch a school of dolphin frolic in water the color of Windex. Over on a channel marker, a mother osprey is feeding her young, while in the channel, pelicans are doing their kamikaze nosedives in pursuit of a lunchtime treat.
The Mercedes burbles along the three-or-so-mile, arrow-straight road into town, with the 45mph speed limit being precisely 151 mph less than its top speed. Thankfully, on the way to BG, I got the chance to explore a little of the car’s blistering performance.
With a big 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 nestled under that mile-long hood, the $157,000 GT C can blast from standstill to 60mph in a neck-snapping 3.7 seconds, accompanied by a sound-track equalled only in volume and ferocity by Krakatoa in full lava-spewing mode.
But who needs speed when there’s so much visual beauty to take in. Far more important, performance-wise, is the 11 seconds it takes for the Roadster’s canvas top to open-up and let sunshine flood the tight-fitting cabin.
The two-lane road runs parallel to the old train tracks that, back in the 1900s, brought in the Vanderbilts and DuPonts in their fancy rail cars to fish for the hard-fighting tarpon that still cruise the deep-water Boca Grande Pass.
These days the rail tracks are paved-over to create the most perfect bike and rollerblading path on the planet, running the entire seven-mile length of the island.
In town, you can book a room at the famous Gasparilla Inn, or play a round of golf on its waterside course. Or grab lunch at the Inn’s laid-back, nautically-themed eaterie, the Pink Elephant.
We head to the east side of the island and find the rustic Whidden’s Marina. Here you can buy fresh shrimp straight off the boats that dock at this assortment of tumble-down shacks.
Then it’s off to the southern-most tip of the island to see the clapboard lighthouse – the oldest building in Boca Grande – built in 1890 to guide ships into the Boca Grande pass.
On the way back, we pull in to the sandy parking lot of the down ‘n dirty South Beach bar and grille, grab a wooden lounge chair on the beach, order a frosty beer and plate of peel ‘n eat shrimp, and wait for that big ol’ Florida sun to sink in to the Gulf.
So what does it matter that it’s only eleven in the morning and the sun doesn’t set till six On Boca Grande, you’re always on island time.
Story and photos by Howard Walker