The Daddy Diaries
Two dads, five kids, four islands in southwest Florida. What could go wrong? From our March 2012 issue.
Four Islands for Five Kids
Southwest Florida Yachts’ two charter home bases, a northern base in Burnt Store Marina, near Punta Gorda, and the southern base in North Fort Myers, flank the region’s prime cruising grounds. The Charlotte Harbor estuary has dozens of islets, a maze-like mangrove coastline, and several long sand barrier islands with world-class beaches. A series of inlets, some too shallow or torturous to safely navigate, connect the protected sounds and bays with the Gulf waters beyond the barrier islands. There is no shortage of anchorages from which to choose, but with five energetic kids and only a few days to explore, a marina connection each night seemed to make the most sense. (The idea of an easy bailout in case things went horribly wrong also appealed to us.)
While the kids kept a running list of activities they wanted to pursue during the trip (sail, fish, snorkel, hunt for shells, and eat ice cream—to name a few), I looked forward to reliving some of the region’s history. Depending on what era I decided to drop into, I might find myself smoking Montesinos with Cuban exiles plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro, searching for El Dorado with Spanish conquistadores, or dining on sea snails with the Calusas, the statuesque shellfishing people who thrived in Charlotte Harbor for more than 5,000 years and then mysteriously disappeared. It was—and still is—a quirky corner of the planet, where the line between fact and fiction is as fleeting as the green flash.
Our first stop on the cruise was Boca Grande Marina, on Gasparilla Island. According to legend, a pirate by the name of José Gaspar used the island as a base for raiding merchant ships in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His fortune, the legend says, is still hidden far inland along the Peace River, the winding, scenic waterway that flows into Charlotte Harbor.
The exciting and mostly fictional tale of plunder, a kidnapped princess, and buried treasure inspired our crew to adopt pirate names on our first morning on Gasparilla. Jake took the name Ol’ One Eye, based on his peeking tactic while playing Marco Polo. Ben, who acted out Pokémon battles on the foredeck at 0700, became Captain Thunderfoot. Kaylee, Isabella’s good friend and a last-minute addition to our crew, was dubbed the Fisher Queen for her talent with a rod and reel. Evan’s stupendous plunges into Charlotte Harbor earned him the name Captain Cannonball. But when it came to picking a name for Isabella, clearly the best sailor among our young crew, I was surprised when nothing came to mind.
“Let’s not rush,” I told her, as we tried a few names for fit. “The best pirate name is the one that finds you.”
She looked at me with sympathy, like one might regard a golden retriever who was too old to be playing fetch. “OK, let’s keep looking,” she said.
Gasparilla’s only town is Boca Grande, a small community with no traffic lights and a commercial center of four square blocks. The town began as a phosphate port, but a rising interest in sportfishing for tarpon in the early 1900s prompted wealthy snowbirds—Rockefellers, Du Ponts, and Vanderbilts among them—to build winter homes on the island. Unruffled by the NASCAR-like atmosphere that the tarpon tournaments bring each spring, the town retains the ambiance of a tropical Nantucket. As Kaylee concluded after some wide-eyed browsing in the local art galleries, “You need a bigger allowance to shop here.”
The golf cart is the favored form of local transportation, and our electric-powered island tour in a rented cart was a big hit with the kids. While the ice-cream shop was their favorite stop, mine was Whidden’s Marina, where I vainly tried to absorb the vibes from an antique fighting chair in which Ernest Hemingway had once sat. The varnished teak chair stood out among the dusty relics in a two-room maritime museum at the back of Whidden’s, a historic bait shop and marina that offers a fascinating, if not slightly eccentric, window into old Florida.
On our way back to the marina, we stopped at the corner of Fourth and Tarpon and marveled at a gem of a cottage, with scissor-cut Bermuda grass and a mango tree drooping under the weight of ripe fruit. A sunset-colored mango, as perfect as they come, dropped softly at Isabella’s feet. She scooped up the fruit and studied it—fascinated—and smiled in a way that reminded me of her mother. From then on, she became Mango Girl.