A cruiser rides at anchor between a pair of deserted islands, sun setting to the west, the scent of grilled steaks carried aloft by a soft sea breeze.
Welcome to Pine Island Sound, and one of the finest cruising grounds in the southern U.S. This portion of coastal southwest Florida, stretching from Fort Myers to Port Charlotte, encompasses several hundred miles of sheltered waterway that are beloved by fishermen, sailors and powerboaters alike. From world-renowned sportfishing and first-class marinas, to expansive bays, pristine beaches, and lingering pockets of Old Florida heritage, the area has something for everyone.
Florida has some 1,200 miles of shoreline—double that when you count the various coastal nooks and crannies, plus hundreds of miles of sheltered passage along the Intracoastal Waterway. Within this realm, you can find wild anchorages surrounded by unspoiled wetlands, or you can dock adjacent to some of the most exclusive real estate on the planet. And every once in a while, you can enjoy both ends of this cruising spectrum on the same day.
The Sound has remained a personal favorite since childhood. Back then, we explored the coastline and fished the passes in a vintage wooden runabout with a cantankerous outboard from the Eisenhower era. Fast forward a few decades and I’m still a big fan of the region— especially when I have an opportunity to revisit some perennial favorite ports aboard a factory-fresh motoryacht.
Cruisers Yachts had a new 52-footer in need of a shakedown cruise; I wanted a break from deadlines; and my son felt deserving of a classroom respite on the occasion of his 12th birthday. Plans were made, provisions secured, and Tuesday morning found us on the seawall at Cape Coral’s Tarpon Point Marina, watching as Captain Kurt Johnson made easy work of walking a 520 Sports Coupe sideways into a tight slip. Hurray for IPS and joysticks.
A former fishing guide, towboat pilot, and delivery captain, Johnson spent more than two decades plying area waters. And just as I’ve found, familiarity never bred contempt. With dozens of marina resorts and many more anchorages within our range, paring down our options to fit the allotted schedule was tough. Ultimately, we settled on some long-time favorites.
Tarpon Point Marina sits at the mouth of the Caloosa River, and the junction of the ICW and the Okeechobee Cross- Florida Waterway. To the north, Pine Island Sound opens between the larger Pine Island to the east and a string of narrow barrier islands facing the Gulf of Mexico. The Sound is a tapestry of shallow grass beds and sandbars etched by both marked and unmarked channels. Those lacking local knowledge would be well advised to keep between the reds and greens until they are north of Pine Island, where the channel opens into the expanses of Charlotte Harbor. Offering more than 100 square miles of sheltered water with uniform depths of 10 to 15 feet, this is where the sailboats come to play.
Once past the idle zones of the Miserable Mile, we revved up the trio of 435-horsepower Volvos and had a bit of fast fun. As I’ve come to expect from IPS-powered boats, the 52 delivered runabout- like handling, and was remarkably frugal when compared to similar-sized boats from the era of shaft drives and mechanical fuel injection. Back in the day, I’d have never believed that a 21-ton, 52-footer could maintain an easy 30-knot cruising speed, while consuming just under 50 gallons an hour. Before we knew it, Gasparilla Island was in sight.
Gasparilla Island is home to the village of Boca Grande. Billed as the Tarpon Fishing Capital of the World, it’s also a favorite haunt of folks who like to vacation under the radar. It’s similar to Nantucket or Catalina: a blend of well-maintained historic cottages and new construction that adheres to a traditional aesthetic.
Our destination was the island’s crown jewel: the Gasparilla Inn & Club. A right turn at the harbor entrance brought us past the Inn’s seaside golf course to the courtesy dock for the Pink Elephant Restaurant— always a good choice for lunch or dinner. The inn is fast approaching the century mark, and shows its age in the best possible way. Anyone seeking a high-end, low-key respite ashore will find spa services, a beach club, and immaculately maintained croquet courses, where competitors in starched whites take the game quite seriously.