Quiet now. We’re going to let you in on a secret. You may think that golfers have been exploring Florida for so long that there is nothing left to discover. You may think it impossible that the state could have a small, elegant hotel with a seaside Pete Dye golf course that you don’t already know about.
Welcome to the Gasparilla Inn & Club. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s no accident. For decades, the inn’s proprietors have rather liked it that way.
The inn sits on Gasparilla Island, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, about midway between Tampa and Naples. Early last century, a railroad spur pushed through so that phosphates mined nearby could be hauled away. When the phosphates were depleted, the rail line remained, enabling passengers to come, but only a select few people were in the know. Gasparilla Island became a very quiet, very elite winter colony—Palm Beach without the bling, Northeast Harbor with warm, sunny winters. A causeway now links the island to the mainland, and there’s been a small condo outbreak. But the air of exclusivity remains.
The Gasparilla Inn, built in 1913, is of a piece with the island. It’s the antithesis of flashy: a rambling, wood-frame building with a plain roof and a couple of royal palms guarding the front portico. The only identifying mark is a banner hanging from a flagpole over the door.
For years, the guests tended to be friends of the owners or relatives of people who owned homes on the island. When they checked in, they could refer to a clipboard in the lobby that listed the new arrivals, so they’d know which of their friends had made it down. The inn did no marketing or advertising. The only publicity it received came whenever a society couple was married there and a discreet mention of the wedding appeared in the New York Times.
But all things change. The inn’s cover was partially blown by the Bush family, which likes to check in for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. In 2000 the press staked out the inn as George W. Bush mulled his Cabinet choices. Last year, when former President Ford died, George H. W. Bush stood between the pillars by the front door while making his first public statement of condolence.
"It’s a really family-oriented property," says Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor. "On a typical day I’ll wake up and go to the village for coffee and bagels. Then fishing. After lunch, golf—I’ve shot in the high seventies on the course, but it’s gotten harder since Pete Dye redesigned it. Then I work out, have dinner and go to bed. It’s not much for nightlife, but nightlife isn’t in my DNA." Another advantage Bush cited: The guests are too sophisticated to show excitement when a former president is in their midst. "We can have Dad to ourselves."
In 2002, longtime owner Bayard Sharp passed away, leaving the inn to his daughter, Sarah Farish. (Her husband, Will Farish, was U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and the Farishes remain good friends of Queen Elizabeth II, who visited them during Kentucky Derby week this past May.) She quickly set to work, revamping the beach club and adding a spa.