Florida Travel Diaries: Gasparilla Pirate Festival

Florida has everything you need for a perfect beach holiday. Here you can swim in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico in Tampa or lounge, play or party on sandy white beaches and finish the day with seafood over colorful sunset and balmy sea breezes in Miami.

We wake up around eight and after a leisurely breakfast on the veranda, though not particularly rich, we venture towards the Little White House of former President Truman, a beautiful villa with an equally well-kept garden, and after a turn around, we make an attempt to get up to Fort Zachary, but we give up for the lack of interest.

We return to the center and we head to the Lighthouse that unlike almost all the others were not built on the seashore at a high point, but far more than 500 meters from the coast, to protect it from typhoons. After a brief visit to the garden and the small museum, we climb 90 stairs to get to the cell of the lamp, which offers a beautiful view over the city.

A few steps away is the colonial two-story villa, where Hemingway lived during the years when he found inspiration here for his novels, before moving to Cuba. The house is all in wood, with a large garden, guest cottage, swimming pool, the cemetery of cats and furniture/fixtures still perfectly preserved in the state in which they were left by the last owner.

Leaving this interesting attraction we head where it was erected a huge, squat memorial of stone, painted in red, yellow and black that identifies the southernmost point of the United States and the shortest distance from Cuba.
After a quick look at the beautiful houses of the neighborhood, we go to the Butterfly House. We enter a room which houses a beautiful tropical garden with a pond, flowers, two pink flamingos, free birds, some free to fly, others in cages, some on foot and many beautiful colored butterflies that flutter around filling the air with their uncertain flight.

On the way back we have an excellent fish dinner, with a free round of beer and modest spending. The last step was to browse the shops until it was time to go to sleep.

After a breakfast on the veranda, we leave along Key West to the Everglades in Florida City. We take U.S. Route 1 in the opposite direction, determined to discover more of this long chain of islands, but luck is not on our side, because after paying $ 6 for entry at the Little Long Key park, we go out totally disappointed with seas of uncertain color, nonexistent beaches, insignificant pedestrian and mangrove forests to act as a background to a small river with water of coffee-milk color.

We also stop at one of the much vaunted beaches placed after Islamorada, which is a disappointment. The little free beach is close to the mangroves but the sea looks dirty, the absolutely still beach looks unclean and long walkway, built in the mangroves, does not lead to particularly fascinating locations. We continue, as planned, to stop at J. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, to conclude this part of the trip with an excursion on the reef, but after arriving at the entrance, the ranger warns us that the boat trips are not available because of the strong winds.

Taking the road and a after a good hour and half we arrive at the hotel. After a good night's sleep, the alarm sends us to breakfast and we resume the march all the way to Marco Island, crossing the Everglades. The road runs along a monotonous wide canal that flows into a vast plain, here and there interrupted by mangrove spots, with the ground replacing the swamp.

We find traces of human activity only on the signs that invite us to take a trip on the air-boat or visiting farm alligators, as long as we do not let curiosity and decide to stop in front of a huge statue of an Indian struggling with a alligator and a huge sign for the title of Miccosukee Indian Village.

While parking the car on the immense square in front of the entrance, I had the impression that this is just a store for the sale of souvenirs, but when we read that inside there is a small museum and there are tanks for the breeding of animals, and every two hours an alligator show is run by an Indian native, it convinced us to enter.

We are in a large wooded area where they were re-created environments where the Indians lived in this part of Florida.

The struggle between man and the alligator has no history, but it is interesting to visit the small museum, see the tub where live turtles and alligators, usually the first food for others and walk among the mangroves on a suspended walkway. After taking some photographs, we take the road to Marco Island and its beaches, without finding anything particularly exciting, but only the channels along which were built resort and fabulous villas.

We return to the hotel and after a short wait at the entrance, we settle at a table, where we are served good hot sandwiches and a salad, waiting for two great seafood. We leave fully satisfied for the night.

Next morning for breakfast we are welcomed into the space in front of the swimming pool in front of the lobby, in a lush garden, with flowers, streams and small statues of all kinds. Almost reluctantly, we leave the hotel in search of a way to get to the beaches, distracted by a beautiful city with beautiful villas placed on roads surrounded by green gardens and discover that the houses here have been done as a barrier along all the beaches, which can be accessed only through those areas delegated for this and this is repeated in every place where there are no public facilities on the beaches like walks, parks, etc.

The white sand that we find from now on for the rest of the trip is exclusively formed of fragments of crushed shells from the action of the sea and it is hard to imagine the amount of shells that were used. As we go to Fort Myers, our next destination, we enjoy the sea and the beaches of Estero, we meet on the street and then in the afternoon, we let ourselves be enchanted, from the island of Sanibel.

We travel the length and breadth while stopping for a educational visit to the Bailey-Matthews Malacological museum, arriving until the pass of Captiva for a fleeting glance at the old lighthouse and the white beaches, which here have a more Caribbean flavor, although the sea is not beautiful. We continue to wander from one beach to another trying to figure out the most beautiful, because the signs are missing completely and it is not easy to guess which side street lead to the sea.

This time we loc ourselves into an anonymous motel, with a nasty pool locked up by an even uglier or non-existent public areas, although the room is wide and clean. We go out and just as we began to think of having to skip dinner, we go to a restaurant hidden among a supermarket, where we were served a very good dinner with Red Lobster, along with loud music.

Next morning we wake up and waiting to resume the road to new discoveries, we go for breakfast. We cross Ft. Myers to Punta Gorda and Charlotte, pointing towards the island of Gasparilla and we walk up to Boca Grande along a coastline dotted with beautiful white beaches up to Siesta Key. It will surprise you for its disproportionate measures and a white sand as fine as talcum powder.

It remains ironic that the cheap flights to Florida carry tourists to celebrate a party clearly of marine flavor in which the star is a pirate. But it is that the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, held the last Saturday in January, is an event of enormous proportions that makes this quiet town of just over 300,000 inhabitants go berserk. There are concerts and various festive activities.

Except for some regions such as the Indian Ocean and Asian Pacific areas, today piracy has disappeared. But there was a time when its main field of operations was the Caribbean Sea to the point that pirates operating there have their own name of buccaneers.

It is already a classic print that the ships of the Spanish Fleet and the Spanish coastal cities suffered the incursions of those marginalized, who have always maintained a romantic halo that, in reality, does not correspond with reality. The surprising thing is that when it was dying and their activity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was exactly a Spanish last pirate. His name was Jose Gaspar, aka Gasparilla, who became famous for terrorizing the coast of southwest Florida in the United States.

Gaspar's stories are relatively consistent. Many say he was born in Spain in 1766 and served in the Spanish Navy on board the ship Floridablanca. Among his first exploits is the taking of a young girl as a hostage. Some versions indicate that her later capture was one of the motivations to join the navy. Simpler versions of history suggest that he just started a riot and became a pirate soon after, although some say he became more romantic after reaching a high rank in the navy and became an advisor to King Carlos III.

He became popular at court, but when he left one mistress for another, the lady he had abandoned raised false charges against him, which is usually said to have been theft of the crown jewels. To escape his arrest he took his ship and swore vengeance against his country through piracy.

He changed his name to Gasparilla and patrolled the west coast of Florida for the next 38 years, usually said to have been between 1783 and 1821, about the years in which Florida was under Spanish control for the second time, ransacking every ship that crossed him and accumulate a great treasure, which hid in his hideout in the island Gasparilla.

Most male prisoners were executed or recruited as pirates, while women were taken to a nearby island, called Captiva Island for this reason, where they became concubines or were kept there until paid for their ransom by their families.

This is one of several Gasparilla stories that try to explain the name of a place in the area. One of the most famous stories is about a Spanish or Mexican princess, supposedly called Useppa, that Gaspar had captured. She repeatedly rejected the pirate until he threatened to cut off her head if she did not submit to his lust. Even so she refused and he killed her in a fit of wrath or alternatively, because his crew demanded her death.

The captain immediately repented of what he had done and took her body to a nearby island, which he called the Useppa island in her honor, and buried her. Some sources identify this woman as Josefa de Mayorga, daughter of Martín de Mayorga, the viceroy of New Spain between 1779 and 1782 and argue that the name of the island was changed over time.

Similarly, Sanibel Island is also said to have been named by Gasparilla's first officer, Roderigo Lopez in honor of his former lover, after he left her in Spain. Feeling empathetic towards his friend's pain, Gaspar eventually allowed Lopez to return home and even entrusted his personal diary. Sanibel Island has also appeared in other stories as the alleged location of the headquarters of Black Caesar, a Haitian pirate whose history intersects with Gasparilla.

Obviously, there is more legend than reality but that brought a fabulous treasure and, before dying, buried on a beach somewhere unknown. It was never found but the figure of pirate served to inspire the name of a powerful company called Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, as well as the creation of a party memorial.

This recreates a hypothetical invasion of Tampa by buccaneers. It began to be celebrated in 1904, although the scarcity of means of then forced to represent it by land, with horses. But today is a sailing ship called Jose Gasparilla, of course that sets sail from Hillsborough Bay accompanied by a hundred boats of all kinds. It arrives at the port of Tampa Bay disembarking to a host of 400 individuals dressed in patches, hooks and trichomes.

In 1904, members of Tampa's business elite set up an invasion of their city based on Gasparilla's increasingly popular figure. Using an organization similar to that of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the invaders dressed up as pirates rode through the streets in a parade. The event was a success, and organizers planned an even more elaborate show for the following year, where all 60 city cars participated in the parade through downtown Tampa.

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been held almost every year since, with only two short parentheses, and today more than 400,000 people participate in the event, which contributes more than $ 20,000,000 to the local economy.

On the warm and sunny Sunday, beneath the tall trees flanking the huge parking lot in front of the beach where we were not able to find a place, hundreds of people were busy looking after the barbecue and another multitude was deployed as a barrier of people and umbrellas, on the sea front. He abandoned the idea of being able to take the first swim in the sea and we try to return before the traffic caused by the tide of people present on the beaches create traffic jams and lines of cars, even worse than that we found to achieve thus far.

We have a dinner at a fast-food restaurant on the way back and buy supplies for the following day, to reach Miami. Before long transfer to Miami, we decide to visit the Shell Factory, which we had noticed the previous day on the Tamiami Trail. Immersed in a sea of shells from all over the world, after spending an hour in the wonder of shapes and colors, we buy some that will keep company with those collected on previous trips.

The road to the disappointing Lake Okeechobee, which is invisible behind the high banks, is long and boring and all the same, through a barren and colorless land, which does not offer scenic views. We arrive in the early afternoon in Miami and find the hotel did not present particular difficulties along the way, so, we unloaded our luggage, and make a quick turn around and then immediately return to the car to take a stroll in the Art Deco District.

After a whirlwind city trip, we retire to the hotel, with lots of windows and a good view around. After a good breakfast with excellent freshly squeezed orange juice and fresh croissants, we walk along to find an agency that sells off Miami tours. 15 minutes later the bus arrives with a showman driver who, in an almost incomprehensible English, entertains us, illustrating the path of an hour to the port of Biscayne Bay, where lie a battered ship, disguised as a pirate boat as large green iguanas often cross the road fast.

The whole tour has been very interesting, allowing us to see up close the most beautiful houses of the US stars, Biscayne Bay, the sky-line of Miami, crossing Little Havana, the Downtown and a good portion of the city, giving us good views. We arrive in the evening and with the sky threatening rain, we take refuge in a small restaurant with vague Greek hints.

After the last steps in Ocean Drive, we retire for the next day, which will take us to Las Vegas, the first stop.