BOCA GRANDE, Fla. — When the Astors, Vanderbilts and Du Ponts vacationed here, they traveled aboard luxurious private railway cars that chugged in to the depot in the center of town.
When President-elect George W. Bush and his extended family came to town Tuesday, they arrived in a motorcade that seemed almost as long as the island itself. But for America's aristocracy, the allure of Boca Grande has always been the same: a winter getaway featuring golf, tennis and privacy.
"Great to be here. Glad to be with my family," Bush shouted to a crowd of about 200 locals and tourists who waited outside his hotel to see the president-elect and his parents, Barbara and former President George Bush, join several dozen other family members for a holiday reunion on this tiny barrier island on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Asked what he planned to do first, Bush replied with a grin: "Have fun."
Indeed, this exclusive retreat northwest of Fort Myers has been a winter playground for America's wealthy since sunny weather and trophy-sized tarpon grabbed the attention of Eastern bluebloods soon after the turn of the century. Descendants of many of those pioneers of industry and banking still have homes here.
President-Elect's Brother Makes Reference to Election
This is Bush's first visit to Florida since the Sunshine State election recount, which after five weeks gave him a narrow victory over Vice President Al Gore. And, although the president-elect made no mention of that as he waved to well-wishers at the 1913 Gasparilla Inn, younger brother Jeb did. "He should be grateful for Florida, absolutely," the Florida governor said as he strolled outside the hotel about noon.
Although this is no ordinary small town--a modest three-bedroom clapboard home with a tin roof and a waterfront view can go for upward of $1 million--it is the kind of place where, on family vacations in years past, the Bushes have been known to duck down the street for a pizza at Jam's Italian restaurant or stop at the Loose Caboose for an ice cream cone.
"The is one of the few places in the U.S. where they could do this," Gary Dutery, editor of the weekly Boca Beacon, said just yards from where the president-elect and his brother Jeb minutes earlier teed off to begin a round of golf. "It's a small town surrounded on four sides by water."
Translated from the Spanish, Boca Grande is literally Big Mouth, but that is believed to have less political than geographical connotation. The island sits at the mouth of a wide opening to Charlotte Harbor, a natural deep water port.
Situated on the southern end of Gasparilla Island, the picturesque town was founded as a fishing village, prospered through much of the last century as a port for ships loaded with phosphate from nearby mines, then became an upscale winter retreat. Much of the island social life is centered at the Gasparilla Inn, which is owned by Bush family friend and Du Pont heir Bayard Sharp. He is hosting the president-elect and about 60 family members, including brothers Neil and Marvin and sister Doro.
Aides to Bush insisted that Bush's planned two-night stay here is chiefly for relaxation, not work. No press briefings are scheduled. But with several Cabinet positions yet to be filled, Bush is expected to be in close telephone contact with advisors before traveling to Washington on Thursday.
He is also sure to be in touch with his wife, Laura. She remained in Austin, Texas, with daughter Jenna, who underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis Monday. Jenna's twin, Barbara, is here, but her mother and sister are not expected.
The arrival of the Bushes, along with dozens of Secret Service agents, county sheriff's deputies and Florida Highway Patrol officers, is a disruption in a village of 800 residents, where golf carts and in-line skates are more efficient transportation than cars.
But the Bushes are well known here--this is the family's third consecutive Christmas week visit--and in a place with no traffic lights, gridlock is two bicycles on the sidewalk. "This is the biggest crowd I've ever seen here, but it's really no problem," said Judy Jack of Rochester, N.Y., who has been vacationing here for 20 years.
Local reporters covered the Bushes' arrival, but the beat reporters who normally cover the presidency and the campaign are headquartered in Forters, across the bay. That left much of the responsibility for covering the first family-in-waiting to Dutery. With only one full-time reporter, the editor handed a disposable camera and a two-way radio to two 14-year-olds--his son Chris and Chris' friend Scott Pinkham--and instructed them to call if they spotted any Bushes out and about.
"That's how I happened to be there for a picture of Jeb," said Dutery, a onetime city editor in York, Pa. "And then we got W. when he arrived too."
Not all of those who staked out the inn for a glimpse of the Bushes voted for the next president. "I'm just curious to see him," said Lynne Storey, 34, a software developer from Dallas who supported Gore. "He is the president, after all."
Bush Has Support From Locals and Out-of-Towners
But, indeed, Boca Grande is a Republican stronghold. Of the 649 votes cast here in the election, Bush got 536.
Most of the out-of-towners said they are Bush partisans too. "Very exciting to see him," said Dominic DiStefano, 61, who runs an Italian restaurant in Milwaukee and got a wave from the president-elect before he stepped into the hotel. "That's the closest I've ever been to a president."
"I think we're in GOP territory here," said Dottie Franklin, visiting from her home in Vero Beach, Fla. "I sure voted for him."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.