Food & Wine Festival Weekend
A Beloved Tradition on an Island Untouched By Time
For over 100 years, The Gasparilla Inn & Club has been welcoming guests to come and experience Florida as it was meant to be: Untouched by time and surrounded by the pristine beauty that comes with being located in the heart of Gasparilla Island. Established in 1913, a large part of The Inn’s charm lies in its simplicity and stand against modern renovations. Nine years ago The Gasparilla Inn began a brand new tradition that quickly snowballed into Boca Grande’s most anticipated culinary event of the season—The Gasparilla Food and Wine Festival Weekend. From January 9th-11th, I had the unexpected, incomparable pleasure of experiencing this quaint city and The Inn’s beloved new tradition for myself.
Located on an island reachable by causeway only, The Gasparilla Inn & Club is a premier destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast and has played host to many notables throughout its fascinating history such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Katharine Hepburn and more. Perhaps one of its more recent celebrity residents have been the George H.W. Bush family who has never stopped making annual trips to the intimate island. The resort itself is just phenomenal in the most humbling way possible. It stands regal and proud on the property, yet maintains so many of The Inn’s original features. Upon entering the pillared entrance, guests are instantly embraced by the wonderful staff with a genuine kindness reminiscent of a long forgotten time that is still a part of this classic resort. As you take a look around the lobby and make your way to your guestroom, you begin to experience the feeling of old Florida charm as it was meant to be. From guestroom doors that open with an old-fashioned lock and key to authentic antique furniture, The Inn was truly a step into the past.
The weekend I showed up for the Food and Wine Festival was undoubtedly a busy one for The Gasparilla Inn’s staff, but you’d never know it from the relaxing atmosphere that never ceased to permeate the air. The highly anticipated weekend of activities began on a Friday evening with a welcome reception and dinner featuring Chefs Robert Plesh, Tom Hagerty, David Blackburn and Benjamin Copeland. As samplings of distinguished wines were paired with flavorful food, gourmands and wine enthusiasts alike embarked on an edible “tour” of the world’s most famous culinary regions. Large tables and choose-your-own seating made for perfect mingling opportunities as a solo guitar player peppered the hum of conversations with soft, beautiful music. Seated to my left was two time festival attendee, Anka Eshak, who told me about her positive experience at the previous year’s event which led to her and her husband creating a new annual tradition. “This is absolutely wonderful! It’s only Friday, but we have not been disappointed,” said Anka. “I feel very strongly about how food taste, but I also think the presentation is really important and this has been such a beautiful experience. Everyone should come.”
On Saturday, guests of the festival had the chance to attend a variety of culinary events and tastings. Chef John Folse kicked off the morning with a culinary demonstration that went on to become one of my favorite events of the weekend. For a fascinating hour, Chef Folse instructed guests on how to prepare corn and crab cappuccino and the king of all pork roasts, porchetta. You could’ve heard a pin drop as everyone’s attention was firmly placed on Chef Folse who passionately shared the step-by-step details and cooking techniques of himself and other leading chefs in the industry. After a brief lunch, the demonstrations resumed with sustainable caviar tasting by Mote Marine Research Laboratory. Wrapping up the afternoon of tastings was Tablas Creek Vineyard with an exquisitely prepared, eight-part wine tasting. The demonstration explained the extensive research that went into creating the final recipe for the winery’s flagship Rhône-style blends, Espirit de Tablas red and white. Their impressive and extensive knowledge of the industry made for a presentation that was intriguing, interesting and left you wanting to know more. After the lovely tasting, myself and other guests lined up to speak one on one with representatives from Tablas Creek Vineyard and local distributor, Premier Beverage.
The Inn may be the center of village life on the island, but after filling up on delectable bites and wines, I felt it was finally time to explore Gasparilla Island’s downtown. I should probably add that I’m using the term “downtown” quite loosely as it’s more of a “blink and you’ll miss it town,” but that’s all part of the classic old Florida feel that makes people fall in love with Gasparilla Island over and over again. The downtown area was a small and simple, yet intimate lineup of various boutiques, gift shops and businesses. As fellow first-time attendee, Tom Davenport, told me at the welcome reception, the absence of big city hustle on the island truly makes it the perfect place to host an event such as the Food and Wine Festival. “The lack of activity really allows you to relax and focus on the food and wine,” said Tom. “I think it’s an unusual environment in that regard.”
As the sun set in the distance and a sprinkling of brilliantly lit stars splashed across the sky, it was time for the festival’s closing Wine Reception and Master Chef ’s Dinner. After much mingling and laughter in The Inn’s living room, we all made our way to the Banyan Room next door for a meticulously prepared six course meal featuring Chefs John Johnstone, Robert Plesh, Scott Haegle, Seth Shipley, Jared Van Camp, Pierre Sauvaget and John Folse as well as a variety of wines from Adelsheim Vineyard. The first dish in a long line of delectable plates was black pudding, fried quail egg, brioche and sauce choron presented in honor of the late Chef Peter Timmins, CMC. I didn’t think it would be possible for the chefs to top themselves after starting off that strong, but somehow they continued to do just that with each consecutive dish. From the heavenly cappuccino soup I had just learned how to make hours earlier to a sinful goat cheese cremeux hazelnut sponge cake and everything in-between—The Gasparilla Inn chefs are truly nothing short of remarkable! A well deserved round of applause and standing ovation for them wrapped up the beautiful evening and final event of the weekend.
Later that night, I joined fellow festival attendees for an impromptu goodbye drink at the nearby Pink Elephant bar located within walking distance of The Gasparilla Inn. As we exchanged numbers, laughs and hugs, it became immediately apparent that I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. The Gasparilla Food and Wine Festival Weekend was an amazing event that passed by all too quickly, but the experience will remain with me for a lifetime. My companion and I left for The Gasparilla Inn with the intention of simply experiencing good food and a few fine wines, but we had no idea that what we had actually signed up for was so much more than that. We had signed up for new friendships, hearty laughs and a fleeting moment of tranquility, peace and relaxation in a fast-moving world that long ago forgot how to stop and smell the roses. We had signed up for a trip down memory lane and a beautiful weekend at a luxurious, historic hotel that fervently pursues its mission to show families, couples, friends and groups alike how to enjoy Florida as it was meant to be.
The Gasparilla Inn & Club
500 Palm Avenue, Boca Grande, FL 33921