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Punta Gorda—Gateway to the Real Florida

Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area, near Punta Gorda, Florida
Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area © 2018 Charles & Mary Love

If kayaking through mangrove forests, feasting on seafood in an authentic Florida crab shack or watching the sun set over a secluded lake are activities that appeal to you, then consider a visit to Punta Gorda. Located on Florida’s west coast at the the mouth of the Peace River, this small, historic city is not only the perfect base from which to explore Charlotte Harbor—Florida’s second largest estuary and a renowned fishing ground—it’s also a gateway to landscapes and adventures that reveal the “real Florida.”

In this post, we’ll focus primarily on things to do in and near Punta Gorda then finish with suggestions on how to get out on the water—fishing, paddling, cruising or simply walking the beach.

Exploring Punta Gorda

On your first afternoon, drive around Punta Gorda’s historic district, where the oldest homes date to the 1880s. Check out the shops and admire the 30 outdoor murals that depict important people, places and events in the town’s history. Don’t have time to view them? No worries. The website puntagordamurals.org has them all. The first mural honors town founder Isaac Trabue and transportation tycoon Henry Plant, who bought the existing Florida Southern Railroad and make it part of his extensive Southern rail network, the Plant System, in 1892.

Next, check into the Wyvern Hotel, a 63-room boutique hotel near town’s waterfront. The rooms are ultra-luxurious with marble baths and a soothing color palette. The hotel’s rooftop bar, Perch 360, offers a birds-eye view over the waterfront. Downstairs at 88 Keys Florida, the Wyvern’s stylish Art Deco piano bar and restaurant, Chef John Ellis serves outstanding contemporary American cuisine.

White Pelicans on Charlotte Harbor. Florida's west coast.. Photo courtesy Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau
White Pelicans on Charlotte Harbor. Photo courtesy Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau

The next morning, take breakfast at the hotel or drive four blocks to John Ski’s House of Breakfast and Lunch for a down-home meal so big you won’t need lunch. (Tip: Try the omelette, which arrives with multi-grain pancakes packed with craisins and pecans.)

Next on the agenda is 27-acre Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens, only 15 minutes away. This garden, which opened in 2017, was founded by a couple with a passion for botanicals and world-class art. The large-scale sculptures, which range in style from abstract to hyper-realistic, stand out against a landscape planted with native and exotic plants. Particularly striking is a larger-than-life bronze ballerina who extends one leg skyward in a graceful developé. Over the next few years, the gardens plan to add a conservatory, a fine arts museum and library, interpretive trails and a children’s garden.

Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens, Punta Gorda, Florida
Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. © 2018 Charles & Mary Love

 

A statue at Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. Punta Gorda, Fl © Charles & Mary Love
A statue at Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. © Charles & Mary Love

 

Protected Habitats

A barred owl at the Babcock Ranch Preserve. © 2018 Charles & Mary Love
A barred owl at the Babcock Ranch Preserve. © 2018 Charles & Mary Love

It’s a 30-minute drive from the gardens to Babcock Ranch, America’s first sustainable, solar-powered community. It’s worth the trip. During a visit, you’ll be impressed by how this precedent-setting development conserves energy and water while promoting a healthy (and fun) lifestyle. (In fact, it’s so appealing, you might consider building your dream home here instead of on the coast.) Tens of thousands of acres of protected lands border the community to the north and west. Moreover, half of the town’s 18,000-acre footprint is set aside for greenways and parks. There are hiking and biking paths, interconnected lakes for paddling, a health club, recreation center, grocery store, schools. There’s even a self-driving shuttle to get you from your home to the town center.

Enjoy a delicious farm-to-table lunch at Table & Tap in Babcock Ranch’s town square, then drive a few miles north to Babcock Ranch Eco Tours, part of 73,000-acre Babcock Ranch Preserve. This state-owned land protects important Florida ecosystems like pine forest, cypress swamp and prairie. The eco-tour is a chance to view alligators, snakes, osprey, sandhill cranes, barred owls and “cracker cattle”—descendants of cattle brought by the Spanish—and learn about the early Florida settlers.

There’s one last stop to make before sunset—the 81,000-acre Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area, which shelters many unusual and endangered species of birds, such as peregrine falcons, bald eagles, red-cockaded woodpeckers and eastern bluebirds. People come here to fish, hunt, hike, bike, birdwatch, horseback ride—or just drive through. At dusk, the setting sun burnishes the land in a soft golden light—a scene that recalls the Florida of yesteryear.

A feast of blue crabs at Peace River Seafood. Punta Gorda, Fl © 2018 Charles & Mary Love
A blue crab feast at Peace River Seafood. © 2018 Charles & Mary Love

On the way back to Punta Gorda dine in an authentic 1920s Florida cracker house. Peace River Seafood, although famous for its blue crabs, serves all kinds of local seafood. To start, order A Night at Whorehouse Point—a pound of steamed shrimp, a dozen clams, and a dozen oysters, served with corn on the cob and new potatoes. Or try the homemade she-crab soup. Main courses include mahi mahi, grouper, gator gumbo and Florida lobster tail. (Don’t worry if you don’t know how to crack your crabs, the servers will gladly show you how to wield a mallet.)

For lunch the next day, check out Fishermen’s Village, a marina where you can shop for Florida mementos and relax in one of several restaurants overlooking the water.

On the Water

Stump Pass State Park. On Charlotte Harbor, Florida
Stump Pass State Park. Photo courtesy Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau

So … we know you’re starting to wonder, “How do I get out on the water?” Fortunately, there are many private charter boats and paddling concessions in Punta Gorda. One established company is King Fisher Fleet, which offers fishing charters in the Gulf of Mexico and Charlotte Harbor, as well as day cruises to popular destinations like Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa (a state park), Boca Grande (once a week during the winter), the Peace River and others. [To read about a historic inn in Boca Grande, click here.]

If paddling is your thing, there are plenty of options. One is Hooked On SUP with locations at Don Pedro Island State Park and Stump Pass Beach State Park (a 40-minute drive from Punta Gorda). This company offers kayaking and paddle boarding—both classes and guided tours—to islands you can’t reach by car. Your morning might include paddling through a quiet mangrove tunnel or taking a yoga class on a stand-up paddle board.

More Options

For more information about things to do in the Punta Gorda area, visit pureflorida.com and and download the comprehensive visitors’ guide. Punta Gorda also has an excellent guide here  (then click icon at upper right). One last tip: with so many options, it’s important to know what you like to do and plan your itinerary well in advance. You don’t want to waste a minute in this beautiful area!

 

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