By WARREN RESEN IWFTWA (International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association)
Americans continue traveling despite the reality of the economy or perhaps because of it. Call it escapism if you will but today with the high price of gas, most of us would prefer not to travel too far from home and yet still have a unique experience. If I wanted to travel but had to eat in chain restaurants or stay in cookie cutter chain motels, I would probably stay home.
There is an alternative to the sameness of many road trips. It’s only a short drive to the south but far from the traffic congestion of the Tampa area. It’s a great place for a relaxing mini vacation.
The area is called Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands, nine coastal communities surrounding the second largest harbor in Florida, 270 plus square miles of unrestricted open water, rivers, inlets and mangrove estuaries. A paradise for boaters, fishermen and beachgoers. Charlotte Harbor has been a destination since the 1800’s when Cuban fishermen would arrive in their sailboats from Havana and fish the area, staying in the relative shelter of the harbor until hurricane season ended before returning home. It’s always been about the sea and fishing here.
The heart of the area is Punta Gorda, and depending on your inclination for the translation from Spanish to English, it’s either broad point or fat point. It sits on the south side of the harbor where the Peace River flows into Charlotte Harbor. Motorists pass over the river on I-75 or U.S. 41 and it’s an easy detour off the highways to visit this city with the odd name.
My destination was the locally famous Fisherman’s Village, built in 1980 on the site that was home to earlier fishing fleets and packing houses. Today it is a wonderful complex of boutiques, marina, fishing fleet, sightseeing excursion boats and vacation villa apartments sitting directly on the harbor. This weather-protected complex even features outdoor live entertainment and special events.
Boaters can bring their own vessels and dock outside their room. Fishermen don’t need an early morning departure from home to “catch the tide.” They can take a leisurely breakfast right in the complex then walk to the King Fisher Fleet for some of the finest back country, bay or Gulf fishing in Florida. Capt. Ralph Allen has been running this operation for more than thirty years and fully intends to be there for many more. In addition to fishing boats, Capt. Ralph’s fleet includes sightseeing/lunch/dinner cruise boats and two sailboats for charter, complete with captains. Something for everyone.
A word here about the villa rentals. They are family friendly. All units have two bedrooms, fully equipped kitchen, living room with sleeper couch, dining area, a sleeping loft and a balcony with a water view. Besides the marina, Fisherman’s Village provides guests with a large swimming pool, tennis courts and protected parking.
We started our visit with a sightseeing tour of the bay and estuaries conducted by Capt. Ralph. Of course a little fishing was included and a few small redfish were caught in a mangrove estuary. But what Capt. Ralph really wanted us to see was the area’s recovery from Hurricane Charley that came roaring through in August of 2004. It’s lucky the Cuban fisherman, whose fleet are a distant memory, were long gone from the harbor. It’s been a remarkable recovery. Give nature enough time and she is capable of repairing any damage. Back on land, new homes, restaurants, lodgings and a rejuvenated downtown have taken shape since the storm.
There is much to do and see in the area even if your visit is a short one. For local sightseeing, leave your car at the Village and pedal through Punta Gorda courtesy of Florida’s first FREE bike loan program run by TEAM Punta Gorda. Bikes are available right at the Village. Tour the waterfront, parks, galleries, historic buildings and make it a point to find all of the wall murals that have and are being painted on buildings throughout the city.
This area is known for its uncrowned white sand beaches of Gulf. While we didn’t opt to go swimming, my wife and I did participate in an event in the Englewood area. When we arrived in Punta Gorda, our host offered us the opportunity to experience a marriage vow renewal ceremony on the beach at Don Pedro Island. Of course we said the magic word…“yes.”
After arriving by kayak from the mainland, a short hike through the dunes of Don Pedro island brought us to the sparkling waters of the Gulf. The vow renewal ceremony, with the Gulf of Mexico as witness, was performed by Chris Warren owner of Phoenix Rising Kayak Tours.
The ceremony over, we retired to a nearby covered pavilion for a repast of fruit and cheese and then returned to the mainland, by kayak, with a side trip through the mangroves via what Chris calls the “Tunnel of Love.” The whole experience was unexpected but lovely and meaningful.
Chris will also work with you to put together personalized wedding packages for an inexpensive and memorable occasion. He has been kayaking for 25 years and guiding for five. Look him up at www.prkayak.com/wedding-tours for information about this and his other activities.
We had traveled to Punta Gorda to find sights and experiences unique to the area. The beach ceremony was certainly different but what else was there to do and see in just a couple of days now that we were officially on our “second honeymoon?” How about a “muscle car museum” for a change of pace. Even the kids will love this one.
Just south of downtown Punta Gorda on the Tamiami Trail is Rick Treworgy’s Muscle Car City. A free standing 99,000 square foot building showcasing more than 200 General Motors performance cars of the 60’s and early 70’s, all in mint condition: Camaros, Chevelles, Pontiac GTOs, Oldsmobile 442s and an assortment of Hot Rods and antique Chevys. The first production Corvettes are there, both the 6 and 8 cylinder models. The cars will bring back fond memories to old-timers and show kids what cars looked like in the heyday of Detroit when there were actual differences between cars. You could tell what kind of car was coming down the road from blocks away.
At night, for that all important decision of where to dine, there are lovely restaurants in nearby downtown Punta Gorda. The River City Grill was our choice. Or, you can dine in one of the restaurants right at Fisherman’s Village. No need to try to find a bland fast food chain restaurant.
Punta Gorda is an easy road trip and a delightful place to spend a day, a couple of days or longer.