Old Florida lives on in recreation-rich Punta Gorda
If Punta Gorda had a beach, or was even close to a beach, it would be a different place – better known to tourists, more commercial.
Instead, Punta Gorda has a magnificent riverfront location and has retained more of its connection to its past. After you’ve visited, you might decide a beach would’ve ruined its Old Florida charm.
Located midway between Naples and Tampa, Punta Gorda is on the shores of the wide Peace River, which flows into Charlotte Harbor, the second largest estuary in Florida. These waters are known internationally for fishing (especially tarpon) and sailing. The river gives Punta Gorda stunning water vistas, and the downtown makes the most of its location.
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Parks and walking/biking paths line the waterfront. Alongside the river are historic neighborhoods with cobbled streets and stately old homes. In winter, Punta Gorda’s calendar is full of festivals and its downtown buzzes with pedestrians on weekends.
The town’s attractions for visitors are very diverse:
Peace River Botanic Gardens opened only weeks ago. It is located on 27 acres abutting the Peace River, with massive sculptures and landscaped grounds. The gardens were founded by Roger E. Tetrault, retired CEO of a large off-shore oil company and a distinguished leader in science and technology, and his wife. Admission is $12 adults. Details at .
Muscle Car City Museum is another attraction that started with a resident’s passion. It displays more than 200 of Rick Treworgy’s personal collection of Detroit’s finest, all perfect specimens that are waxed weekly and driven periodically. The car museum displays 60 Corvettes; he owns 70, including 16 of the much admired 1967 427 Corvette model. Treworgy explains: “I was going after one of every color, but it got away from me.” The museum has a fun 1960s style diner on the premises. Details at .
Peace River Wildlife Center is a small wildlife rehabilitation center located in the mangroves overlooking Charlotte Harbor at Ponce de Leon Park. You can visit every day from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Permanently disabled pelicans, eagles, hawks, ospreys, tortoises and turtles are among its residents. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Ponce Park, by the way, is also the favorite spot to watch sunsets over Charlotte Harbor. .
The city is the perfect place to take a sight-seeing cruise on Charlotte Harbor, where you are likely to see dolphins and many kinds of birds. You also can take a longer cruise on to explore nearby beaches and islands, including Cabbage Key and a pristine barrier island with miles of beach that is home to a state park. The operates boat tours out of the downtown marina. Info:
Near downtown you’ll find Fisherman’s Village, a waterfront open-air mall with restaurants, locally owned shops and live music. Built on a pier over the water, it is easy to spend time here dining, shopping and enjoying the views.
For a small town, Punta Gorda has a surprising number of good restaurants. We recommend a local favorite for buckets of fresh blue crabs — Peace River Seafood, a true crab shack in an authentic 1927 Cracker cabin just outside town.
When you’re ready to venture beyond town, Punta Gorda offers many recreational opportunities – kayaking, sailing, fishing, hiking, bird-watching, biking.
You can use Punta Gorda as your base and make a day trip (or several day trips) to these outstanding destinations:
Boca Grande, an exclusive resort island where the presidential Bush dynasty has vacationed, is a 45 minute drive around Charlotte Harbor. You cross a scenic causeway (and pay a $6 toll) to reach its spectacular beaches, two historic lighthouses including one with a museum and Gasparilla Island State Park. Beaches here have stunning and you can explore the island by rental bike on a paved scenic trail. The visit is the worth the toll!
The barrier island beaches just north of Boca Grande are excellent and worth discovering. Stump Pass Beach State Park is a pristine and undeveloped barrier island located at the end of Manasota Key. Nearby, Englewood Beach offers similar dazzling sand and shells, but is more accessible with lots of parking.
There is excellent fresh-water kayaking at local streams, such as Shell Creek, and salt-water kayaking along the mangrove fringed coast. can arrange a tour or rent equipment for several different trips. Shell Creek, five miles east of Punta Gorda, deserves to be better known: I think it was one of the prettiest kayak trails in Florida. Info:
A half hour east of town, the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area is 65,000 acres of flatwoods, hammocks, prairies and marshes. This is the place for red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and, in winter, thousands of tree and barn swallows. Babcock-Webb offers guided adventures tours, which use old school buses to traverse rough roads and splash through shallow waters to view wildlife. The tours are $24 for adults and $16 for children 3 to 12. Info:
Adjacent to the wildlife area is a new community being developed that is being called the nation’s first solar town – Babcock Ranch. It already produces enough solar energy to run the planned community. The downtown has a farm-to-table restaurant and craft beer garden. Info:
Have more time? You’ll find great places to hike and look for birds around here. A good tool for locating places to explore is the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, , where you can see all the locations on a map.
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