When people schedule their Gulf Coast Florida vacations, very few consider Punta Gorda as a town to stop. The nearest beach is over thirty-minutes away. There are no famous historical landmarks. But they may be making a mistake.
PUNTA GORDA, county seat for Charlotte County, sits at the mouth of the Peace River and at the start of massive Charlotte Harbor. Conveniently located just off I-75 and US41, the town is usually identified for its fishing and boating, not its restaurants and hotels, wilderness tours and entertainment.
In 2004 Hurricane Charley rammed downtown with 145-mph winds, destroying the old hotels and causing a redevelopment of the area. The beautiful waterfront Victorian houses survived the storm, some of them turning into neat restaurants.
The Charlotte Convention Center, where my parents put on shows, is now surrounded by three new highly rated hotels: Four Points Harborside (941-637-6770);Wyvern Punta Gorda (941-639-7700); and Spring Hill Suites Harborside (941-347-4224). Seafood restaurants and tiki bars stand by the marinas, and until the Co-Vin hit, downtown has so many cute bars and taverns, the Chamber held a walk-run bar hop every night.
Along the waterfront is large Gilchrist Park, named after the early pioneer Albert Gilchrist who rose to become Governor of Florida. Further west, you can not miss FISHERMAN’S VILLAGE, extending out into Charlotte Harbor with restaurants, shops, rental suites, and a huge marina. Just before the Village entrance at 900 Marion is the 17,000 square foot MILITARY HERITAGE MUSEUM.
At the Village is located KING FISHER FLEET (941-639-0959), which operates fishing charters, boat tours to the islands of Charlotte Harbor, and sunset cruises. If you would like to tour up the Peace River, WILDERNESS BOAT TOURS (317-997-4639) on Nesbit Street by the waterfront Laishley Crab House. Once you leave town, the river’s natural attractions appear.
If you drive west from the Village you will enter the upscale Punta Gorda Isles development which contains PONCE DE LEON HISTORIC PARK, a tribute to the Florida explorer’s 1521 visit to the area. No one really knows the exact spot in Southwest Florida where de Leon met his fate by a poisoned Calusa arrow.
Punta Gorda is so nicely compact that every block seems to have an interesting building. Walk along Retta Esplanade and Gilchrist Park toward Fisherman’s Village and you will pass a row of beautiful Victorian houses built in the 1890’s by the town leaders, many converted in recent times into quality restaurants, which make good use of large verandas, courtyards, and water views.
Turn inland and the commercial district is filled with 1920s structures. The 1923 COUNTY COURTHOUSE, the 1927 WOMENS CLUB, and more. Punta Gorda is one of those towns that has covered most of its downtown empty walls with impressive murals that tell the story of the town. These murals are a photographic op for most visitors and provide a unification to the area.
Small restaurants, bars, and shops have filled up most of the older buildings. Across from the historic 1926 SMITH ARCADE is the transplanted 1886 shed-like ISAAC TRABUE COTTAGE, home of the farmer-fisherman who started the town. He=is desire to have the town named after him failed, but at least his house was moved into a more prominent spot.
There is more to see and do in Punta Gorda. Besides several historic parks outside downtown, south on US41 is the MUSCLE CAR CITY MUSEUM, a collection of over 200 of the most famous and collectible vehicles in US auto history.
For those who prefer the nature, most of Eastern Charlotte County is the 67 million acres of the BABCOCK RANCH PRESERVE (800-500-5583). This is not just a functioning ranch with cattle, it is a great sport to hike and hunt (in season) and fish and take a long tour into the wilderness. This vast landscape is home to boars, black bear, bobcats, panthers, and herds of deer.
And if you prefer animals of an African or Asian kind, off FL31 and the Babcock area is the OCTAGON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY (239-543-1130), one of the Florida’s most respected refuges for unwanted big cats and other creatures.
That looks like a place worthy of a visit. Punta Gorda will be just one of many places in my Driving Tours of the Florida West Coast paperback to be released later this year.