Get your feet wet exploring Charlotte Harbor’s rivers, estuary and Gulf islands.
When on the way to Florida’s most favored vacation spots, it’s easy to miss places that could turn out to be even more enchanting. Travelers bound for Naples or Marco Island often bypass the unassuming collection of historic towns, aquatic preserves and pristine Gulf islands known as Charlotte Harbor—a destination whose time has come.
Numerous starting points can anchor a weekend or weeklong visit to Charlotte Harbor, home to the mural-dotted downtown district of Punta Gorda and a handful of islands—Cayo Costa, Little Gasparilla, Palm Island—that can only be accessed by boat or car ferry. The area also covers Boca Grande, the affluent Gasparilla Island neighborhood that has been a destination favorite of the Bush family for decades.
From end to end, the Charlotte Harbor area consists of more than 693 square miles, sliced nearly in half by the 270 square-mile harbor located in the center. As a result, the harbor—the second-largest estuary in the state—plays a central role in the area’s appeal. Water-based activities, including sailing, fishing, paddle boarding and kayaking, make for a getaway filled with adventure, while the area’s 28 miles of sugary sand beaches along the Gulf await those seeking days spent doing nothing at all.
What to Do
Charlotte Harbor and its surrounding communities and picturesque islands are easily accessible by boat or car ferry.
With its miles of nature trails and untouched beaches, a visit to Cayo Costa (floridastateparks.org/cayocosta) is a memorable highlight. Accessed only by private boat or the ferry departing from nearby Pine Island, this 2,426–acre barrier island offers humble overnight cabins and tent camping. Expect to see a host of wildlife including manatees, dolphins and an extraordinary variety of birds.There is no shortage of ways to explore Charlotte Harbor. Try the King Fisher Fleet (kingfisherfleet.com) harbor boat trips, which depart daily from the colorful shopping and dining hub known as Fishermen’s Village. These excursions are ideal for those seeking an effortless cruise. However, a canoe, kayak or paddleboard tour will provide a different perspective of the harbor’s salt marshes, mangroves, seagrass and tidal flats.
Take a respite from the sun and wander through Punta Gorda’s petite downtown, where a few dozen boutiques and restaurants line a pleasantly walkable few blocks. If the colorful murals there catch your interest, check out the mobile mural map at puntagordamurals.com, which gives locations and descriptions of all 24 murals. Seasonally, on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, a bustling farmers market monopolizes a section of Taylor Road with some atypical vendors worth checking out, including a gourmet pickle stand, a guacamole purveyor, and a citrus stand selling glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice for a dollar.
Where to Stay
Wealthy northerners have vacationed at Boca Grande’s posh Gasparilla Inn & Club since it opened its doors in 1913.
Once a fashionable haunt for the Vanderbilts and DuPonts, the stately and charming Gasparilla Inn & Club (the-gasparilla-inn.com) is a resort hotel deserving of the term “Old Florida.” Built in 1913, the Boca Grande resort closes its 137-room inn and highbrow restaurant for upkeep from July 7 to October 10, but a few of its charming cottages remain open and can be booked through its sister property, The Innlet (theinnlet.com). Beachfront abodes can be found at the WannaB Inn (wannabinn.com), a multi-building resort located a stone's throw from Stump Pass Beach State Park on Manasota Key. The rooms, many with Gulf views and full kitchens, have recently undergone spirited makeovers, giving them an art deco verve.
Where to Dine
Peace River Seafood serves up platefuls of delicious crabs caught by local fishermen in the Peace River.
With Charlotte Harbor’s endless stretches of waterways, it comes as no surprise that seafood is a staple on nearly every restaurant menu. At Farlow’s on the Water (farlowsonthewater.com), the offerings highlight the talents of husband and wife Keith and Laurie Farlow. In the kitchen, his upbringing in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands merges with her Southern culinary roots. The result is a menu filled with marital compromises like St. Croix seafood pie and fried green tomatoes. Be sure to opt for an outdoor table when available; there’s live music on the patio most nights, the perfect accompaniment to an after-dinner cocktail at the restaurant’s outdoor rum bar.
Locals guide visitors to The Fishery Restaurant (fisheryrestaurantplacida.com), a waterfront spot packed with gray-haired diners, many of whom will be slurping bowls of Famous Fishery Gumbo—follow their culinary lead. Afterward, wander through the small artists' village made up of colorful wooden cabins filled with art, collectibles and knickknacks.With Charlotte Harbor’s endless stretches of waterways, it comes as no surprise that seafood is a staple on nearly every restaurant menu. At Farlow’s on the Water (farlowsonthewater.com), the offerings highlight the talents of husband and wife Keith and Laurie Farlow. In the kitchen, his upbringing in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands merges with her Southern culinary roots. The result is a menu filled with marital compromises like St. Croix seafood pie and fried green tomatoes. Be sure to opt for an outdoor table when available; there’s live music on the patio most nights, the perfect accompaniment to an after-dinner cocktail at the restaurant’s outdoor rum bar.
Finally, don’t let your first impressions direct you away from eating at Peace River Seafood (941-505-8440), a rustic and weathered Punta Gorda crab shack with a cult-like following. Depending on the season, diners seated at picnic tables can be seen giddily cracking and smashing either Blue or Stone crab shells in search of the sweet meat inside. With meals served on paper plates and plenty of bottled beer on hand, the scene is casual to say the least. But judging by the number of signed dollar bills tacked to the walls, a lot of happy diners have been through here and will likely return.