One if By Land, Two if By Sea

Outdoorsy types will enjoy this three-day itinerary full of hiking, biking, birding, fishing and more in the Charlotte Harbor area.

Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands' reputation as an outdoor lovers' utopia lured my husband and me there. Its tropical bike paths, backwater canoe trails and calm sailing waters made us want to stay and take advantage of the area's good nature. Here's our itinerary for an invigorating, three-day getaway:

Day One

As premium bird watching begins before the rooster crows, we leave at daybreak for the 65,758-acre Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. Driving slowly into the slash pine forest, we spot a red-cockaded woodpecker and park for closer inspection.

We hike, bird watch and search unsuccessfully for the ridged back of an alligator in the boggy flatwoods that flank the former railroad trail. Instead, I see two mounted quarter horses trotting our way. After a little sweet-talk, I persuade one of the riders to let me mount his steed. Atop the buckskin mare, I can see beyond the scrub into the towering pine forest.

With a shooting range and wild boar, hunters share the space, but their activities are within a safe distance from hiking and mountain biking trails. Freshwater fish are also abundant; the 395-acre Webb Lake has record-sized bluegill, huge freshwater snook and largemouth bass. In all, the wildlife area is home to more than 250 species of fish, 300 birds, 40 mammals and 50 species of reptiles.

In the afternoon, we rent bicycles in Placida and cross the Boca Grande Causeway over to Gasparilla Island for sun and sightseeing. A 14-mile bike trail traverses the island; we opt to tour the northern half, where trails are flat and smooth enough for even a novice cyclist like me. We peddle along an old railroad trail through lush greenery. The trail circles around the tip of the island and gives us beautiful views of Placida Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.

Day Two

The Blueway Trails of Charlotte County are heralded for their excellent backwater fishing, colorful birds and 57 canoe and kayak trails - nearly 200 miles of waterways - that appeal to novice and expert paddlers alike. Anglers from around the globe come here to compete for trophy fish during televised tournaments held throughout the year.

The King Fisher Fleet in Fishermen's Village in Punta Gorda offers fishing trips and Grande Tours in Placida offers both kayaking and fishing trips in the 270-square-mile protected aquatic preserve of Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands. We rent a canoe and arrange for it to be delivered to Englewood Beach (our car doesn't have rack for transport).

The canoe accommodates our fishing gear, cooler and a beach bag of towels and sunscreen. We are intermediate paddlers, but neither of us has ever combined a self- propelled excursion with fishing. I am a little worried that a big catch would pull us to it, rather than the other way around. But as I reel in my first redfish, adrenaline washes away those fears.

The 4.9-mile canoe trail offers us a chance for great fishing and bird watching along the marshes of the backwaters. Around us a kaleidoscope of birds perch in the trees and wade the shores.

Day Three

It doesn't take an expert sailor to understand why Charlotte Harbor has ranked among the top 10 sailing locales by Sail magazine. Being 20 miles long and 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the harbor's course options seem limitless. There's wide open sailing protected by barrier islands and no low-hanging bridges.

I've always loved the romantic idea of sailing and have even passed a beginner's class. However, I must confess that I had yet to acquire my "sea legs" on open waters. Therefore, I board a rented Martin 16 with some trepidation. My nerves ease when I learn that the 16-foot sailboat cannot capsize and has a power assist system that electrically assists sheeting and steering, when needed.

I discover the waters of Charlotte Harbor to be much calmer than those of the Gulf of Mexico; wooded barrier islands protect the harbor from Gulf winds. I take my turn at the rudder and even find myself liking the speed and tilt of the boat as it slices through the wind. My hair tussled, waters glistening; I discover the real love of sailing.

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