Visit Matlacha, pronounced (Matt-la-shay), Pineland on Pine Island, and downtown Punta Gorda for a look at two different types of historic architecture. Pine Island's version reflects the town's fishing heritage with old-Florida style Cracker houses. Some of them in Pineland perch upon Indian shell mounds. Punta Gorda's historic architecture remembers its halcyon heyday as a significant port and railroad stop.
Head up Highway 41 to downtown Bradenton, where you can see history in the faces of the Mediterranean-era buildings and at the South Florida Museum, 201 10th St. W. General admission includes access to all museum galleries, Bishop Planetarium and Park Manatee Aquarium. Call (941) 746-4131. Drive along Route 64 west to 75th Street West where you will find the DeSoto National Memorial Park at the end. This is where historians believe Hernando DeSoto first landed on his way to discovering the Mississippi River. Call (941) 792-0458.
Take Pine Island Road east, then head north on Burnt Store Road to visit the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, 10941 Burnt Store Rd., for a hike into bobcat and alligator habitat. On weekends the gate is open so you can come in and hike. Bathrooms are also open. Call (941) 575-5435.
North on U.S. 41, just 7 miles west of Port Charlotte, you'll find Myakka State Forest. Recreational activities include hiking, off-road biking, and horseback riding. Call (941) 460-1333.
If your travels take you to Route 72, stop at Myakka River State Park, 13208 S.R. 72, a massive lake and forest preserve that provides every possible way to explore nature - by foot, canoe, tour airboat, tram, horseback, and even treetop. Myakka's suspended Canopy Walkway is one of only nine in the United States. Call (941) 361-6511.
Continue a little further north and head for the Gulf Coast islands between Sarasota and Bradenton. This area is known for its breathtaking natural beauty and unspoiled views and vistas found in the broad sweeps of white sand beaches on Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key. A variety of water activities are available, along with excellent dining, plus a wide selection of accommodations. Leffis Key, on the bay side of Anna Maria Island, is now a restored, pristine, shallow-water habitat. For more information, call the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at (941) 729-9177.
Follow Pine Island Road west of Highway 41 to reach Pine Island, a destination for mango and art lovers. Its World's Fishingest Bridge takes you into offbeat Matlacha, whose cracker-box old homes have metamorphosed into charming rental cottages and unpredictable art galleries.
East of the island, take Burnt Store Road north for an old-time Florida drive to Punta Gorda. Head north on Highway 41 to reach historic downtown Punta Gorda. It keeps its history and natural heritage front and forward with several murals of yesteryear scenes and wildlife. Most of Punta Gorda's history resides along Marion Avenue (where works of public art adorn one-of-a-kind storefronts), Olympia Avenue, and lovely Retta Esplanade, along the riverfront.
Highway 41 takes you to Sarasota, where the circus and a man named John Ringling shaped the town into a worldly whirl of culture on the beach. Ringling's legacy includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Rd, his palatial Gilded Age Venetian palace, Cà d'Zan, and a circus museum. Call (941) 359-5700.