Cruising Around Charlotte Harbor

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Found: The perfect location for those who enjoy a variety of recreational activities.

Our interest in visiting Charlotte County for a few days seemed simple enough: We wanted to do everything in just three days! That's a tall order for any vacation destination, so I admit to being dubious about our chances for success. But when it came time to pack the suitcases, we were whistling Zippity Doo-Dah all the way home.

This sweet stretch of southwest Florida features freshwater rivers that converge with the Gulf of Mexico, forming a 270-square-mile horn of plenty. Throw in 219 miles of natural shoreline, barrier islands and mangrove forests, and Charlotte Harbor shines brightly as an aquatic paradise.


Day One

We decided to go kayak fishing first, and fortunately our guide of Grande Tours Kayak & Paddleboat Center in Placida recognized that we're novices. After his orientation quelled our qualms, we gently paddled through the hidden coves of Coral Creek and silently fished along mangrove shorelines. While casting, our eyes took in the splendor of blue skies, green waters and white birds. At one point our guide caught a nice snook, and we paddled back to the dock a few hours later with a vow to return soon.

That afternoon found us on a sunset cruise aboard Boca Boat Cruises & Charters. We enjoyed a narrated tour by Capt. Craig and Kathleen Wolcott about Gasparilla Sound and the White Pelican Refuge. As interesting as it was to learn about the colorful history of the area, the most enjoyable experience was simply watching porpoises frolicking in our boat's wake! They kept us entertained for miles with full jumps, half jumps and rolls.


Day Two

Our second day began at Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area, a 80,335-acre morass of lovely ponds and lakes. We immediately caught bass in the one- to two-pound size, and soon a small alligator surfaced to eye what was disturbing its pond. Babcock/Webb WMA offers excellent bird watching, and hunting season is popular due to plentiful resources of deer, hog and game birds.

We also dropped by the charming Peace River Wildlife Center in Punta Gorda, an organization dedicated to nurturing injured and orphaned native wildlife. The majestic bald eagles, great horned owls, hawks and other birds receive a little help from their human friends here with the aim of returning them to nature's chain of life.

What with so many birds viewed thus far, the Peace River Nature Tour up the Peace River aboard the King Fisher Fleet's guide boat still amazed us. Narrated by members of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, we passed rookeries laden with wood storks, ibises, egrets, herons, ospreys and more. What a wonderful photo op!


Day Three

Our last day began in a swamp buggy at Babcock Wilderness Adventures, where we witnessed modern cowboys - with cell phones hanging from their belts, not six-guns - as we rode through cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks. Did you know that alligators have 80 teeth and three sets of eyelids? You'll learn many interesting tidbits like those during the tour.

The finale involved a half-day fishing trip with Capt. Ralph Allen of King Fisher Fleet. We flew across the bay in his skiff to a protected creek chockfull of snook. Using live bait, we released one snook after the other for a solid hour before the fish wised up. What an awesome time we had.

In only three days, we did everything planned and had a ball. Yet we never felt rushed, with plenty of time for dining - two of our favorites were Harpoon Harry's waterside restaurant in Fishermen's Village and The Fishery restaurant in Placida, location site of the film Out of Time, which starred Denzel Washington - and to buy souvenirs (check out the trendy little shops at the dock in Placida).


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