Natural Wonders and Trip Ideas
Monster tarpon that outweigh your teenager, beaches that sun with warmth and stun with natural beauty, placid waterways orchestrated by bird song, and primeval wilderness where panthers and bears roam: That was the Charlotte Harbor area of 100 years ago and the Charlotte Harbor of pre-hurricane season 2004. Miraculously, it is still the Charlotte Harbor of today. Just as Ponce de Leon found it in 1513, and the Calusa Indians who preceded him, the mainland, peninsula and barrier islands of Charlotte Harbor remain a hidden place sacred to those who treasure seclusion and water-based adventure where Nature reigns.
With Florida's second largest bay as its heart, Charlotte County tallies more than 830 miles of shoreline. Truth is, you can hardly swing a canoe paddle in these parts without striking water.
Besides big-gulp Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico into which it empties, the aptly named Peace River and wild Myakka River slice the county into delectable packages of splashy escapade. Smaller waterways with romantic and colorful names - Tippecanoe Bay, Catfish Creek, Muddy Cove, Lemon Bay, Placida Harbor and Alligator Creek - make Charlotte County an unparalleled haven for water sports buffs.
Start at the beaches. Made of the same stuff as those more famous to its north and south in Sarasota and Sanibel Island, Charlotte beaches have a less rushed, more hushed following that has found its way to these well-kept secrets for fishing, playing and sunning. Manasota Key, the area's barrier island gem, remains modest, almost offhand about its gorgeous white sand beaches liberally seasoned with seashells, its tranquil turquoise waves, and its schools of fish flitting about in clear waters.
Fisherfolk in the know hit Stump Pass Beach State Park for a quiet, lazy day casting into a protected aquatic preserve. Nearby low-key resorts and condos cater to the rod-and-reel crowd. More lively, Englewood Beach offers a pirate-themed playground, boardwalks, picnicking, nearby restaurants and all the frills that make it a family magnet.
For the ultimate in beaching seclusion, make your way to Don Pedro Island State Park, accessible only by boat on a castaway barrier island where restrooms and picnic facilities are as civilized as it gets. Don Pedro borders Little Gasparilla and Knight Islands, once separate but through the years merged together with Don Pedro. Home of Palm Island Resort, Knight Island is the place to indulge Gilligan fantasies, without the shipwreck or inconveniences. Families and romance-seekers find the resort, a mere six-minute ferry ride from Cape Haze, in a time zone of its own: Coastal Kick-Back Time.
It's a time zone and way of life that allows you the special pleasures reserved for those who have shifted down a gear or two from the whiz-honk interstate pace. Here along Charlotte Harbor, backroads take you behind the hypertensive scenes to a place where the slap of oars replaces the race of engines and eyes are focused on bird wings, not car bumpers.
It takes some time to get from main thoroughfares to watery playground, meaning fewer people take that less-traveled route with you. It involves crossing rivers and bridges, often hopping aboard a boat. Sooner or later, it seems, Charlotte Harbor implicates a seaworthy vessel of one sort or another. The lifestyle dictates it with its commingling of salt and fresh water, the perfect breeding medium for fish and the birds that feed upon them.
Fishing in Charlotte County is a sport where you need tell no lies. Fishermen report the biting has never been better.
"The fish in Charlotte Harbor are resilient to changes in nature," says Capt. Ralph Allen, owner of Punta Gorda's King Fisher Cruise Lines, which operates out Fishermen's Village. "Anglers catch dozens of species including glamorous gamefish such as snook, tarpon and redfish, and good eating fish such as trout, grouper and snapper."
Whereas spring and summer constitute the area's legendary tarpon season, its deep offshore Gulf waters, coastal estuaries, and freshwater rivers yield everything from snook and snapper to grouper and sharks year-round.
"The fall mackerel and kingfish run should be as good this year as every other," predicts Capt. Ralph.
The sheer volume of protected Charlotte Harbor and its easy access to the Gulf has put it on the wish list of many a knowledgeable sailor. SAIL magazine, in fact, in its June 2004 issue, mentions Charlotte County among its 10 most desirable sailing destinations. Why? Lots of cruising options, scenery and anchorages; little boat traffic and bridges. You needn't be experienced to take advantage of the harbor's enviable conditions; four sailing schools operate in the harbor and offer certification classes for all levels.
The protected seas of the Intracoastal Waterway and Charlotte Harbor, the rivers and streams provide the county a reputation also among the paddle-happy. The county's Blueway Trails brochure maps out 53 trails ranging from under a mile to more than 18 miles in length. It scores the trails according to difficulty (beginner to expert), ease of access, scenic value and flora and fauna.
"My favorite trail is called the Woolveton trail," says Capt. Marian Schneider, owner of Grande Tours, a Placida-based tour operator for paddlers, nature explorers and fishing types. "It has several miles of hand-carved tunnels through mangrove overhangs. These areas were dug years ago - and a gentleman named Woolveton spent the last 10 years trimming this area so kayakers can navigate through."
Mangroves, salt water marshes and seagrass beds ensure a variety of animal life along the county's trails, making paddling as much about the sightseeing as the exhilarating exercise. At water level, eye-to-eye with manatees and dolphin, one develops the most intimate relationship with the creatures sharing your space.
"Our area is ideal kayaking for the novice to the advanced," says Capt. Marian, a native Floridian who forsook a health care career for the therapeutic tranquility of Charlotte backwaters. "We have the shallow protected back country paddling areas of Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve - 240 square miles of mangrove islands, shallow water, grass flats, sand bars, deserted islands with tales of treasures, outstanding light tackle fishing, and primitive island camping."
One of the most popular activities for paddlers in this evergreen land laced with blue involves staring transfixedly through binoculars and tuning into the caws, chirps, twitters, whooshes and drum-rolls of the forest.
The Peace River Audubon Society tallies some 130 bird species each year in its annual Christmas count. Many of its listed "birding hot spots" concentrate around the beaches and back streams - home to ospreys, bald eagles, herons, egrets, blackwing skimmers, anhingas and other water-loving species. Look for the white pelicans that migrate beginning in November and colonize on Intracoastal sandbars.
The easternmost extremes of the county, given to protected environment and rugged ranchlands, hold some of the state's vastest expanses of bird and other wildlife habitat. At Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, 65,758 acres is open to the public for bird watching and other recreational activities. It is known for its populations of red-cockaded woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches and Bachman's sparrows. Adjacent Babcock Wilderness Adventures takes a pro-active approach to wildlife watching with buggy tours that familiarize visitors to sandhill cranes, alligators, Florida panthers, native cracker cows and the ranching heritage upon which Southwest Florida was built.
The Cape Haze area is known for its nesting ospreys and bald eagles particularly at Lemon Bay Park and Cedar Point Park. Their miles of nature trails lead through pine flatlands, mangroves, wetlands, coastal strand and oak scrub - habitat also for gopher tortoises, bobcats, armadillos, marsh rabbits, river otters and gray foxes. Nature hikers also take to the trails at Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center in Punta Gorda and its adjacent Charlotte Harbor Buffer Preserve.
In addition to its extensive system of hiking trails in settings that range from park-like to wild, Charlotte County accommodates explorers of the two-wheeled variety with bike paths, trails and rentals. Bike lanes and a rental shop near Englewood Beach make by-bike a popular way to travel in the open sea breeze. The nine-mile Cape Haze Pioneer Trail runs along a former railroad bed. Punta Gorda has a free bicycle loan program, ideal for visitors to pedal along the Peace River or enjoy the 24 larger-than-life murals in the historic downtown district.
The al fresco pleasures and treasures of Charlotte Harbor haven't changed (they are, in fact, ever-improving). They're still there, still secret, still sweet and hushed.