By VISIT FLORIDA staff
Rivers and the Gulf of Mexico provide the Charlotte Harbor region with waterfront to spare.
The second largest estuary in Florida (after Tampa Bay), Charlotte Harbor centerpieces a water-centric world that hides from the mainstream.
Besides the great harbor, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico provide the region with waterfront to spare. Its Gulf islands lie well off the main arterials, insuring that they remain hidden and overflowing with old Florida character.
Oldest and main among the fishing-oriented communities of Charlotte Harbor, Punta Gorda began its life in the 1880s as a deepwater sea port and railroad resort town. Situated at the mouth of the Peace River, its old mansions, remembering a heyday of high living, line the waterfront across from lovely Gilchrist Park. The park today serves as a gathering spot for strollers, bikers and the occasional evening musical jam session.
To further help the town remember its long-reaching heritage, murals decorate the sides of downtown buildings -- more than 20 in all. One pictures the old Hotel Charlotte Harbor and some of its more illustrious guests - Thomas Edison, Andrew Mellon and W. K. Vanderbilt. There are also a number of intriguing sculptures decorating the renovated downtown streets. Here browsers find delightful new shops and restaurants in old digs from brick edifices to jauntily painted bungalows. Fishermen's Village, another popular shopping venue, occupies an old crab-packing plant on the water.
Not far way, history reaches back even further to Ponce de Leon, who was believed to have taken a fatal arrow blow at the waterfront spot now occupied by Ponce de Leon Springs State Park and the Peace River Wildlife Center, a rehab facility for injured, sick and orphaned animals. In the eastern reaches of Punta Gorda, old cattle ranching land has been turned into a wilderness eco-adventure and recreational lands for sportsmen.
On the other side of the Peace River, the quiet little town of Charlotte Harbor faces Punta Gorda with its charming little motels, a fishing pier park, a miniature golf course, and the Charlotte County Historic Center.
Rubbing shoulders with the small, historic village, Port Charlotte is the most modern of the area's cities because it is the newest. A family community, its one beach park borders Charlotte Harbor and offers all manner of recreation, including a fishing pier and swimming pools.
Reaching the Gulf islands requires a trip across the peninsula separated from Port Charlotte by the harbor. En route, small residential communities and golf courses grow until you reach Englewood, another modern town with a historic heart. Its downtown main street fills out with art galleries, coffee and ice cream shops, and delightful restaurants.
Englewood Beach occupies the southern end of Manasota Key, one of Florida's most little-known islands. Here again, the emphasis is on what's in the water and Stump Pass and Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve are flapping with fish. Hook up with a charter or rent your own boat. Or head to Stump Pass Beach State Park to cast from land and sun on the beach. The town's public beach, more centrally located, provides an extra measure of recreation and easy access to local restaurants. At its northern extreme, Manasota Key remains a quiet bird sanctuary with a couple of beach accesses where combing the sand for shark's teeth is a favorite pastime.
To the south trickles a string of islands, the largest of which is Gasparilla Island. Its town of Boca Grande is synonymous with one fish in particular, the mighty tarpon, which rolls through deep Boca Grande Pass in the spring and summer and inspires tournaments with fat purses.
Boca Grande, founded by wealthy industrialists in the early 1900s, remains an exclusive, one-of-a-kind destination crowned by the gracious columned Gasparilla Inn. Shops, restaurants and beaches draw day visitors to this town, where the year 'round working class mingle easily with the socially elite. A couple of museums and colonies of iguanas provide further distraction in this small town that all but closes down once tarpon season ends in the fall.
Pristine beaches, peaceful rivers, spectacular wildlife, world-class boating and fishing and old-fashioned tranquility make hushed sweet Charlotte Harbor one of the best-kept secrets for Florida visitors seeking escape from the fast pace.
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