If South Floridians have any impression of Punta Gorda, there’s a good chance it is this: That’s the place that got walloped by a hurricane during those bad storm years a decade ago.
There’s a follow-up story, though, and it’s less well-known.
The historic town midway between Naples and Tampa used the insurance money, FEMA funds and a wellspring of determination and love of place to turn Punta Gorda into a charming destination with a lively downtown, new hotels, a walkable waterfront and miles of bike paths.
Hurricane Charley came ashore near Punta Gorda on Aug. 13, 2004, with 160 mph winds, flattening buildings, leveling trailers parks, mowing down trees.
The only sign of Charley’s wrath today is a striking sculpture of palm trees bending but not breaking in the wind. It’s called The Spirit of Punta Gorda and was made from storm debris. It’s located in a waterfront park.
That beautifully landscaped park is a good example why Punta Gorda, population 17,000, has grown into such an appealing destination.
While it isn’t on a beach, Punta Gorda is located on the shores of the wide Peace River, which flows into Charlotte Harbor. These waters are known internationally for fishing (especially tarpon) and sailing. The river gives Punta Gorda stunning water vistas, and post-Charley redevelopment has made sure the downtown area makes the most of them.
Parks and walking/biking paths line the waterfront. Alongside the river are historic neighborhoods with cobbled streets, stately old homes and century-old buildings.
Where an old Holiday Inn was destroyed by the storm at the corner of the Peace River and the Tamiami Trail, there’s 5-year-old Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside Hotel. Across the street is the Wyvern Hotel, another new arrival with a stunning rooftop bar and pool.
Today, Punta Gorda is a good base for outdoor activities, including kayaking, biking, fishing and birding, and also offers great spots to capture the authentic Florida, from crab shacks to historic homes. In winter, its calendar is full of festivals and its downtown buzzes with pedestrians on weekends with a surprising number of good restaurants.
After Charley, Punta Gorda Mayor Rachel Keesling remembers the shock of seeing the city devastated, especially places like the historic Charlotte High School that she and her children had attended.
“That was a hard thing to see,” she said. “And then you think, ‘How are we ever going to make this right and put this back together?’”
They did, Keesling said, and they made things better.
Downtown business revitalized. The city focused on making Punta Gorda a great place to bicycle and walk, and created 18 miles of paved pathways, including linear parks that connect neighborhoods to the downtown.
A civic group called Team Punta Gorda established a free bike service, so visitors can borrow bright yellow bikes to explore those paths, which also connect to longer biking loops of 15 to 30 miles. www.teampuntagorda.org/bicycleloaner.html.
A popular activity for bicyclists and pedestrians is touring the 27 murals that celebrate Punta Gorda’s heritage and dot the downtown. The mural story is another tale of before and after Hurricane Charley. Half of the 20 murals painted in the then-new mural effort were destroyed by the storm’s winds. Today, with most repainted and more added, there are 27 murals. http://puntagordamurals.org/.
One of those murals is located at Fishermen’s Village, a waterfront open-air mall with restaurants, locally owned shops and live music that is popular with visitors. Built on a pier over the water, it is easy to spend a few hours here dining and shopping and enjoying the excellent views. www.fishville.com.
Next door at the Fishermen’s Village Marina you can book a tour of the King Fisher Fleet, ranging from 90-minute harbor tours to all-day island trips to Cabbage Key, Cayo Costa and Boca Grande. Dolphins often leap alongside the boats and in winter you might catch a glimpse of the large white pelicans that migrate here. www.kingfisherfleet.com.
Once you’ve explored the city of Punta Gorda, there are plenty of things to see and do nearby. The region has a friendly, small-town Old Florida feel that South Floridians will enjoy. Highlights include:
▪ Muscle Car City Museum opened in 2009, displaying 210 of Rick Treworgy’s personal collection of Detroit’s finest vehicles, all perfect specimens that are waxed weekly and driven periodically. The car museum displays 60 Corvettes; he owns 70, including 16 of the much-admired 1967 427 Corvette model. Treworgy explains: “I was going after one of every color, but it got away from me. I ended up with four red ones and I’m not very good about selling them.” The museum has a fun 1960s style diner on the premises. http://musclecarcity.net/.
▪ Boca Grande, an exclusive resort island where the Bush dynasty has vacationed, is a 45-minute drive around Charlotte Harbor. You cross a scenic causeway (and pay a $6 toll) to reach its spectacular beaches, two historic lighthouses including one with a museum and Gasparilla Island State Park. Visitors to Boca Grande rave about the white sand, sparkling clear water and lack of crowds. It makes a great outing from a Punta Gorda base. www.bocagrandechamber.com.
▪ The barrier island beaches just north of Boca Grande are excellent and off-the-beaten track. Stump Pass Beach State Park is a pristine and undeveloped barrier island known for its shark’s teeth and sea shells. It’s located at the end of Manasota Key. Nearby, Englewood Beach offers similar dazzling sand and shells, but is more accessible with lots of parking. www.floridastateparks.org/stumppass.
▪ Away from the Gulf, Punta Gorda is wild in a different way, with forests, marshes and unspoiled rivers. A half hour east of town, the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area is 65,000 acres of flatwoods, hammocks, prairies and marshes. This is the place for red-cockaded woodpeckers, sandhill cranes and, in winter, thousands of tree and barn swallows. Babcock-Webb offers guided adventures tours, which use old school buses to traverse rough roads and splash through shallow waters to view wildlife. The tours cost $24 for adults and $16 for children 3 to 12. www.babcockwilderness.com.
▪ There is excellent fresh-water kayaking at local streams, such as Shell Creek, and salt-water kayaking along the mangrove-fringed coast. It’s Time! Kayak and Canoe Tours can arrange a tour or rent equipment for several different trips. Shell Creek, five miles east of Punta Gorda, deserves to be better known: I think it’s one of the prettiest kayak trails in Florida. http://itstimekayakandcanoe.com.
▪ Peace River Wildlife Center is a wildlife rehabilitation center located in the mangroves overlooking Charlotte Harbor at Ponce de Leon Park. You can visit every day and tours are at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Permanently disabled pelicans, eagles, hawks, ospreys, tortoises and turtles are among its residents. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. Ponce Park, by the way, is also the favorite spot to watch sunsets over Charlotte Harbor. www.peaceriverwildlifecenter.com.
Bonnie Gross is a co-founder of FloridaRambler.com, a guide to the natural and authentic Florida.
Going to Punta Gorda
Getting there: Punta Gorda is 180 miles northwest of Miami just off Interstate 75. It will add 15 minutes to the drive, but you also can take U.S. 27 up the center of the state to Lake Okeechobee and cut across the Old Florida scenery on County Road 74 west.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside Hotel, 33 Tamiami Trail; 941-637-6770; www.fourpointspuntagordaharborside.com. Prime location downtown on Peace River. Rooms have an uncluttered Scandinavian feel. The tiki bar, with a sandy beach volleyball court, is a hot spot. Rooms $95 a night summer, $179 high season.
Wyvern Hotel, 101 East Retta Esplanade; 941-639-7700; www.thewyvernhotel.com. The top-rated hotel on TripAdvisor, the Wyvern overlooks the Peace River downtown and has a popular rooftop pool and bar with outstanding views. Rooms $93 to $170 in high season.
American Inn, 10151 Tamiami Trail; 941-637-1376; www.americaninnfl.com. In the budget category, this is a basic road-side motel, with rooms $55 to $90 in high season.
WHERE TO EAT
For a small town, Punta Gorda has an unusual variety of well-regarded restaurants.
Peace River Seafood, 5337 Duncan Rd., just west of Punta Gorda, 941-505-8440. People come from up and down the Gulf Coast to have buckets of blue crabs and other fresh seafood at this weathered Cracker cabin operated by longtime crab fisherman. Florida crab shacks don’t come more authentic than this. Sandwiches $8.95-$15.95, entrees $16.95-$36.95, bucket of blue crabs $7-$20.
The Perfect Caper, 121 E. Marion Ave.; 941-505-9009; www.theperfectcaper.com. Located in the walkable downtown, this is a foodie favorite. Entrees $22-$44.
Laishley Crab House, 150 Laishley Court; 941-205-5566; http://laishleycrabhouse.com. This big waterfront restaurant has dramatic views of the Peace River and a 10-foot-wide crab replica hanging from the ceiling. Entrees $9-$29.
Punta Gorda’s calendar is full of festivals that draw people into its downtown and waterfront. Favorites include:
Holidays on the Harbor kicks off Nov. 15 at Fishermen’s Village with the Lighting of the Village and the Festival of Lights at Fishermen’s Village, which will stay illuminated through Dec. 31. Also during this time, King Fisher Fleet offers Christmas Light Canal Cruises three times a night, Dec. 4-31. Three lighted boat parades are held in December as well as other holiday events.
Punta Gorda Wine & Jazz Festival: Feb. 21.
Peace River National Arts Festival: March 21-22.