By Ross Warren
A native Floridian once said that eventually the state government would have to place a sign at the border with Florida that said: “Full, please go home.”
Visitors to Miami, Tampa and other major destinations will understand why the locals feel that way. Although tourism is one of the prime factors in the Sunshine State’s income, it can become frustrating when you can’t find a parking space, the beaches are overcrowded and the sidewalks look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Those in the know are aware that there are terrific alternatives to the over-crowded locales that, even today, have the feel of “Old Florida.”
Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands are the UnFlorida Florida.
There’s sun and sand, deep sea fishing, palm trees, scads of boutique shops, great dining opportunities and, did we mention sun and sand?
On the West Coast Punta Gorda is a short hop from Ft. Meyers Airport, but a world away.
Punta Gorda nearly swept out to sea during a 2004 hurricane that devastated the city and much of the surrounding area. But Mother Nature didn’t realize she was dealing with a hardy breed of residents who immediately set about to rebuild their city. They kept what was salvageable, built modern structures and paid tribute to its history in many of the structures that kept the timeless feeling.
Some of the city is walkable, but in truth you are better off with some form of transportation. Traffic is generally light, even in what is referred (laughably to New Yorkers) to as the “rush hour” when you may see a dozen or so vehicles coming down the street.
One of the sites that should be on any list is Fisherman’s Village. Actually, it’s anything but a village and definitely not a fisherman’s village. It’s more of a long pier jutting out into the water.
That being said, there are more than 30 shops, restaurants, a resort and a marina with enough to keep anyone busy for the better part of the day. Check the schedule at the pier to see when the frequent offerings of entertainment, ranging from concerts to chorale groups, are performing. Seating is on a first come-first served basis. But there is ample seating.
Located on the waterside of the pier are the boats of Kingfisher Fleet. For those looking for a relaxing couple of hours or a day on the water, Kingfisher has just the boat for you. There are tours of the canals in the area and the amazing homes that line them.
For the more adventurous Kingfisher offers regular daily deep sea fishing to areas about a dozen miles off-shore. The water here teem with a wide variety of fish from grouper to snapper. Most times there is only a second’s hesitation from the time the line hits bottom until a fish hits the line.
Fishermen on Kingfisher charters tend to have a pretty good physical workout hauling in catch after catch. Back at the dock the crew will clean and fillet your catch. Scraps are feed to lazy fish that populate pier side and to pelicans who know what to expect.
Take a ride back in time with the Crescent B Ranch Buggy Tours. The 90,000 acre ranch is rich in wildlife, some friendly and some not so much. One stop affords guests the opportunity to go into the brush safely along a wooden boardwalk. At the far end in a large enclosure is a cougar that will sometimes come over and growl at you.
Along the route are wild pigs and turkeys, different species of birds, cracker cattle and alligators. In fact it isn’t unusual for the buggy to have to stop and wait until some rather large alligators decide to move off the one-lane bridge to allow passage. But hey, it’s their home.
Another must-see is Rick Treworgy’s Muscle Car City, a repository of some of the most carefully cared for cars, motorcycles and trucks in the country. Jay Leno would go green with envy at the collection.
Some years ago Rick turned his personal collection of vehicles into a museum and gave the public an opportunity to enjoy vintage transportation.
The city also has a free loaner bike program for residents and guests to enjoy a pedal around the city. A volunteer organization, TEAM Punta Gorda provides bikes and all a borrower has to do is provide a credit card for security, a driver’s license and sign a waiver of liability.
There are a variety of restaurants that’ll cater to just about any taste and pocket book. One of the better dining spots is the Captain’s Table at the far end of Fisherman’s Village. You can try them for any meal, but try to do so at sunset and ask for a table by the windows overlooking the water. Watching the sun go down and reflect off the water is a sight to remember for life.
And the food ain’t bad either.
For those feeling a bit aged after all the fun and food in Punta Gorda, the original Ponce deLeon Fountain of Youth is located in the heart of the city. At least that’s what the locals claim. In spite of the fact that there’s a disclaimer indicating the water has radioactive elements to it, visitors flock to sip from the modern spigot of the ancient stream. Does it work? Well no one has been seen coming to it with a walker and leaving in a stroller. So, who knows? •