It's easy to overlook the quaint and resilient waterfront village of Punta Gorda, because not far away is a trio of southwest Florida's legendary resort islands: Sanibel, Captiva and Gasparilla.
The islands get the ink in glossy travel magazines, thanks to swanky visitors, beautiful beaches and outdoor adventures aplenty. Punta Gorda you may find only if you deign to wander off Interstate 75.
What might strike you first is that the town looks spanking new, despite being about 120 years old. There's not a lousy roof to be found and the paint looks barely dry. Then you might remember that Hurricane Charley nearly obliterated Punta Gorda in August 2004. The Category 4 storm slammed into Punta Gorda with winds at 145 mph. Charley left a trail of 11,000 destroyed homes and 300 leveled businesses. Even today, there are empty lots downtown and scattered throughout residential areas.
While the buildings were weak, the town's spirit was not. Today, just over five years later, there are two new hotels on pretty Charlotte Harbor, an attractive and compact downtown poised to dazzle when the economy turns and a destination restaurant that's earning a national reputation.
A curious traveler can see:
A collection of vintage muscle cars sure to ignite car lust and conjure memories dripping in chrome. (It'll be tough, but resist the urge to sit in the cherry-red 1956 Corvette.) The cavernous Muscle Car City — it used to be a Walmart — houses nearly 200 shiny vintage cars, mostly Chevrolets, with some dating to the 1930s.
On a recent weekday, the place was crawling with car lovers and their wives. Yeah, it's a guy's place mostly, but even a nonbeliever can't help but get swept away by all that glistening chrome and pristine upholstery. The music of yesteryear pumps through the sound system and more than one visitor sings along. By the time you make your way through the gift shop and get a seat at the '50s-style diner, you will, too, with "It's so groovy now, that people are finally getting together." (3811 Tamiami Trail; 941-575-5959 or http://www.musclecarcity.net. Admission is $12.50; children 12 and younger free. Open Tuesday through Sunday.)
A flock of wood storks, brought back from the edge of trouble, nesting in a rookery on the Peace River. Add to the menagerie a couple of alligators, some menacing buzzards and plenty of stately herons and ibis. We climbed aboard Capt. Kate Preston's pontoon boat for a spin on the river on a recent windy day. We launched at a spot about seven miles east of downtown, in a place called Liverpool. You can guess where the man who developed the area is from.
It's quiet on the river, befitting the name. We only see two other boats during our 90-minute cruise, which allows us to conjure images of the Calusa Indians, who plied these waterways centuries ago. (We bet it wasn't they who left the plastic chair or the rope swing at a small beach area.) We idle near the rookery to watch the birds hunker down in the red mangroves; they're trying to stay warm, too. The ruffles of the snowy egrets flutter when they poke their heads skyward. (Capt. Kate's Nature by Boat Excursions on the Peace River can be booked by calling 941-626-7590, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost is $25 per person. She also ferries kayakers to dropoff points and pilots photo safaris.)
An early 1900s cattle drive roaming across the side of a building, one of 23 downtown murals depicting the life of this Florida city. A self-guided walking tour downtown takes visitors to 14 sites (some include more than one mural). Some of the original murals survived Charley, but most are new since the hurricane.
The murals depict early life in Punta Gorda, including a nod to railroad baron Henry Plant. (At one time, the rail line ended in Punta Gorda.) There's a mural of the first City Council of 1889, a lovely depiction of "school marms" rowing across Charlotte Harbor to their schoolhouse and several tributes to the area's natural beauty. In addition to the walking tour, there are trolley tours of the murals several times a month. (Get more details from the Punta Gorda Historical Mural Society at puntagordamurals.com.)
A national juried fine arts show, an outdoor arts and crafts festival and an organic farmers market, all within a few blocks of each other.
Gilchrist Park on the harbor hosts many outdoor festivals, and on the days we visit, there is a cluster of tents housing handmade jewelry, clothes and other art. It was a bonus to our stop but the park hosts a Saturday morning farmers' market where you can wander and sample goodies.
Just down Retta Esplanade from the park is Fishermen's Village (1200 W. Retta Esplanade; toll-free 1-800-639-0020 or fishville.com), a tangle of shops and restaurants that attract tourists, who can rent villas upstairs by the night, week or longer. For anyone who has traveled much in Florida, Fishermen's Village will seem like lots of other tourist attractions and it is. But for shoppers, it's a lot of fun with plenty of funky jewelry, nice home decorating items and quality resort wear. Grab the trolley here for tours of downtown or hook up with a fishing excursion. Bring your cleaned catch to the Fish Market restaurant and they'll even cook it for you. On Wednesdays, local Worden Farm holds an organic market at Fishermen's Village.
Across the street from the village is the Visual Arts Center (210 Maud St.; 941-639-8810). Take a stroll among the impressive paintings (seek out my favorite, Patty Kane's "Every Day Is a New Sky") and you'll find yourself walking through classrooms of art students. The exhibition is free and the stop itself is a glimpse into the town's life.
The food is fine
For the third year, chef Jeanie Roland, of the Perfect Caper (121 E. Marion Ave.; 941-505-9009 or theperfectcaper.com), has been named a James Beard semifinalist in the Best Chef in the South category. Tucked into the back of a low-rise stucco office complex (the Juvenile Justice Office is next door), the Perfect Caper draws diners from tony Naples and other cities miles away.
With no reservations, we were turned away on a recent Tuesday night at 7, with the suggestion to "come back at 8." We did and were glad. Appetizers of crispy pork belly on steamed buns with hoisin sauce and three-bite lobster tacos on housemade tortillas spoke to the chef's prowess. Perfectly cooked beef fillet and duck kept the accolades at the tips of our tongues. We gilded the lily with lobster mac and cheese laden with hunks of claw meat. A splurge night out for sure (figure at least $100 for two; we spent more), but one of the better meals you'll have in the state.
Laishley Crab House on the eastern downtown waterfront (100 W. Retta Esplanade; 941-205-5566 or laishleycrabhouse.com) offers a wide porch and fabulous views of the harbor, plus a friendly bar and lots of TVs. This is the place to get a mess of stone crabs before the season ends May 15. They've got sushi, too, but we wholeheartedly recommend the she-crab soup.
River City Grill (131 W. Marion Ave.; 941-639-9080 ) is another hotspot downtown, and there are plenty of spots to perch outside along downtown's main drag. If you're walking, point your feet toward 322 Sullivan St. and Sugar Island Cupcakes. Cross your fingers that they've made coconut cupcakes that day. Honestly, the best we've eaten.
Finally, Bin 82 is the classy new wine bar at 258 W Marion Ave. Quaint and classy. Take that, Sanibel.
IF YOU GO
pop. 17,000, is on the south edge of Charlotte Harbor, about 90 miles south of the Tampa Bay area. The county seat of Charlotte County can be reached by exiting Interstate 75 at U.S. 17 and heading west.
Chamber of Commerce, 941-639-2222, puntagorda-chamber.com. When you arrive, pick up the free Punta Gorda Florida Weekly, which lists events, as does the chamber's website. Also, many restaurants and shops carry visitors' guides.
Where to stay:
There are chain hotels clustered around the Interstate 75 exits, but two new hotels downtown offer more personality and lovely views.
The Four Points by Sheraton is perched on Charlotte Harbor on the site of the Holiday Inn that was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The 106-room hotel has fantastic views and sparkling-clean rooms, as might be expected from a new hotel. Rates start at about $120. Its restaurant serves breakfast and dinner. 33 Tamiami Trail; 941-637-6770 or starwoodhotels.com.
The 63-room Wyvern Hotel is just south of the Sheraton and has views of the harbor from some rooms. A rooftop pool, patio and bar are a lovely respite from the world. Rooms are large and bathrooms are larger. Rates start at $115. 101 E Retta Esplanade; 941-639-7700 or thewyvernhotel.com.
The Wyvern's Lulu restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a Latin flair. Breakfast is surprisingly reasonable for a hotel restaurant (about $20 for two) and we'd recommend the chorizo pigs in a blanket. Different and delicious.