There are 28 miles of beaches along the inviting patch of coast that encompasses Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands, an area of more than 900 square miles on Florida's southwest coast.
It's more than enough room to claim a secluded section for one's own, equipped with such essentials as a lounge chair and a good book.
Not much more is required to enjoy an afternoon at Stump Pass Beach Park (floridastateparks.org/stumppass), which lies at the southern tip of Manasota Key, one of a long string of barrier islands that skirt the coast. It's bordered on the west by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by Lemon Bay, part of the Charlotte Harbor Estuary.
Stump Pass is one of four island state parks that showcase the area's main attraction — a window on Florida's natural resources framed against a backdrop of charming destinations including Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte, Boca Grande and Placida.
It's heaven for boaters, but even in a car a leisurely drive along the tree-lined, two-lane stretch of North Beach Road offers a glimpse of the coastal charm. And, when it's time to rinse the sand off your feet, options include shopping and quirky attractions.
Whatever the diversion, things still unfold at laid-back island speed.
Wildlife and wild wheels in Punta Gorda
A good base for exploring the area is Punta Gorda, a city of less than 20,000 nestled at the intersection of the Peace River and Charlotte Harbor. It offers a quaint, compact downtown business district populated by an assortment of shops and restaurants.
For serious shoppers, and for a good view of the harbor, head two miles out of downtown to Fishermen's Village (fishville.com). Technically, this collection of stores and eateries would qualify as a mall, but with its open-air walkways and proximity to the marina, it's way too relaxing for that. Grab a beer and a grouper sandwich at Harpoon Harry's, where the horseshoe-shaped bar has a terrific view.
It's less than a mile to the Peace River Wildlife Center (941-637-3830), a nonprofit rehabilitation facility that allows daily visitors an intimate look at a population that includes American bald eagles, brown pelicans, great blue herons, barred and great horned owls, red tail hawks, snowy egrets and an array of songbirds.
On a different note, horsepower is the attraction at Muscle Car City (musclecarcity.net), a museum in a converted Wal-Mart that showcases more than 200 collectible cars. Yeah, it looks like a big-box store on the outside, but the sight of 99,000 square feet of gleaming metal and chrome is impressive even if hot rods aren't a passion.
Sports and culture in Port Charlotte
Charlotte Sports Park, a $27 million sports complex in Port Charlotte, is the spring-training headquarters for the Tampa Bay Rays and also the home for the Charlotte Stone Crabs (stonecrabsbaseball.com), a Rays' minor-league affiliate. The area also hosts a variety of fishing, sailing, kayaking and BMX racing tournaments, as well as stock-car and truck races on the 3/8-mile track at the Charlotte County Motorsports Park (charlottecountyracing.com).
Golfers will be more interested in the area's more than 20 courses, a list that includes the Riverwood Golf Club (riverwoodgc.com), a course rated 4-1/2 stars by Golf Digest.
On the cultural side, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (charlottesymphony.com) has been a fixture for 30 years. The ensemble presents a series of pops concerts annually and recently accompanied singer Barry Manilow on a Florida tour.
Head south out of Port Charlotte on County Roads 776 and 771 (Gasparilla Road) and the city landscape melds into an uncluttered vision of old Florida. Placida, a dot-on-the-map fishing village on Gasparilla Suond, is a good spot to stop for browsing at the Margaret Albritton Gallery and Placida Cove Gifts.
The shop features an assortment of paintings and crafts with a nautical touch and sits next door to Miss Cindy's Placida Fish Market, where the proprietor will happily fix you a shrimp dog, a seafood version of the corn-dog carnival favorite. For a more substantial meal, accompanied by the potential for dolphin and pelican sightings, stroll around the corner to The Fishery, a restaurant that once served as a location for the 2003 Denzel Washington movie "Out of Time."
The barrier islands
Many of the Gulf barrier islands are accessible only by boat, but drivers can reach Stump Pass State Park or pay a toll to pass over the Boca Grande causeway to visit Gasparilla Island State Park. On its 144 acres, the latter features the restored Boca Grande Lighthouse, which was built in 1890. The lighthouse is open daily from November through April. It's closed in August, but open Wednesdays-Sundays the rest of the year.
Reached by land or water, the quiet beaches all have things in common: solitude and an experience that unfolds in lazy island time.
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If you go
•What: Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands encompass an area of more than 700 square miles that includes the destinations of Punta Gorda, Englewood, Port Charlotte, Boca Grande, Manasota Key, Placida and Don Pedro Island. The area is known for its beaches, small-town atmosphere, fishing, golf and wildlife.
Getting there: Nestled between Tampa and Naples on Southwest Florida's Gulf Coast, the Charlotte Harbor area is easily accessible by car and airline service to the Charlotte County Airport. From Orlando, it's a 165-mile trip on Interstates 4 and 75.
Attractions and activities: Among the popular stops are the Peace River Wildlife Center, Muscle Car City collectible-car museum and historic downtown Punta Gorda. Diversions range from boating, birding, kayaking and tarpon fishing to outdoor activities at four state parks along the Gulf Barrier Islands.
Online: charlotteharbortravel.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun