Punta Gorda: Their Best Side is Outside—Art and Nature Merge in Old Florida
By Sharon Kurtz
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
If you ask most native Floridians, they’ll tell you that “Old Florida” is the best part of the sunshine state. That tradition still lives on today; you just need to know where to look.
Punta Gorda is Old Florida, a part of the state that predates all the big-name attractions that draw tourists—but without the crowds.
A growing travel and adventure destination, “Our Best Side Is Outside” is their official tagline.
I found out how true that was when I visited in September with a small group of travel writers the week before Hurricane Ian hit.
Quietly nestled on Florida’s southwest coast, it’s just 90 miles south of Tampa Bay. A collection of 10 charming coastal communities and four barrier islands, it’s clustered around Charlotte Harbor, the state’s second largest.
Sitting along the Peace River at the confluence of the harbor with boat access to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s got some of Florida’s most diverse salt-and freshwater fishing.
One of Florida’s Premier Eco-Tourism Destinations
The 830 miles of natural shoreline is perfect for kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, and eco-tours. It’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with a coastal estuary, sandy beaches, and nearly 200 miles of the Charlotte Harbor Blueway (water) Trails. With 84
percent of the shoreline protected from development, the Charlotte Harbor area boasts a myriad of outdoor activities and festivals, encouraging visitors to relax and explore the beautiful setting.
Punta Gorda’s Hurricane History
Hurricane Charley nearly obliterated Punta Gorda in August 2004, as the Category 4 storm slammed into Punta Gorda with winds at 145 mph. Charley left a trail of destroyed homes and leveled businesses.
Even today, some empty lots remain downtown and scattered throughout residential areas. However, the community is resilient and has rebuilt stronger than ever.
But then came Hurricane Ian in late September 2022, and Punta Gorda was again forecasted to be in the storm’s epicenter.
When it barreled into the surrounding west Florida coastline, Ian battered the area with torrential rain and roaring winds gusting to 135 miles per hour. But once the storm passed, Punta Gorda was still standing.
How is it possible that the coastal city wasn’t more devastated by a monster storm that ranked among the most powerful to ever strike the U.S.? One major factor, according to some experts, is modern building codes. It had typical post-hurricane storm debris and flooded streets, but the homes and buildings survived largely intact.
The Plusses of Punta Gorda
The thriving little city of Punta Gorda enjoys a pleasant year-round climate and a relaxed lifestyle. A lower cost of living compared to Sarasota and less traffic and congestion than Fort Myers makes it an excellent destination for travelers on a budget but still looking for great things to do.
Punta Gorda and the surrounding area have grown significantly in the last 20 years. Many residents, including retirees and military vets, have fled snow and ice to settle in this historic Florida Riverfront town.
That Small Town Old Florida Feeling
Punta Gorda has the most charming downtown, the longest history, and the artsiest ambiance. The new construction that has sprung up since Hurricane Charley has given the biggest city in Charlotte County a new shine.
The walkable downtown boasts 31 murals scattered around buildings that depict historical events and modern-day life in the city—a self-guided walking tour downtown takes visitors to 14 sites.
The murals depict early life in Punta Gorda, including a nod to railroad baron Henry Plant who brought the rail system to Punta Gorda.
Harbor Walk is in the Center of downtown and adjacent to the Peace River. The harbor has boat slips, shops, and a covered pavilion for community events. Next to Harbor Walk is solemn Laishley Park featuring a miniature replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Like the full-scale wall in Washington, D.C., it has all the 58,282 names of the men and women killed in the war and those still missing in action. The Military Heritage Museum’s purpose is to honor all who serve through modern conflicts and across all five military branches.
Every Saturday morning, the largest farmers market in the area sets up downtown. It features vendors with fresh produce, fish, organic vegetables, fresh bread, and more. The market was voted The Best Small Farmer’s Market in Florida a few years back.
John Weil of Weil Farms grabbed my attention and shared why raw honey benefits us. His honeybees work year-round, spending the winters in Punta Gorda pollinating the orange groves, saw palmetto palms, and tupelo trees. A small jar of honey made it home with me to Texas.
Fishermen’s Village is a covered, open-air shopping, dining, and entertainment center with a large marina. It includes a hotel; there are even kayak and powerboat rentals. The Village offers over 30 gift shops and boutiques and five restaurants. Everything is covered, so you don’t have to worry about dodging the notorious Florida afternoon thunderstorms.
Nature and Art in Punta Gorda
The artistic side starts at the Visual Arts Center, where locals participate in various classes and workshops. This is also a great place to discover art exhibits, meet the artists, and learn what inspired their work. I admired everything from oil and watercolor painting to jewelry making and photography; admission to the Center is free.
The Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens is a place to find peace and connection with Nature. It features over 4,500 plants and 16 outdoor sculptures, bursting with color and horticulture displays. One of Florida’s most extensive botanical gardens, we were lucky to be there in September for Butterfly Day, dedicated to the beautiful, winged pollinators. Artist Laura Pommier created a lovely spot for butterfly selfies and watercolor butterfly paintings for visitors.
We even got to witness a butterfly release ceremony. A boardwalk along the Peace River, a Koi Pond, and outdoor botanical rooms add to the ambiance. Lush plants surround the large, vibrant grassy green area where children play among the metal sculptures.
The Peace River Wildlife Center is a refuge for injured, orphaned, or displaced wildlife. It’s a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation, and education center tucked in the mangroves overlooking Charlotte Harbor. Over 2,800 animals are brought to the Center each year. Nearly all are returned to the wild when they are finished with rehabilitation.
They currently house more than 120 permanently disabled wildlife residents on public display for educational purposes. The bald eagle pair are over 25 years old. The Center operates on donations and gift shop sales.
Luna is an Eastern Screech Owl rescued and living in the Peace River Wildlife Center. He was found on the ground when he was a fledgling and brought to the center. This little guy is 9 inches long, weighs 6 ounces, and is the unofficial ambassador of the Center.
Discover the Natural Heart of Authentic Florida
For the ecologically minded, there are more than 70 parks, including recreational areas, several environmental centers, wildlife preserves, and sanctuaries.
Seafarers will want to set sail on a sunset or nature cruise, enjoy world-class fishing, paddle a kayak, canoe, or standup paddleboard through some of the nearly 200 miles of Blueway Trails, or try a boat rental and explore on their own.
On Babcock Ranch Eco Tours, you’ll return to Nature and enjoy the excitement of a true wilderness adventure. Experience the thrill of seeing wildlife in Nature—alligators, birds, deer, wild hogs, Sandhill cranes, and more, often coming within a few yards of the boat. With the knowledge and commentary of expert guides, you’ll travel and learn your way through four different ecosystems of Florida, including Telegraph Cypress Swamp.
King Fisher Fleet is a family-run business operated for over 40 years at Fishermen’s Village Marina. Relax on the waters of Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River while exploring the beautiful estuary on one of their many cruises.
If you know Florida, you know that gully-washer rains are expected. We were looking forward to a sunset cruise on our first night, but Mother Nature had other plans.
Instead, we got a beautiful view of that sun slipping into the Gulf of Mexico from The Captains Table Restaurant upstairs in Fisherman’s Village. That missed sunset cruise is just one more reason to come back to Punta Gorda.
We did get out in the water the next day in Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. This long, narrow body of water is one of five Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Reserves.
We enjoyed a perfect day on a nature cruise with Lemon Bay Dolphin Tours. Captain Bruce LaMotte, a longtime resident and naturalist, regaled us with entertaining stories, always pointing out dolphins before we knew they were there.
Batter Up in Port Charlotte
Across the Peace River is Port Charlotte, a rapidly growing small city home to spring training for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team.
The Rays always draw large crowds of visitors enjoying baseball, hot dogs, peanuts, and cracker jacks each spring. The park is kid-friendly and even features a boardwalk and tiki bar in the outfield.
Punta Gorda is an off-the-beaten-track getaway. Whether you are a nature lover, art connoisseur, sports enthusiast, or foodie, there’s something for you here. It’s a little bit of authentic Old Florida in the Sunshine State.
Sharon’s visit was hosted by Punta Gorda /Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau, and all opinions are her own. For more information, visit https://www.pureflorida.com.