Bike & Hike / Birding / Historic / Kayak & Canoe / Southwest Florida

Decade after it was hit by hurricane, rebuilt Punta Gorda is worth re-discovering

Spirit of Punta Gorda

The Spirit of Punta Gorda: A monument to resilience after Hurricane Charley, located on Charlotte Harbor in a waterfront park created during post-storm redevelopment.

Punta Gorda offers plenty of things to do: Kayaking, biking, birding and discovering crab shacks

Before I visited,  my impression of Punta Gorda was this: That’s the town that got walloped when Hurricane Charley took a slight right turn on Aug. 13, 2004.  I can picture images of smashed trailers, devastated downtown, shredded trees.

Punta Gorda Hurricane Charley monument plaque

At the base of the Hurricane Charley monument in Punta Gorda

I never heard the follow up: That the historic town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, midway between Naples and Tampa, used the insurance money, FEMA funds and a wellspring of determination and  love of place to turn Punta Gorda once again into a charming destination and place to live, where you’ll find lots of things to do.

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 its historic district.

Punta Gorda and its two bridges over the Peace River

Punta Gorda and its two bridges over the Peace River

Punta Gorda is the only incorporated city in Charlotte County, which wraps around the waters of Charlotte Harbor. The estuary is the second largest in Florida (after Tampa Bay) and ranks 17th in the nation in size. It’s formed by three rivers, including the Peace River, known for its miles of  kayaking and canoeing.

The town of Punta Gorda clusters along the waters of Charlotte Harbor, with a scenic and walkable waterfront.  Near the water are historic neighborhoods with red brick streets, stately old homes and century-old buildings.

Punta Gorda historic district

A house in the Punta Gorda historic district

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. (  A brochure and map can be downloaded here or you can pick it up the Southwest Florida Visitor Center.)

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.

It’s a similar story all over town.  An old auditorium was destroyed in Charley. In its place is the $20 million waterfront Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center, which opened in 2009. Next door there was a Holiday Inn, another Charley casualty. Now the site houses the Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside Hotel, which opened in 2009. It quickly became the area favorite on TripAdvisor.com for its affordability and modern, almost Scandinavian design. Across the street is the Wyvern Hotel, another new arrival with a stunning rooftop bar and pool.

Punta Gorda Fishermans Village

Punta Gorda Fishermans Village

Along the waterfront, Punta Gorda developed a new municipal marina and park with a sculpture celebrating the spirit of the city in the face of Charley.  The marina is home to the new Laishley Crab House  Restaurant with waterfront views and a monstrous 20-foot crab sculpture hanging from  the ceiling.

Once you’ve explored the city of Punta Gorda, there are plenty of things to see and do nearby.

Bike trails in Punta Gorda area

Punta Gorda free bikes

Things to do in Punta Gorda: Yellow bikes are free to borrow. 

Cape Haze Pioneer Trail is a nine-mile trail that starts on the western side of Charlotte Harbor, off SR 771.  The flat, straight paved trail takes you through pine forests and wetlands to the community of Placida, where the Placida fishing pier and the Placida cove complex of shops and The Fishery restaurant provide an old Florida feel.  (See more on Placida below.)

Near Punta Gorda, the fishing community of Placida

Near Punta Gorda is the fishing community of Placida

Placida is the jumping off point for Gasparilla Island, where another trail beckons bicyclists. The six-mile-long Boca Grande Trail is scenic, with views of waterways, lighthouses, quaint Boca Grande’s downtown and mansions. It was Florida’s first rail-trail. In the tourist season, however, golf carts rule.  Still, if you set your expectations for scenery instead of speed, this can be a great bike trail. Here’s one rider’s trip report.

While these two trails are very close and could be combined, locals do not recommend biking over the narrow toll bridge to Boca Grande.

There also are good bicycling opportunities for viewing wildlife at Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, a huge undeveloped wet pine flatwood about five miles outside Punta Gorda.  See details below under hiking and birding.

Kayak trails in Punta Gorda area

Kayaking through mangrove tunnel in Charlotte Harbor

Things to do in Punta Gorda: Kayaking through mangrove tunnel in Charlotte Harbor

Charlotte Harbor offers more kayaking and canoeing opportunities than you can exhaust unless you spend a lifetime there.  The Charlotte County Blueway Trails map lists 57 trails.

Bring your kayak or  It’s Time! Kayak and Canoe Tours can arrange a tour or rent equipment for several different trips.

I recommend Shell Creek, five miles east of Punta Gorda, which deserves to be better known:  I thought it was one of the prettiest kayak trails in Florida. Here’s more about paddling on Shell Creek.

I also loved paddling into Gasparilla Sound. My report here describes seeing dolphins and dozens of migrating white pelicans.

Another appealing choice would be to paddle to Don Pedro State Park, an island park reachable only by boat.  This destination could make a great day trip, with a picnic and a long walk on a deserted beach. You launch your kayak or canoe at the land base of Don Pedro State Park, 8450 Placida Road, Rotunda West.   It’s only 15 or 20 minutes across the water to the island, where you can explore the mangrove tunnels and shoreline.  Look for the island dock (not directly across the water, but a bit south, behind a mangrove island) from which there extends a sandy trail to the beach. Don Pedro is known for great shelling and shore birds.

Hiking and birding near Punta Gorda

There are seven sites in Charlotte County listed in the Great Florida Birding Trail. With a little effort, you’re likely to spot rare and endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers and the Florida Scrub Jay. You don’t have to work hard to see eagles, osprey plus all sorts of wading and shore birds.

Little Blue Heron in Peace River at Punta Gorda

Yellow Crowned Night Heron in Peace River at Punta Gorda

I’m not a serious birder, so I seek out scenic hikes where if I see birds, it’s a bonus to the beauty of being in nature.  Several birding sites are ideal for both avid and casual birders like me:

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. The property is criss-crossed with old logging roads that provide miles of hiking or fat-tire bicycling.

Babcock-Webb has a paved road good for bicyclists that runs for several miles along Webb Lake.

Babcock-Webb also offers a guided Babcock Wilderness Adventures tours, which use old school buses to traverse rough roads and splash through shallow waters to view wildlife. The tours are $21.35 for adults and $13.86 for children 3 to 12.

Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center’s Alligator Creek Preserve is known for its birds, which can be viewed while walking its five miles of loop trails.

A short but rewarding hike is a one-mile North Cape Flats Trail in the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park.  The trail ends at a wild sandy waterfront of Charlotte Harbor.

A little further north, Blind Pass Beach Park is known for its beach birds and for the shark’s teeth you can find in the sand. Across the street is short trail to a lagoon within Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. There’s a boat ramp there for exploring by kayak or canoe.

Crab shacks and fish houses

Bucket of blue crabs at Peace River Seafood in Punta Gorda

Bucket of blue crabs at Peace River Seafood in Punta Gorda.

With the fertile waters of Charlotte Harbor, you’d expect Punta Gorda to have plenty of fresh seafood restaurants, and it does.

These include a restaurant at the end of picturesque shopping pier Fisherman’s Village and Laishley Crab House in the new city marina. Both were built to maximize outdoor seating and views.

Outside of town, there are several places in historic buildings with authentic Old Florida atmosphere.

Peace River Seafood is a exactly what you’d expect from a crab shack – the freshest seafood and a rustic 1927 Cracker cabin. I’ve written a story all about Peace River Seafood here.

More things to do in Punta Gorda

Rick Treworgy at his Punta Gorda Muscle Car City Museum

Things to do in Punta Gorda: Rick Treworgy at his Muscle Car City Museum

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 427ci Corvette.

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.

King Fisher Fleet operates boat tours out of the marina near Fisherman’s Village.  Cruising options range from narrated 90-minute sightseeing tours to all-day trips to the remote and scenic island of Cayo Costa, home to a state park.

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.

Across a causeway surrounded by Charlotte Harbor, the Old Florida island of Boca Grande is a great place to explore on bike, with a picturesque bike trail that takes you past quaint historic buildings, to spectacular beaches and lighthouses.

Resources for planning a visit to Punta Gorda

Nearby destinations recommended by Florida Rambler:

 

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6 Comments

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  5. Excellent post and very detailed. Truly enjoyed the pictures.

    Great job!

    Happy Trails ~ John

  6. That is not the Punta Gorda I remember. I will be putting it on the top of the list for my next adventure weekend.

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