Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s Gulf Coast will have you planning a return trip before you even leave.

Everyone loves a great comeback story. Celebrating with others who triumph over defeat is innate, and that is exactly what the residents of Punta Gorda and the surrounding Gulf Islands share since Hurricane Charley ripped through Charlotte Harbor and left behind ruin in 2004. Today, the coastal community has not only been revitalized in structure but also in spirit, with residents who noticeably take a great deal of pride in the strength, beauty and growth of their city. Punta Gorda beckons cruisers with distinctive art galleries, top-notch seafood restaurants, a revitalized downtown, and its location on the second largest estuary in Florida.

Located between Sarasota and Fort Myers, Punta Gorda is an outdoor enthusiast’s mecca with a handful of convenient marinas within walking distance of downtown. Boca Grande Pass is where the Gulf of Mexico meets Charlotte Harbor and is known as the “Tarpon Capital of the World.” Fisherman’s Village Yacht Basin is located directly on the harbor with no bridge clearance, and is the ultimate “one stop shop” for cruisers with an impressive marina, vibrant shopping and multiple restaurants, cafes and a sweets shop. Villas above each shop include a full kitchen, dining, and living room, and two bedrooms with a full bath.

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Laishley Marina on the Peace River is a few nautical miles north of Fisherman’s Village. The Laishley Crab House offers excellent fresh seafood and a full sushi bar at reasonable prices, and when blue crab is in season you can’t go wrong with a flash-fried crab sandwich or fresh crab and avocado salad. Take the Harborwalk from the marina to the Spirit of Punta Gorda sculpture at the end of the waterfront park, which was commissioned by Marilyn Thorndycraft to symbolize the enduring spirit of the local residents. She and the local artist chose metal scraps from the rubble Hurricane Charley left behind to construct a meaningful sculpture of one palm tree bent over and one standing tall.

For more culinary options, head to Harpoon Harry’s at the end of the Fisherman’s Village pier. It overlooks an expansive harbor view and offers the traditional seafood baskets—all fried, all tasty. They also have burgers, salads and traditional fare if your crew is overdosed on seafood. (Is that possible?) Weekend nights attract festive crowds for the local musicians who frequent their indoor stage. For quieter dining with white tablecloths and candlelight, head directly upstairs.

In the same plaza, the Village Fish Market’s slogan is “Traditional New England Seafood.” Owners Sue and Nick Randall hopped the pond from “Old England” 12 years ago to convert this restaurant into a thriving local hotspot. The menu offers modern favorites such as seared ahi tuna and some dynamite scallops with traditional fare such as New England Clam Chowder and Fish & Chips—the combination makes you feel like you’re simultaneously in South Florida, Maine and London. The salted caramel cheesecake is not to be missed, but if you simply do not have room order one to go—you’ll thank me later. After a day on the water head to Opus for a killer oyster appetizer or impressive filet. It’s white tablecloth dining, but you can either dress up or stay casual.

Cruisers of the culinary persuasion will want to plan for the first Saturday of the month when the local Farmer’s Market is open from 8AM-1PM. You’ll find the traditional fruits and veggies, hand-made soaps, local jewelry, and eclectic art, but one of the most unique stands is the German Bakery. Traditional German breads, buns, pretzels, and pastries are baked fresh that morning and sold anywhere from 50 cents to 5 dollars.

While Charlotte Harbor is well known for its world-class fishing and impressive golfing, what sets this community apart from other fishing grounds is the thriving art scene. More than 600 artists display their talents throughout Charlotte Harbor, and the 28 larger-than-life murals that adorn the buildings throughout the city’s historic district show the history and pride of Punta Gorda. Download a list and a walking map or bike route to each mural.

On Thursday evenings head downtown to “Art Walk,” where live musicians and artists greet folks as they saunter into the stores, galleries and restaurants who open their doors to the community. For a more hands-on artistic experience, schedule a painting party with artist Marki of “Splash Wine & Paint Party.” Marki teaches a step-by-step canvas painting class paired with wine and cheese at various month. Her three-hour class near downtown Punta Gorda includes a professional frame for your masterpiece courtesy of Framing by Fred.;

After your artistic side is sated, rev up your latent “gear-head” at Rick Treworgy’s Muscle Car City—located just off I-75 and a five-minute drive from downtown. With 211 GM muscle cars dating back to the 20s, one man’s private collection of gleaming Pontiac GTOs, Chevy Corvettes, Chevelles, and Camaros bring back the glory days when hot rods ruled the road.

For active sight-seeing, pick up one of Punta Gorda’s free yellow loaner bikes at Fisherman’s Village or various locations throughout downtown. Wildlife enthusiasts will delight in the 200-plus bird species and hundreds of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin that make their home in Charlotte Harbor. They’re easy to spot from your boat, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, but if you don’t have your own, rent one from Holidaze Boat Rentals at Fisherman’s Village. Paddle over to the Peace River Wildlife Sanctuary at Ponce Park where pelicans, eagles, osprey, and other wildlife are rehabilitated.;

If you prefer a more secluded “deserted island” escape, cruise over to Cape Haze and Placida to dock at Palm Island Marina and Yacht Club. One of Florida’s very first clean marinas, Palm Island Marina offers all the expected services with premium customer service. Beachcombers are sure to find some sort of “treasure” on one of Florida’s most unspoiled shelling beaches—you are all but guaranteed to find sharks teeth. Take the $5 water taxi for the mile-long trip to Palm Island Resort. Stop by Rum Bay restaurant for lunch and then tour the resort and beach for a unique, first-class experience for vacations, events or day trips. A few transient slips for boats under 30 feet are available.;

While in the Placida/Cape Haze area, visit the Margaret Albritton Gallery and the Hatch Gallery—both filled with artistic crafts and treasures.

Then stop by Catania’s Winery in Englewood and chat with the owner, John Catania, whose history and knowledge in winemaking will ensure your wine cooler is full of local flavor.

By Christine Carpenter, Southern Boating January 2015

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