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Punta Gorda: a port with great appeal

Punta Gorda is rising and on her way to becoming a major boating destination.

Cruisers who know the waters of southwestern Florida, but have avoided the region after its pummeling by the Hurricane Charley in 2004, should consider a visit to Punta Gorda. After being knocked to her knees in August 2004 by the Category 4 hurricane, Punta Gorda is rising and on her way to becoming a major boating destination.

Punta Gorda is located about 20 miles north of Fort Myers and 30 miles south of Sarasota. The area is less developed than most of South Florida and has a distinctly more laid-back temperament.

All the amenities a boater — either local or transient — needs are here: boat slips, long-term storage, full-service boatyards, towing, tackle shops, chandleries, a wide range of eateries and public transportation.

Surrounding the community at the northern head of CharlotteHarbor are tropical scenery, wildlife and birding, world-class fishing and superb, open cruising grounds.

The comeback

Before Hurricane Charley, there was one sizable, full service marina (Fishermen’s VillageYachtBasin) and several small, limited-service marinas downtown. There are currently two large, full-service marinas with another coming within the year as well as several with limited services (storage and repairs). Fishermen’s Village marina, which has 98 slips, has free day dockage for shoppers and a free dinghy dock for those who choose to anchor out or use the mooring field.

Fishermen’s Village marina is accessible to all vessels and is part of a recreated fishing village with a shopping and entertainment complex similar to a festival marketplace. The complex features several waterfront restaurants as well as 38 shops and boutiques. There is nightly entertainment as well as time-share apartments available for weekly rent on the upper level.

The current mooring field is upstream of the two U.S. Route 41 bridges, with vertical clearance of 45 feet, but efforts are ongoing to create a large mooring field on the other side of the bridges to serve primarily sailboats that can’t make it under. The field would have launch service to access the dinghy dock at nearby Fishermen’s Village.

Laishley Park Municipal Marina opened last year just east of the Route 41 twin bridges and has 85 slips. Another hotel/marina development, the Sheraton Harbor Inn Resort & Yacht, promises additional slips and should be open in fall 2009. Several smaller downtown marinas include Punta Gorda Marina, Gator Creek Marina and the Riviera Marina.

The well-known Burnt Store Marina, reportedly the largest marina on the state’s western coast with 525 wet slips and nearly 300 dry storage spaces, is about 10 miles from downtown.

Take to the streets

Within a short walk of any of the downtown marinas are more than a dozen restaurants offering Mexican, seafood, steaks, Asian, an Irish pub and more. Price levels range from gourmet chic to a hot dog cart in the park that parallels most of the city’s waterfront. The recently finished Riverwalk offers 2-1/2 miles of easy strolling past panoramic views of CharlotteHarbor and the Peace River.

The CharlotteCountyEventsCenter and the SunloftCenter (a mixed-use complex of dining, retail, office and condominiums) are nearing completion, both with “old Florida” facades.

In easy walking distance are West Marine and a hardware store a block from the downtown marinas. Within less than a mile, there is also BoatU.S. In addition, Atlantis Marine has a rolling repair van. Both TowBoatU.S. and Sea Tow service the area.

Groceries, a dry cleaner, a Laundromat, ice cream shops, and even a chocolate factory are all available downtown along with several art galleries. A free trolley provides transportation around town during select events. A weekly farmers’ market functions in season. Beginning next spring, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will play their Grapefruit League exhibition season in the Charlotte County Sports Complex and the Charlotte Redfish currently play an extended season in the same park, just 15 minutes from downtown by car.

Visitors can stroll the brick-paved streets and admire restored homes from the 1920s and earlier. Locals know it’s extremely rare to find “old Florida” areas with the best of modern conveniences at hand, but Punta Gorda has managed to preserve and create the best of both. The third Thursday of every month in season is a downtown celebration known as the Gallery Walk. All stores stay open late and offer free samples of food and drinks. In addition, a free trolley will take you around the area.

The city has a full calendar of events throughout the year including the Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup tournament, the annual Block Party and Conquistadors Landing festivals, the Christmas boat parade and many others

( Money magazine recently named Punta Gorda as “one of the best places to live in the South.”

By way of water

Punta Gorda is situated at the head of CharlotteHarbor and at the mouth of the Peace River. CharlotteHarbor is the second largest estuary in Florida with 280 miles of shoreline and most of the shoreline is protected as an aquatic preserve, so the scenery and wildlife are impressive.

CharlotteHarbor is roughly four miles wide and eight miles long with just enough breezes for great sailing. One national magazine ranked CharlotteHarbor one of the top 10 places to sail in the United States. Except at its edges, CharlotteHarbor is uniformly deep (usually six to 10 feet). Fortunately, the harbor is not deep enough to interest commercial shipping, so it escaped the fate of TampaBay.

The Peace River is navigable for several miles upstream and within a mile a boater will find himself in “African Queen” country. Eagles, osprey, wood stork, egrets, heron, alligators, otter and all varieties of birds and wildlife abound.

Upriver a few miles is the Nav-A-Gator, an outpost-style restaurant and bar featuring great food and entertainment. They also have dockage and offer river cruises for those who prefer to take a busman’s holiday and drive in by car.

Fishing in the area is abundant. Saltwater fishing includes both deep-sea and backwater varieties. Within 15 miles is famed BocaGrandePass with its world-renowned tarpon fishing. Just offshore are wahoo, kingfish, shark, Spanish mackerel and other varieties. Backwater varieties include snook, redfish and sea trout. For freshwater fishermen, there is excellent bass and other fishing nearby.

Cruising grounds within easy reach include Peace River, CharlotteHarbor, Pine Island Sound, and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which provides a sheltered pathway between Fort Myers and the TampaBay area, including Sarasota, Venice, St. Petersburg, Boca Grande, Sanibel, Captiva and a number of lesser-known, but equally interesting ports.

The ICW also connects with the Okeechobee Waterway, giving access from the East Coast. However, because of dry conditions, Lake Okeechobee’s depth is 4 feet below historic averages. One of the routes across the lake has a navigation depth of just a foot now, a second route a navigation depth of a little more than 4 feet. Most cruisers are avoiding the waterway until depths improve.

Special cruising destination gems include Cayo Costa, an unspoiled tropical island with 7 miles of beach and docking. A near-perfect harbor called Pelican Bay just off Cayo Costa, Cabbage Key of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” fame, the funky Matlacha, ‘Tween Waters Inn on Captiva Island, Useppa Island just across the ICW channel from Cabbage Key and many others are within 20 miles of downtown Punta Gorda, accessible over sheltered waters, and warm even in January and February.

Should a visitor be without a boat, Southwest Florida Yachts in Fort Myers has both sail and power cruisers available for charter and offers instruction.

For crew changes, the SouthwestFloridaInternationalAirport in Fort Myers is only about a 30-minute drive. The PuntaGordaRegionalAirport is five minutes from the waterfront and has air charters and limited commercial service. Hospitals and other medical and dental facilities are within an easy walk of the waterfront.

With so much to offer, and more facilities coming in the works, Punta Gorda should be an enticing destination for boaters who make it to South Florida’s GulfCoast. Cruisers familiar with the city only a few years ago might be surprised by what they’ll find in the new Punta Gorda.

Bob and Sue Cormier cruise the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in their 27-foot 1988 Albin aft-cabin trawler Little Lady. They spend summers in Brewster, Mass., and winters in Punta Gorda, Fla. Bob is a retired college professor and a licensed Coast Guard master.