Niagara Gazette — EDITOR’S NOTE: Allegiant Airlines has begun flying non-stop to Punta Gorda from the Niagara Falls International Airport and other cities. The news prompted officials from that region to run a press tour to publicize the best features of the region, including Charlotte Harbor. This story is one journalist’s report of the tour.
It’s hard to believe that it takes just three hours by plane to escape the incessant slush and snow of winter and arrive in a sun-drenched, beach-lined destination where cold quickly becomes a distant memory. Perched on the Gulf Mexico, the Charlotte Harbor area boasts quaint little shopping and dining districts, 28 miles of sandy white beaches, and four dreamy islands. Its pure and tranquil waters lure land lovers with sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and world renowned fishing.
And yet, it’s uncrowded, and quiet, like a best kept secret no one wants to tell. Perhaps that’s why the Charlotte Harbor Visitor & Convention Bureau invited journalists like me on this trip. For four days, me and several other writers toured the area, with the locals showcasing for us the landscape, the leisure pursuits, and the dozens of restaurants serving delectable local seafood with an unpretentious vibe. It turned out to be such a treasure, I was tempted not to tell a soul and keep the destination untouched and uncrowded. In the end, I decided to share.
Where to stay
• WannaB Inn: Sitting on 900 feet of beachfront on the south end of Manasota Key 30 miles from Punta Gorda Airport, this reasonably priced, 82-room resort recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation. As soon as I checked into my room overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, I flung open the sliding glass door and let the sun and the salty air wash over my face. As the sun slowly disappeared into the horizon, I finally peaked inside to appreciate my room’s recent face-lift, which had been given an art deco feel with retro furniture and colorful pastel hues. (wannabinn.com)
• Palm Island Resort: Situated on an island with no bridge or causeway connecting it to the mainland, Palm Island Resort is a hoot to check into after arriving by car ferry. I love the dozens of one, two and three bedroom villas that the resort offers as well as the two miles of sandy beach perfect for sticking my toes before diving into my novel. (palmisland.com)
What to do
• Fishermen’s Village: Spending a few hours wandering in and out of Fishermen’s Village shops was heaven to me. With more than 40 stores, including a new candy shop plus loads of kitschy home décor boutiques drenched in palm trees and “It’s 5 ‘o clock somewhere’ signs, this little shopping and dining hub just three miles east of downtown Punta Gorda makes treasure seeking a pleasure, especially when I wrapped up the day at Harpoon Harry’s with a frosty beer and a great view of the sunset over Charlotte Harbor. (fishville.com)
• King Fisher Fleet: Offering a full array of sightseeing tours departing daily from Fisherman’s Village, King Fisher Fleet gives visitors an up-close look at Charlotte Harbor’s waters and the wildlife that calls it home. Sure the eco-tours and sunset cruises are great, but I wanted something really memorable, so I opted for the full day cruise with a three-hour stop at Cayo Costa. Often considered one of Florida’s best-kept secrets, the gulf side barrier island known as Cayo Costa is a 2,426–acre state park with its miles of nature trails and untouched beaches. Here I saw a whole host of wildlife including manatees, dolphins and an extraordinary variety of birds. (kingfisherfleet.com)
• Hooked on SUP: Standup paddleboarding is all the rage, especially in places with miles of tranquil waters to explore. It’s easy to learn on Charlotte Harbor plus the pristine waters gave me glimpses of fish, stingrays, dolphins, and even manatee. Hooked on SUP offers lessons and tours, as well as kayak rentals and lessons. (hookedonsup.com)
Where to eat
• Farlow’s on the Water: Owners mix Caribbean flavors with southern comfort foods and the result is a menu filled with atypical seafood dishes, such as West Indian Conch Fritters and Jerk fish. I sat in the tropical outdoor dining room and enjoyed live music during my meal, but the most memorable moment was sipping my St Bart’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake Martini. (farlowsonthewater.com)
• The Fishery Restaurant: It didn’t take me long to realize why the Fishery Restaurant is packed with locals; its time-tested menu with seafood mainstays offers one of the most reliably deliciously meals in town. With my plate of clams steaming before me, I dug into the shells with an eager fork then followed up a bowl of its Famous Fishery Gumbo. Afterward, I wandered through the handful of art stores in the colorful wooden cabins adjacent the restaurant, which overlooks Gasparilla Sound. (fisheryrestaurantplacida.com)
• Peace River Seafood: There was a moment of trepidation when I arrived at this rustic and weathered crab shack, but I’m glad I trusted recommendations from friends and headed onto the porch for dinner. After my order of blue crab arrived, I did as everyone does at this “come as you are” locale: I cracked and smashed to me heart’s content and devoured the rich morsels until my hands were soaked with salt and butter. Afterwards, I took part in another tradition by joining on dollar bill with the hundreds of other tacked to the wall and signed by happy diners who’ll likely be back again and again. I’m on of them. (941-505-8440)
Beginning in 2012, Allegiant Airways began a direct flight from Niagara Falls International Airport to Punta Gorda Airport. The three-hour flights depart Mondays and Fridays with fares as lows as $71 plus tax each way. I was pleased with the cleanliness of the plane, and the lack of frills can be expected with prices so low. I’m not sure I’ll pay extra next time to board early; everyone got on eventually. (www.allegiantair.com)IF YOU GO • WHO: Allegiant Air, Niagara Falls International Airport • WHAT: Flight to Florida and other locations, including the most recent addition of Punta Gorda, Fla. • WHERE: Niagara Falls International Airport