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This post is sponsored by VISIT FLORIDA.
The southwest coast of Florida is home to rivers, history, beaches, wildlife and some of the world’s most beautiful sunsets. Those are just a few of the fun things to do in Punta Gorda FL and the surrounding area.
Head to the Beach
Hey! You’re in Florida, home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. My favorite beach close to Punta Groda is Englewood Beach with it miles of soft sand, plenty of parking, gentle surf and (usually) small crowds. I’ve even done yoga on the beach there and, of course, the Sunday night drum circle — a not-to-be-missed Florida experience. (More on that in a minute.)
Stump Pass Beach State Park is another great option if you want to walk along a secluded beach, fish and hunt for shells and sharks’ teeth. If you find a shell, be sure to leave it on one of the driftwood stumps and make a wish.
This sale is valid until 6/4/2023.
My kayak adventures took me to Don Pedro Island State Park, one of the Florida islands accessible only by boat. There’s a mile of sandy beach, a large picnic pavilion, hiking trails and restroom facilities. It’s a great spot for swimming and beachcombing in search of shells and shark teeth.
Finding Alligators at Babcock Ranch
If you want to experience the real Florida–Old Florida–it comes with alligators. They are in virtually every body of fresh water, from the Myakka River to the local golf course. Nowhere, though, did we see more in one spot than during our swamp buggy ecotour of Babcock Ranch.
This working cattle ranch in Punta Gorda is a must-do activity here. Our tour group included visitors ages 5 to 70+ and every one of us was enthralled with the wildlife.
The highlight of a visit to Babcock Ranch is the 90-minute Swamp Buggy Eco Tour. The tour vehicle is not really a swamp buggy — if you want that experience, head two hours northeast to Westgate River Ranch. The Babcock Ranch “swamp buggy” is a re-fashioned school bus painted in jungle colors with the windows removed to improve viewing.
But, like any good swamp buggy, the bus wades through the water and rocks and rolls over the swamp!
The bus tours leave every 30 minutes. While you’re waiting, spend some time in the quaint little museum, wandering through the gift shop or getting a (surprisingly good) bite to eat at the Gator Shack Restaurant on site. Or the kids might want to just peer inside the glass cages looking for snakes and other swamp creatures. (If they’re lucky, one of the Babcock Ranch workers will take one out for an up-close look.)
Fording the Swamp
When I visited Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County a few years ago in early March, the swamp was bone dry. On my last visit, it felt much more swampy, thanks to the 4+ inches of rain dumped on Florida’s Gulf Coast the day before. Thankfully, all of that water did not translate to a swarm of mosquitoes. But it did mean plenty of muddy water to drive through.
Whether there is water or not, the education offered by the bus driver/tour guides is top notch. We learned plenty about the ranch and its residents — from wild hogs to Florida Cracker Cattle to the alligators.
The downside of all that water was that we saw far fewer gators during this visit. Rather than seeing hundreds of them sunning themselves along the shoreline, we had to look carefully to find those eerie eyes and snouts lying along the surface of the river.
Fun fact courtesy of our Babcock Ranch tour guide: You can tell how big a gator is head-to-tail just by looking at his head. The number of inches from the tip of a gator’s snout to his eyes equals the number of feet long the whole gator is. So, if the gator’s snout is 5 inches, his whole body is five feet.
Read More: 6 Places to Find Old Florida and Why You Should!
Take a Virtual Sky Dive at the Military Heritage Museum
The Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Florida, is filled with military history and staffed with veterans who are happy to share their stories. As a bonus for families, it’s also got the kind of patron participation kids love.
Kids ages 10 and up can learn to fly planes on a flight simulator, experience a Special Forces parachute jump, take a spacewalk outside the International Space Station and experience the evolution of flight from the Wright Brothers to modern times.
The flight simulators are staffed by retired pilots. Choose the plane you want to “fly” – an F-16 Fighting Falcon or P-51 Mustang – and practice taking off, flying and landing while watching your progress on screen.
Some letters will make you laugh. Others will rip your heart out. Photo credit: Cindy Richards
Complete Military-Themed Challenges
Kids ages 5-10 can complete military-themed challenges in the Kidz Discover & Explore area. There’s also a scavenger hunt to keep kids engaged throughout the galleries and exhibits.
You also can tour the cockpit of a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter. Affectionately known as the “Huey,” it is “an icon of the Vietnam War and an angel of mercy for American troops who fought there,” the museum says. The “most recognizable helicopter in the world… the Huey and those who flew them were angels from on high.”
Don’t miss the wall of “letters from home.” It’s an emotional roller coaster. Some letters are incredibly funny. Others will rip your heart out. Plan to spend more than a few minutes reading them.
Explore the Wonders of Old Florida
If I could spend my life in a kayak, I would be a happy woman. The area around Punta Gorda is dotted with mangroves and nearly 200 miles of Blueway Trails just waiting for exploration.
When I last kayaked through a mangrove cave, I felt as though I had paddled back in time! We ducked low-hanging mangrove branches, paddled around some branches in the water and used others to pull ourselves along when the mangroves were too close to paddle at all. We came out on the other side of the mangrove cave to find a tranquil lagoon surrounded by the mangroves.
There are many options for renting kayaks to explore on your own. Or you can choose a kayak tour with a guide if, like me, you easily get lost in nature.
See Rescued Wildlife at Peace River
There are no alligators at the Peace River Wildlife Center, but there are plenty of beautiful birds. All of them have been injured, mostly by humans, the executive director believes, but some by other animals. The goal of the center is to rehabilitate the birds and release them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released are kept at the center.
This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood or just in need of 30 minutes of shade from the harsh Florida sunshine. It’s a small, peaceful place. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and used to care for the 120 permanent residents and more than 2,500 injured wildlife admissions it recieves annually. The center is staffed by volunteer docents who are knowledgeable and friendly.
Find New Florida at Fishermen’s Village
The neighborhood around Peace River Wildlife Center includes Fisherman’s Village, a charming entertainment complex right on the water. This is the place for a sunset dinner spent listening to local entertainers. Or book a sunset cruise around the harbor and the Peace River with the King Fisher Fleet that sails from the Fisherman’s Village Marina.
Fishermen’s Village was developed in an historic fishing village in Charlotte Harbor. It features a collection of locally-owned specialty shops and boutiques selling clothes, souvenirs and other vacation memories. The complex also is home to plenty of good food, inlcuding the terrific eatery, Village Fish Market, one of 7 fun kid-friendly restaurants in Punta Gorda.
The on site lodging is pet-friendly and family-friendly suites with full kitchens.
Don’t Miss a Sunset Cruise
Florida sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are legendary. We booked one of the King Fisher Fleet boat tours expecting to see one of those breathtaking sunsets. Sadly, our hopes were dashed when the clouds rolled in and the rain started just around dusk.
But the rockin’ dance-able music blasting through the boat’s loudspeakers got the teenagers up and dancing, which was entertaining enough that we hardly missed the sunset.
The fleet sails from the marina at Fishermen’s Village and cruises Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.
Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens
While the gardens at the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens are lovely, the huge and life-like art in the sculpture gardens is the draw here. And, during the holidays, millions of twinkling Christmas lights highlight a walking tour of the grounds.
The botanical garden sits idyllically along the Peace River – don’t miss the boardwalk out to the gazebo for a view of the river. The place is the dream child of Roger and Linda Tetrault. It opened in October 2017 with 11 acres that are home to more than 3,800 plants, trees and bamboos and 14 sculptures.
The area took a direct hit from Hurricane Ian and is raising money to complete repairs that are not covered by insurance and replace plants that were lost to the storm.
Dance at a Drum Circle on the Beach
No trip to Southwest Florida can be complete without a drum circle on the beach. Two beaches within an easy drive of Punta Gorda offer drum circles: Wednesdays and Saturdays at Nokomis Beach and Sundays at Englewood Beach. We got to the one at Nokomis Beach and again felt like we had traveled back in time—to the 1960s.
We arrived 5 minutes too late to see a wedding. The bride was barefoot and the groom was barefoot and shirtless. There were a couple dozen drums and drummers keeping the beat. Anyone who was so moved got up and danced to the drumming that seemed to go on and on—until the sun set on the horizon. We took a little wine, some snacks and folding beach chairs and settled in for a couple of hours of watching people move to the drumming, dresses flowing, beads clanging and smiles glowing.
It’s a not-quite-so-old Florida tradition.
Catch a Spring Training Game
The Tampa Bay Rays spend their spring at the Charlotte Sports Park in nearby Port Charlotte. But that isn’t the only Grapefruit League spring training within an easy drive of Punta Gorda. The other teams are:
- Atlanta Braves: CoolToday Park in West Villages.
- Boston Red Sox: JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers
- Minnesota Twins: Hammond Stadium at CenturyLink Sports Complex in Fort Myers
- Pittsburgh Pirates: LECOM Park in Bradenton
- Baltimore Orioles: Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota
Where to Stay in Punta Gorda, Florida
We stayed at the pet friendly Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside. This is a basic hotel with everything you need for a comfortable stay – a comfy bed, strong wifi, a decent bathroom, OK pool and good breakfast buffet.
Location is the reason to stay here. It’s right at the edge of the Charlotte Harbor Waterfront. That makes it easy to walk to Laishley Park and just about everything in downtown Punta Gorda, including the restaurants and nightlife. In fact, it’s sometimes easier to walk than drive, thanks to the busy one-way streets.
Fishermen’s Village Vacation Rentals
These 1-2 bedroom condo-like units line the second floor of Fishermen’s Village, above the shops. I saw them a few years ago and they were charming, but a little tired. All of the units have been renovated into beautiful upscale suits complete with a full kitchen. And the location can’t be beat. Fishermen’s Village offers shopping, dining, harbor cruises, fishing charters and live entertainment nightly.
Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor
This resort is the first to be developed by Allegiant Travel Company, the parent company of the no-frills Allegiant Airlines.
But the resort will have plenty of frills when it opens in Port Charlotte, just across the Peace River from Punta Gorda. Phase 1 is slated to open in late 2023. Ultimately, the resort will include a 510-room hotel and 189 extended stay 1, 2, or 3 bedroom suites with full kitchens. The 3-bedroom units will sleep 10. All units will have harbor views.
In addition, the resort will have 17 restaurants and a 5,200-square-foot rooftop pool.
Allegiant, which flies into Punta Gorda Airport, will run shuttle service from the airport to the resort, so there’s no need to rent a car. But, if you want a car to explore the area, there will be a car rental agency on site as well.
Getting to Punta Gorda Florida
Punta Gorda is about a half hour north of Fort Myers, about 90 minutes south of Tampa or an hour south of Sarasota. So flying into any of those cities along the Gulf of Mexico works.
Flying into the small, easy-to-navigate Punta Gorda airport is also an option. The flight choices there are limited, but Charlotte County is growing fast. I suspect the airport will, too, especially after the Sunseeker Resort opens.
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