It's easy to overlook this quaint and resilient waterfront village because not far away is a trio of southwest Florida's legendary resort islands: Sanibel, Captiva and Gasparilla.
The islands get the ink in glossy travel magazines thanks to swanky visitors, beautiful beaches and outdoor adventures aplenty. Punta Gorda you may find only if you deign to wander off Interstate 75 or are cruising south on the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) toward Fort Myers. But there are some gems here that will make it worth the effort, especially if you've got tickets for a Tampa Bay Rays spring training game in Port Charlotte, about 10 miles north. (Among those gems might be a Joe Maddon sighting in one of the area's better restaurants. Besides baseball, manager Joe knows wine.)
What might strike you first is that the town looks spanking new, despite being about 120 years old. There's not a lousy roof to be found and the paint looks barely dry. Then you might remember that Hurricane Charley nearly obliterated Punta Gorda in August 2004. The Category 4 storm, initially trained on the Tampa Bay area, slammed into Punta Gorda with winds at 145 mph. Charley left a trail of 11,000 destroyed homes and 300 leveled businesses. Even today, there are empty lots downtown and scattered throughout residential areas.
While the buildings were weak, the town's spirit was not. Today, just over five years later, there are two new hotels on pretty Charlotte Harbor, an attractive and compact downtown poised to dazzle when the economy turns and a destination restaurant that's earning a national reputation.
Use your spring training ticket as an excuse to venture farther south, or put Punta Gorda on your list for a weekend getaway. Long after the Rays return to St. Petersburg, chef Jeanie Roland will be serving sea scallops in brown butter sauce at the Perfect Caper.
Within 15 miles of the crack of the bats, a curious traveler can see:
• A collection of vintage muscle cars sure to ignite car lust and conjure memories dripping in chrome. (It'll be tough, but resist the urge to sit in the cherry-red 1956 Corvette.) The cavernous Muscle Car City — it used to be a Walmart — houses nearly 200 shiny vintage cars, mostly Chevrolets, with some dating to the 1930s.
On a recent weekday, the place was crawling with car lovers and their wives. Yeah, it's a guy's place mostly, but even a nonbeliever can't help but get swept away by all that glistening chrome and pristine upholstery. The music of yesteryear pumps through the sound system and more than one visitor sings along. By the time you make your way through the gift shop and get a seat at the '50s-style diner, you will too, with "It's so groovy now, that people are finally getting together." (3811 Tamiami Trail; (941) 575-5959 or www.musclecarcity.net. Admission is $12.50; children 12 and under free. Open Tuesday through Sunday.)
• A flock of wood storks, brought back from the edge of trouble, nesting in a rookery on the Peace River. Add to the menagerie a couple of alligators, some menacing buzzards and plenty of stately herons and ibis. We climbed aboard Capt. Kate Preston's pontoon boat for a spin on the river on a recent windy and cold day. (Haven't they all been cold recently?) We launched at a spot about 7 miles east of downtown, in a place called Liverpool. You can guess where the man who developed the area is from.
It's quiet on the river, befitting the name. We only see two other boats during our 90-minute cruise, which allows us to conjure images of the Calusa Indians who plied these waterways centuries ago. (We bet it wasn't they who left the plastic chair or the rope swing at a small beach area.) We idle near the rookery to watch the birds hunker down in the red mangroves; they're trying to stay warm, too. The ruffles of the snowy egrets flutter when they poke their heads skyward. We pull our flimsy jackets tighter. (Capt. Kate's Nature by Boat Excursions on the Peace River can be booked by calling (941) 626-7590, or e-mail her at email@example.com. Cost is $25 per person. She also ferries kayakers to dropoff points and pilots photo safaris.)
• An early 1900s cattle drive roaming across the side of a building, one of 23 downtown murals depicting the life of this Florida city. A self-guided walking tour downtown takes visitors to 14 sites (some include more than one mural). Some of the original murals survived Charley, but most are new since the hurricane.
The murals depict early life in Punta Gorda, including a nod to railroad baron Henry Plant. (At one time, the rail line ended in Punta Gorda.) There's a mural of the first city council of 1889, a lovely depiction of "school marms" rowing across Charlotte Harbor to their schoolhouse and several tributes to the area's natural beauty. In addition to the walking tour, there are trolley tours of the murals several times a month. (Get more details from the Punta Gorda Historical Mural Society at puntagordamurals.com.)
• A national juried fine arts show, an outdoor arts and crafts festival and an organic farmers market, all within a few blocks of each other.
Gilchrist Park on the harbor hosts many outdoor festivals, and on the days we visit, there is a cluster of tents housing handmade jewelry, clothes and other art. It was a bonus to our stop but the park hosts a Saturday morning farmers market where you can wander and sample goodies.
Just down Retta Esplanade from the park is Fishermen's Village (1200 W Retta Esplanade; toll-free 1-800-639-0020 or fishville.com), a tangle of shops and restaurants that attract tourists, who can rent villas upstairs by the night, week or longer. For anyone who has traveled much in Florida, Fishermen's Village will seem like lots of other tourist attractions and it is. But for shoppers, it's a lot of fun with plenty of funky jewelry, nice home decorating items and quality resort wear. Grab the trolley here for tours of downtown or hook up with a fishing excursion. Bring your cleaned catch to the Fish Market restaurant and they'll even cook it for you. On Wednesdays, local Worden Farm, which also sells produce at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market, holds an organic market at Fishermen's Village.
Across the street from the village is the Visual Arts Center (210 Maud St.; (941) 639-8810), which is holding its national art exhibition through March 12. Take a stroll among the impressive paintings (seek out my favorite, Patty Kane's Every Day Is a New Sky) and you'll find yourself walking through classrooms of art students. The exhibition is free and the stop itself is a glimpse into the town's life. The art center sponsors the annual Peace River National Art Festival on March 20-21 at Laishley Park on the eastern downtown waterfront.
The food is fine
For the third year, chef Jeanie Roland of the Perfect Caper (121 E Marion Ave.; (941) 505-9009 or theperfectcaper.com) has been named a James Beard semifinalist in the Best Chef in the South category. Tucked into the back of a low-rise stucco office complex (the juvenile justice office is next door), the Perfect Caper draws diners from tony Naples and other cities miles away.
With no reservations, we were turned away on a recent Tuesday night at 7, with the suggestion to "come back at 8." We did and were glad. Appetizers of crispy pork belly on steamed buns with hoisin sauce and three-bite lobster tacos on housemade tortillas spoke to the chef's prowess. Perfectly cooked beef fillet and duck kept the accolades at the tips of our tongues. We gilded the lily with lobster mac and cheese laden with hunks of claw meat. A splurge night out for sure (figure at least $100 for two; we spent more), but one of the better meals you'll have in the state. Call ahead, especially since the James Beard nominations came out on Feb. 18.
Laishley Crab House on the eastern downtown waterfront (100 W Retta Esplanade; (941) 205-5566 or laishleycrabhouse.com) is new since spring training 2009 and we bet some Rays will get wind of the wide porch and fabulous views of the harbor, plus a friendly bar and lots of TVs. This is the place to get a mess of stone crabs before the season ends May 15. They've got sushi, too, but we wholeheartedly recommend the she-crab soup.
River City Grill (131 W Marion Ave.; (941) 639-9080) is another hot spot downtown, and when the weather warms, there are plenty of spots to perch outside along downtown's main drag. If you're walking, point your feet toward 322 Sullivan St. and Sugar Island Cupcakes. Cross your fingers that they've made coconut cupcakes that day. Honestly, the best we've eaten.
Maybe you'll even see Rays manager Joe Maddon toasting the season at Bin 82, the classy new wine bar at 258 W Marion Ave. Quaint and classy. Take that, Sanibel.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.