Maybe Charlotte Harbor is better known than Punta Gorda, the charming city resting on its shores. But the two are inextricably linked.
Of Punta Gorda's approximately 18.5 square miles, says the U.S. Census Bureau, nearby a quarter is water. Three major marinas (and four yacht clubs) welcome you if you come by boat. By car, Interstate 75 makes it easy.
Either way, you'll be glad you came to Charlotte County's only incorporated community, its county seat.
Here, the 105-mile-long Peace River contributes its fresh water to Charlotte Harbor, helping maintain the delicate salinity in which the estuary — a mixing-zone ecosystem that's one of nature's most productive — nurtures its bumper crops of shrimp, fish and crabs. It's known worldwide for its tarpon fishing.
Colonel Isaac Trabue thought he had a pretty good idea when he established a town bearing his own name on 30 acres in 1882. The Florida Southern Railroad agreed, stretching its track to the new town of Trabue on Charlotte Harbor four years later.
Local citizens later rousted Trabue and incorporated and renamed his city "Punta Gorda," Spanish for "Fat Point," a year later. Soon, trains brought both land developers and tourists. Boat traffic became a major feature of the community, first launching Cuba-bound boats loaded with cattle, and later, attended by a new ice-making facility, sending out fishing fleets in search of mullet, Spanish mackerel and channel bass.
By 1900, the city had its first mayor, August Freeman; his restored home is among the many historic structures here that you can visit today. Other buildings were lost when a massive fire leveled most of the downtown area in 1905. When in 1921 a bridge finally stretched across Charlotte Harbor, what had been an outpost became accessible to those seeking land and leisure. City Hall and the Old County Courthouse rose, as did the Punta Gorda Women's Club, Smith Arcade, Charlotte High School and the Punta Gorda Atlantic Coast Line Depot, all among the community's 10 structures on the National Register of Historic Places.
Disaster came again in 2004, when Hurricane Charley damaged many homes, structures and landmarks. In its wake, restorations and new buildings designed to meet modern hurricane-resistant building codes have created an exciting blend of new facilities and well-preserved historical structures.
Why does this history matter? Because this town, which now has about 17,000 residents, has always had an eye to the future and respect for its past. Your visit is framed by royal palm trees, tin-roofed homes and brick lanes, but you don't give up a bit of comfort to enjoy it all.
The city-owned Laishley Park Municipal Marina opened in 2007, in a park along Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River. It has 85 slips and a public launch ramp. Many a great fishing, sailing or cruising story has included Burnt Store Marina, with 525 wet slips and 300 dry storage spots, the largest marina on Florida's west coast. Fishermen's Village has shops, restaurants, luxury villas, a military heritage museum and a 98-slip marina with additional free temporary docking areas.
The Punta Gorda waterfront welcomes everyone, yacht captain to kayak paddler. On shore, you don't have to drive: Stroll along the Harborwalk or Linear Park, or at Fishermen's Village. Check out the free bicycle lending program, or hail a cab. Intrigued by the estuary? Explore it on an airboat ride.
The area is laid-back, yet passionate about life's best. In kitchens of the many locally owned restaurants, talented chefs prepare their creations. Art is often in bloom, created in classes and studios, and on display in fine art galleries. Golf and tennis are just a chip shot or a lob away, respectively. And then, there's all that history. Explore it in two dozen murals created over the past two decades.
Notice how many of them celebrate the intertwined city and its harbor.
Laishley Park Municipal Marina, 120 Laishley Court, Punta Gorda, 941-575-0142; http://laishleymarina.com/
Burnt Store Marina, 3192 Matecumbe Key Road, Punta Gorda, 941-637-0083; http://burntstoremarina.com/
Fishermen's Village, Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 800-639-0020; http://fishville.com/
Steve Griffin has been a full-time freelance outdoors and boating writer since 1975. This story originally appeared at http://visitflorida.com.