ABOVE PHOTO: Anne Spencer House (Photos: Renée S. Gordon)
By Renée S. Gordon
Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León is credited as being the first non-indigenous European to explore Florida, although earlier expeditions reached the region seeking slaves for export to Spain. He set sail in 1513 on a quest for gold and new lands, but later versions of history include a search for the Fountain of Youth.
Believing himself to be on an island, he named the land Florida — a derivation of the Spanish word “florido” meaning “flowery land” — because of its vegetation and because he “discovered” it during Pascua Florida, Easter’s “Feast of Flowers.” His two expeditions led to the first European settlement in the continental US. (www.pureflorida.com)
Charlotte Harbor in Punta Gorda was the site of a potential colony in March 1513. Today, much of the Charlotte Harbor Gulf Island Coast, including Ponce de Leon Park, remains unblemished. The park offers fishing piers, beach, picnic pavilion, mangrove boardwalk and Peace River Wildlife Center. (#bestsideoutside)
Ponce de Leon was looking for gold, and modern visitors are in search of their own version of a golden destination. Punta Gorda, on the western coast of Florida, is just such a place.
The city seems constantly awash in a golden glow and the opportunities for eco-adventures, active tourism, eclectic dining venues and excellent accommodations are numerous.
The average temperature is 75 degrees, with an average low of 64 degrees. It has been designated one of the “10 Greatest Places to Sail in the United States” and “Third Best Place to Live and Play Golf in America.”
Punta Gorda was established in 1884 at the juncture of Peace River and Charlotte Harbor by Isaac Trabue and was originally named Trabue. After the railroad arrived, the city grew as a result of tourism and commercial fishing.
It has remained small and is filled with parks, bike trails and three historic districts, the 22-block Punta Gorda National Register District, the 23-block African American Bethel-St. Mark Historic District and the 24-block Downtown Commercial Historic District.
The Military Heritage Museum is dedicated to relating the human story of our military forces from the pre-American Revolution period through current conflicts. There are six interactive galleries, a lending library with greater than 5,000 books, 1,000 documents and a 30,000 artifact and memorabilia collection. The story is also told through the arts, Yoga for Vets, performances and other artworks. Tours begin on the lower level with chronological displays in three period themed galleries, special exhibits and the Ship’s Store. On the upper level visitors can choose from a variety of interactive experiences, flying a plane, driving a tank, using firearms, etc. (@militaryheritagemuseum)
Veteran’s Park, northeast of the museum, houses a 50% replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is made of the same black granite used in the original and is inscribed with over 58,000 names.
Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens consists of 27-acres of botanicals, 10-acres of waterways and international sculptures. Highlights of the botanical displays are 28 palm tree varieties, 17-acres of Specialty Garden Rooms and an 800-ft. boardwalk with Peace River views. Sculptural exhibits include Andy Warhol, Next Summer and the Ostriches. (@PeaceRiverGardens).
Babcock Ranch is a 17,000-acre planned community designed to balance environmental preservation, emerging technology, sustainability, global awareness and core community values. Founder’s Square, the Downtown District, is designed around shops, the incredible Table & Tap Restaurant and a Discovery Center with a small museum. Model homes are situated throughout and make an interesting tour.
A 90-minute Babcock Ranch Eco-Tour by swamp buggy is an absolute gem. Guests travel five miles through Telegraph Cypress Swamp and three additional eco-systems as an expert guide points out wildlife and geographical features. The opportunity to get close to Andalusian “cracker” cattle and feral pigs, descendants of those brought to Florida in the 1500s, is unsurpassed, as is the number of alligators you will spot. This is a wildlife lover’s dream. Before departing check out the museum, restaurant and gift shop. (www.babcockranchecotours.com)
PicklePlex is a free complex with 16 lighted courts and covered bleachers. This addictive sport, with smaller courts and bigger paddles than tennis, is America’s fastest growing sport. The World Pickleball Championship will be held in Punta Gorda December 27-30 with a $100,000 purse. (www.worldpickleballchampionship.com)
Fisherman’s Village, on Charlotte Harbor’s waterfront, houses a resort, marina, shopping, restaurants and offers fishing charters and sightseeing tours. King Fisher Fleet’s 90 minute cruises provide wonderful views of sunsets and cavorting dolphins. At Village Fish Market & Restaurant you can dine on fresh seafood while watching the sunset on the Peace River. This is an ideal location for souvenir and memento purchases. (@VillageFishMkt)
Alligator Bay Distillers offers free tours and tastings of their award-winning small batch whiskey and rum. This family operated distillery’s product is created from 100% Florida molasses. (www.alligatorbaydistillers.co)
Four Points by Sheraton, located on Charlotte Harbor, provides amenities including pillowtop beds, internet, designer linens, outdoor pool, fishing pier and concierge and business services. There are two restaurants and a poolside bar. It is located within a short distance of most attractions.
There are a plethora of award-winning eateries throughout the area that enhance your visit. Winner of the Open Table Award and Diner’s Choice 2019, Carmelo’s Italian Ristorante is renowned for its freshly prepared dishes. Here you must try the signature Cavatelli Bada Bing handmade ricotta flambéed inside a Grana Padana parmesan wheel prepared at your table.(@carmelosPG)
Dean’s South of the Border serves creative Tex Mex and American classic cuisine in a fun setting. There is a children’s menu and as well as a full bar. (@DeansTexMex)
Peace River Seafood is an authentic crab house within an Old Florida Cracker House. The fish is sourced daily and served literally from the pier to the plate. (@peace.seafood)
Penny’s Restaurant is renowned for serving the best breakfast in town. The list of options is huge as are the portions. (@PennysRestaurantPuntaGorda)
PERCH 360 at the Wyvern Hotel presents an eclectic Tapas menu as well as standard dishes. The rooftop bar and restaurant is great for sunset viewing. (@Perch360)
Find your gold and bathe in the 87 degree Warm Mineral Springs once believed to be the Fountain of Youth. You can have it all in Punta Gorda. (#LoveFl)
My quest for the perfect traveler’s gift has led me to The Grommet and Emma Royston’s Chasing Threads Leather Travel Accessories. Her unique, stitchable, journal, wallet and passport cover allow travelers to easily trace their journey on these perforated leather items using the accompanying needle and thread. Memorialize your trip in a singular and colorful way. www.thegrommet.com/chasing-threads
A family Holiday Brunch & Winter Wonderland Experience will be hosted by Loews Philadelphia in the Millennium Ballroom on Sunday, December 15. Activities will include a themed buffet, complimentary family photo opportunities with Santa Claus, the Abominable Snowman and a life-sized snow globe. There will be a holiday bouncy castle, the Fun Express Train Station and even handcrafted holiday cocktails. Information and tickets are available at: https://bit.ly/2PWCBkx.