CHARLOTTE HARBOR, Fla. - We'd had enough of grumpy husbands, psycho cats, goofy dogs, piles of laundry, housecleaning, grocery shopping, and kids. So two friends and I decided to hit the road for a girlfriends' getaway, with nothing more to worry about than how deeply we'd stick our toes into white sand, how many umbrella-adorned rum cocktails we'd sample, and how much seafood and dessert we'd devour.
Our trip to Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf Islands of Florida turned out to be a nonstop gab- and laugh-fest, in a setting of endless sun, sea and sand.
We began our getaway at Palm Island Resort, a secluded barrier island resort accessible only by ferry, where we rented a three-bedroom condo. With incredible views of the Gulf of Mexico landscape smeared with pastels - turquoise water, silvery sands, azure skies, tangerine-and-strawberry-hued sunsets, coral-colored shells, and nonstop green foliage - we couldn't have selected a better home base.
Charlotte Harbor comprises the seaside communities of Boca Grande, Don Pedro Island, Punta Gorda, Englewood-Cape Haze, El Jobean, Manasota Key, Palm Island, Placida and Port Charlotte. From our first day here, we found we could pack plenty into a few days.
And there's lots to see and do, especially if you're a sun worshipper and a water baby. There are 830 miles of shoreline that includes 200 miles of Blueway Trails for canoeing and kayaking adventures.
If you've never tried your hand at kayaking, this is the place for peaceful pilgrimages among the mangrove-edged sounds, creeks, rivers and bays. The sport is easy enough, and if you're fortunate as we were, you might come upon a few manatees, dolphins or spectacularly pink roseate spoonbills.
There's no need to be apprehensive about kayaking. If four sort-of-middle-aged women can do it without bumping into a manatee, crashing into one another, or flipping over, then anyone can do it.
And there's more:
Swimming. The warm, clear Gulf of Mexico is inviting.
Boating, sailing, cruising. With rentals and charters for salt- and freshwater excursions.
Fishing. Just bring your pole or rent equipment locally, then cast for trophies such as redfish and tarpon.
Golf. Duh! This is Florida. The area has 14 scenic courses, ranging from executive to four-star. Golf Digest ranked it third on its list of "Best in America" metropolitan areas for quality of life and golf.
Nature. Just try not to see an exotic bird, slow-moving manatee, or other wildlife as you bike, hike, swim or otherwise explore Charlotte County's beaches and nature centers.
Food. Gotta go with seafood. As a semi-vegetarian, I was as happy as a fat clam with the quantity and quality of seafood restaurants. My friends are definitely not vegetarians, and they had plenty of steak, chicken, and pork dishes to choose from. But it's almost sinful not to taste scallops, shrimp and grouper pulled fresh from these waters.
Our stops included the acclaimed Rum Bay Restaurant on Palm Island (plenty of frilly umbrella-adorned drinks here), the historic Fishery Restaurant (Denzel Washington filmed a segment of Out of Time here), lunch at bustling Fisherman's Village waterfront mall, quiche and dessert at Punta Gorda's amazing Pies & Plates, and a fine sunset meal at Portofino Waterfront Dining.
We also made time for shopping and spas. In the quaint shopping districts of Punta Gorda, Boca Grande, and Englewood-Cape Haze, we found eclectic boutiques and specialty shops brimming with jewelry, handcrafted clothing, artwork and kitchen wares. After a morning of browsing the stores, we splurged at Emmett's Spa & Beauty Center.
If you're into arts and culture, don't let Charlotte Harbor's reputation as nature's playground fool you. There's the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, the Cultural Center of Charlotte County, the Sea Grape Artists Gallery, and the Center for Performing Arts & Education. The Arts & Humanities Council of Charlotte County can guide you to more museums, artists' galleries and historical attractions.
Whether you're an outdoors enthusiast, a snowbird looking for a winter home, a couple on a getaway, or a bunch of friends seeking manatees, mangroves and margaritas, this laid-back spot on the gulf should suit you.
Hollywood Setting on the Gulf
Portions of Just Cause, Pink Cadillac, Gone Fishing, and A Tale of Two Buds were filmed in the Charlotte Harbor area.
Southwest Airlines and US Airways fly nonstop to Fort Myers from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $422. AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways fly to Sarasota with one stop; the lowest recent round-trip fare was about $252.
Places to stay
Palm Island Resort
We rented a condominium here to keep our costs down, for the extra space, kitchen, and the dazzling gulf views. Check the Visitors' Bureau Web site for other options, such as villa and cottage rentals, RV parks, campgrounds, and hotel chains, including Best Western, Days Inn, Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn.
Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands Visitors' Bureau
www.charlotteharbortravel.com - Mary Ann Anderson