Sunday, December 28, 2014

5 years after Charley, Punta Gorda beckons

Rebuilding has left the 120-year-old town looking brand-new, but the old charms remain.

New buildings house shops in Punta Gorda´s downtown, where 300 businesses were leveled by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. Also new is the harborfront Four Points by Sheraton.
New buildings house shops in Punta Gorda's downtown, where 300 businesses were leveled by Hurricane Charley in August 2004. Also new is the harborfront Four Points by Sheraton. CHRIS O'MEARA / Associated Press
PUNTA GORDA - 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. You may not find Punta Gorda unless you 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 a stop.

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 slammed into the town with winds of 145 m.p.h., leaving 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, 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.

Worthy stops

Within 15 miles of town, 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 winter 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, www.musclecarcity.net. Admission: $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 vultures, and plenty of stately herons and ibis. We climbed aboard Capt. Kate Preston's pontoon boat for a spin on the river on a cold, windy day. We launched at a spot about seven 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 see only 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 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. (To book a ride with Nature Education and Science Exploration, call 941-626-7590 or go to www.floridasecrets.com/nese.htm. Cost: $25 per person. Preston 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 city. A self-guided downtown walking tour takes visitors to 14 sites (some have 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 "schoolmarms" rowing across Charlotte Harbor to their schoolhouse, and several tributes to the area's natural beauty. There also are trolley tours of the murals several times a month. (For details, check with the Punta Gorda Historical Mural Society at www.puntagordamurals.com.)

A national juried fine arts show, an outdoor arts-and-crafts festival, and an organic farmers market, all within a few blocks.

Gilchrist Park on the harbor hosts many outdoor festivals, and on the days we visited, there was 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; 1-800-639-0020, www.fishville.com), a tangle of shops and restaurants that attract tourists, who can rent villas upstairs by the night, the 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. Catch 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 cook it for you. On Wednesdays, local Worden Farm has an organic market at Fishermen's Village.

Across the street is the Visual Arts Center (210 Maud St.; 941-639-8810, www.visualartcenter.org). 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 food is fine

For the third year, chef Jeanie Roland of the Perfect Caper (121 E. Marion Ave.; 941-505-9009, www.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 Tuesday night at 7, with the suggestion that we return an hour later. 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. Beef fillet and duck were cooked perfectly. We gilded the lily with lobster mac 'n' cheese laden with chunks 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.

Laishley Crab House on the eastern downtown waterfront (100 W. Retta Esplanade; 941-205-5566, www.laishleycrabhouse.com) offers a wide porch and fabulous views of the harbor, plus a friendly bar and lots of TVs. In season (before May 15), this is the place to get stone crabs. 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, head toward 322 Sullivan St. and Sugar Island Cupcakes (941-639-3030, http://sugarislandcupcakes.com). Cross your fingers that they've made coconut cupcakes that day. Honestly, the best we've eaten.

Quaint and classy. Take that, Sanibel.


Discovering Punta Gorda

Punta Gorda, population 17,000, is on the south edge of Charlotte Harbor, about 90 miles south of the Tampa Bay area. The county seat of Charlotte County can be reached by exiting Interstate 75 at

U.S. 17 and heading west.

For general information about Punta Gorda, contact the chamber of commerce at 941-639-2222 or www.puntagorda-chamber.

com.

When you arrive, pick up the free Punta Gorda Florida Weekly, which lists events, as does the chamber's website. Also, many restaurants and shops offer visitors' guides.

Getting there

Southwest, United, and US Airways fly nonstop to Tampa from Philadelphia. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $246.

Places to stay

There are chain hotels clustered around the Interstate 75 exits, but two new hotels downtown offer more personality and lovely views.

The Four Points by Sheraton is on Charlotte Harbor, built on the site of the Holiday Inn that was destroyed by Hurricane Charley in 2004. The 106-room hotel has fantastic views and sparkling-clean rooms, as might be expected from a new hotel. Rates start at about $120. Its restaurant serves breakfast and dinner. 33 Tamiami Trail; 941-637-6770, www.starwoodhotels.com.

The 63-room Wyvern Hotel is just south of the Sheraton and has views of the harbor from some rooms. A rooftop pool, patio, and bar are a lovely respite from the world. Rooms are large. Rates start at $115. 101 E. Retta Esplanade; 941-639-7700, www.thewyvernhotel.com.

The Wyvern's Lulu restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with a Latin flair. Breakfast is surprisingly reasonable for a hotel restaurant (about $20 for two); try the chorizo pigs in a blanket.

- Janet K. Keeler

Janet K. Keeler ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
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