Friday, December 17, 2021

Daytripping Along Florida's Vibrant Sun Coast

It's been a mild winter here in Pennsylvania, but that doesn't mean I don't miss the warm weather.  I's such an easy trip to Florida via HIA and Allegiant, that I usually clear my schedule in early winter and escape for a few days.

This year my husband and I chose Punta Gorda, renting a house via Airbnb. The small Punta Gorda airport was easy to navigate and located a mere seven minutes from our basecamp, so that, too, was a rare treat. Our house was called "The Seahorse House," which I highly recommend. 

My husband standing in front of the Seahorse house.

Our first stop in Punta Gorda was Fisherman's Village, a cute destination with a marina, restaurants, shops and overnight accommodations. The Village was decorated for the Christmas season. As a northerner, it always feels a bit strange to see Christmas decorations when the temps are hitting the upper 70s.

Fishermen's Village is decorated for the Christmas season.

Afterwards, we visited another Punta Gorda attraction. The Peace River Wildlife Center is open to the public everyday from 11-4 p.m. and is a great way to see wild birds and reptiles. Part of their mission is to protect wildlife, including rehabilitating injured animals. 

The Peace River Wildlife Center takes in injured animals.

Punta Gorda seems to be a convenient place to live, with plenty of shopping and chain restaurants, along with mom-and-pop shops all within just a few miles. Marion Avenue, which runs through downtown Punta Gorda, features unique boutique shops, dining places and art galleries. Punta Gorda even offers a free bike loaner program for visitors and locals alike to take in the sights on two wheels.

We even found this fun tiki bar called TT's, while we were there. 
TT's Tiki Bar

The beaches of the Punta Gorda region include Knight Island, Palm Island, Little Gasparilla Island, Port Charlotte Beach Park and Englewood Beach, which is known for white sand, slews of seashells and fossilized shark teeth. Visitors can rent beach chairs, umbrellas and more and parking is only 75 cents an hour.

Also in Punta Gorda is the Babcock Ranch Reserve, a 67,618.81 acre conservation area offering activities like fishing and hiking. We took the Babcock Ranch Eco Tour  on a camo colored school bus, aka the "swamp buggy," to see the animals in the area, like wild boar, cattle, alligators and more. 

The 90-minute tour took us through the Crescent B Ranch where we learned the history of the working ranch and got up close and personal with a few critters.

Our guide holds a alligator for everyone to pet, no kissing allowed.

Another way to get up close and personal with the area wildlife is to take a glass-bottomed kayak off the Boca Grande Fishing Pier. Kayakers can take a two-hour excursion on calm waters to see all there is to see. We saw a few birds, but most exciting was the group of dolphins who came within 10 feet of us. I was afraid that I would hit them with my oar, so I hung back a bit as they frolicked in the water. I only wish that I would have been able to capture a picture of them!

We felt sure a storm was rolling in, but nothing ever came of it.

A Day Trip to Fort Myers, Venice and Sarasota

Fort Myers, Sarasota and Venice are all within striking distance of Punta Gorda; you can drive to each within 45 minutes.

In keeping with the wildlife theme, we hiked half the Six Mile Slough Preserve in Fort Myers. Slough, for the record, is pronounced "slew" and is a forested wetland with slowly flowing freshwater. The name for this area came from travelers who slogged through the area in the 1890's in covered wagons on their way to Fort Myers. They would get stuck in the low, swampy area about six miles from their destination. 
Guests can grab a book at the Slough Preserve to understand what they're viewing.
This is an otter pond

During our walk, we saw baby alligators and a mama guarding them. I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera with the zoom lens, so I failed to capture a good picture of the baby gators, but did get one of the mama.
Mama gator swimming towards her nest of babies.

While in Fort Myers, we visited the Fort Myers Manatee Park. Upon entry, visitors can watch a film about manatees. The manatee is native to Florida and is a large, grayish-brown aquatic mammal with a sausage-shaped body and a paddle-shaped tail. Adult manatees average about 10 feet in length and reach about 1200 pounds. They can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes, but usually surface about every three to five minutes to breathe. Their life span in the wild averages 40 years. 

The manatee "park" is near a power plant, which warms the water so the manatees can take refuge there. You need to time this one right though. When we visited, manatees were few and far between. We learned later that it's important to check the website before visiting. This week it reads: "Manatee sightings will be rare this week. As the water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico continues to warm, manatees will not need Manatee Park as a warm water refuge. They will spend more time in the park once the Gulf temperature drops below 68 degrees."
Scene at Fort Myers Manatee Park

Downtown Fort Myers is visually interesting, thanks to its art, from 10 galleries and counting to "rusted" sculptures created by Columbian sculptor Edgardo Carmona. There you can also find boutique shops featuring art and apparel, along with plenty of restaurants with both indoor and outdoor dining.

A picture that is of particular note here is the one showing the attractive building with the yellow awnings known as "The Arcade." The Arcade was constructed in 1908 as a vaudeville house. Thomas Edison viewed films here with friends Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. As the film industry took off, "The Arcade" was converted into a full movie house. As the interest in movies waned, "The Arcade" was transitioned into a venue for live performances. Today it is home to the Florida Repertory Theatre.

I bought this while in Fort Myers.

Florida's weather lends itself to street dining year round.

"The Arcade" dates back to 1908, when it was a vaudeville house.

Fort Myers has many shops where you can buy art, apparel and more.

The Edison Theatre dates back to 1941. Offices inhabit it now, unfortunately.

This one is called "Territorias," for dog and man marking their territory.
If you look closely you'll see they are both anatomically correct.

Venice, too, is a shoppers paradise, with bars, restaurants, art galleries and more. The area was also dotted with art, like Fort Myers, but this time the theme was mermaids and sea horses. The downtown "Main Street" district has been undergoing extensive improvements in recent years, with expanded sidewalks and new landscaping.

The name of this store is "Fine Italian Ceramics."

A bakery in Venice.

A park in downtown Venice.
We didn't make it to Venice Beach, but I am told that it's billed "The Shark Tooth Capital of the World," not because they have more sharks, but because currents in the Gulf of Mexico wash more up on the shore line. 

Finally, north of Venice, is Sarasota, where you'll discover even more ways to get your shop on. While there, we visited St. Armand's Circle, a famous shopping area with plenty of boutiques and restaurants encircling a park featuring Italian statuary. I often wondered why we don't have more choices for shopping in Pennsylvania, then I realized that tourism must sustain the variety of shopping in the sun coast of Florida.

Art Gallery at St. Armand's Circle.

Restaurants dot the landscape at St. Armand's Circle.

Italian Statuary at St. Armand's Circle
What people may not know is that John Ringling of circus fame is from Sarasota and the Italian statues in the park are from his personal collection. He is recognized here with a statue depicting him.

A statue of John Ringling in St. Armand's Circle.

Sarasota is also home to The Ringling Museum of Art thanks to John and Mable Ringling. For the price of admission, visitors can also see the Circus Museum, the sprawling gardens and the opulent Ca'd'Zan Mansion where the Ringlings lived.

Galleries inside the Ringling Museum of Art.
(Photo courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, copyright Ron Blunt.)

Visitors to the art museum can also tour the mansion where John and Mable Ringling lived.
(Photo courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art)

A scene from inside the Circus Museum
(Photo courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art)

I've just touched upon a fraction of what can be seen along Florida's Sun Coast. There's so much more, but these highlights should be enough to get you started if you're interested in visiting the area. It's certainly worth the trip.