An hour south of Tampa Bay on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the Myakka and Peace Rivers deposit fresh water into the salty Gulf of Mexico forming Charlotte Harbor, one of Florida’s richest, most vibrant and important estuaries. Mangrove forests, salt marshes, and sea grass meadows awash in the pristine water, creating ideal conditions for this maritime nursery.
Charlotte Harbor Preserve
Charlotte Harbor is known as a premier fishing destination, and the “Tarpon Capital of the World.” But Charlotte Harbor offers more than an angler’s dream. There are many hidden treasures among its nine coastal and four island communities, all making it one of Florida’s top eco-tourism destinations. And for good reason: Eighty-four percent of Charlotte Harbor’s shoreline is protected from development.
Stump Pass State Beach Park boardwalk
Old Florida charm in Charlotte Harbor, Placida
The area is alive with old Florida charm, and among its treasures are many lesser-known gems waiting to be discovered. Pristine natural areas with small historic and artsy fishing villages provide a secret stash of places you’ll want to visit. Here, life moves at a slower pace letting you soak in outdoor amenities like beachcombing and watching the glow of a tangerine pink sunset.
Devastated in 2004 by Hurricane Charley, the Charlotte Harbor area has been rebuilt. Thankfully, community leaders wisely reevaluated its ecological assets and created a plan centered on a sustainable economy rooted in natural resource preservation.
Charlotte Harbor mangrove tunnel
Charlotte Harbor is also part of the Florida Greenways and Trail System with nearly 200 miles of stunning Blueway Trails mapped for kayakers. There’s even a county sponsored free bike loan program that extends along the Peace River in historical downtown Punta Gorda — perfect if you love a good view while on a bike.
There are so many things that make Charlotte Harbor one of Florida’s best destinations, so here are some ideas to ponder while you pack your bags:
Stump Pass Beach
On the southern end of Manasota Key lies Stump Pass Beach State Park where shark teeth and seashells wash ashore. And during nesting season, huge sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand in the dark of night. Nature trails wind through the park and you may encounter a gopher tortoise crossing your path or even a great blue heron perching on a shady trailside bench.
Ranger led tour at Stump Pass Beach State Park
A diversity of native plants flourish along the pathway and are highlighted through the ranger-led (winter) park tours. You’ll learn to identify and distinguish coastal plants like sea grapes, cocoplums and even the prickly pear cactus. Water sport fans can launch a kayak or SUP and paddle around the nearby mangrove islands to the east, all part of the Stump Pass park. Ospreys soar overhead and mullet jump as anglers fish from their boats or from shore. Keep your eyes open for Florida manatees as they graze on the sea grasses below the water’s surface.
Don Pedro Island (also known as Knight, Little Gasparilla or Palm Island)
Don Pedro Island
Heading further south in the chain of barrier islands, you’ll find Don Pedro Island. The north end of the island is home to the Palm Island Resort; mid-island is Don Pedro Island State Park; the south end is a collection of private residences. There are several ways to experience this island that is accessible only by boat. To get to the resort you will board the Palm Island Ferry (2000 Panama Blvd, Englewood), a flat barge that will transport you (in your car) across the Intracoastal Waterway from the mainland. Most of those visiting the island plan to stay over night at the Palm Island resort or arrange for a private home rental. This self-contained beach retreat with miles of pristine beaches is ideal for the family or even those looking for a romantic getaway. Beach rental condos and homes provide all of the creature comforts with two available restaurants. Guests cruise around in golf carts, the preferred island transportation.
Shell tree, Don Pedro Island
As you walk the beach, be sure to stroll to the north end overlooking Stump Pass where you’ll find “shell trees”. Local legends report that wishes will be granted to those who place a shell on these weathered, beached trees.
Don Pedro Island State Park
Don Pedro Island State Park is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. You can reach the park via the Palm Island Ferry and hike 3-4 miles to the beach, but If you are interested in just a simple way to access paradise, you’ll want to take a shuttle operated by Captiva Cruises. Board at the Don Pedro Island State Park land base (8450 Placida Road, Placida) for a short pontoon boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway followed by a short walk to the beach.
Don Pedro Island State Park
You’ll be mesmerized by the sharp contrast of the turquoise Gulf of Mexico and the sandy white mile-long beach, layered with a thick blanket of shells. Pack your lunch and enjoy a relaxed day at the water’s edge or under the covered picnic pavilion. You’ll feel as though you are at your own personal beach as you watch dolphins swim by and shorebirds wade. But you won’t feel completely remote with available park amenities of restrooms, showers and barbecue grills.
Back on the mainland on your way south to the next barrier island of Gasparilla, consider a visit to Placida. Nestled off County Road 771 this tiny, artsy area is filled with eclectic art galleries, funky shops, and a seafood market and restaurant giving it a down home feel that is unmistakably genuine. For those who seek “real” and “authentic” Florida, Charlotte Harbor’s funky and quaint community of Placida is a charmer. Be sure to head over to the Albritton Gallery for some fun Florida gift items and handmade art created by Margaret and Garry Albritton.
Banyan Street, Boca Grande
After leaving Placida, you’ll be able to drive to the next barrier island known as Gasparilla Island. Named for legendary pirate Jose Gaspar, it has become a place where rich and famous billionaires come to relax. But it is also a charming place to visit, and even stay, for the rest of us. The heart of Gasparilla Island is Boca Grande, with a small village feel, a few old timey cafes, shops and restaurants.
Boca Grande historical home
If you have some time, stroll around the residential area and enjoy the older, charming Florida homes (and churches) on Gilchrist, Park and Railroad Avenues, including the much-photographed Banyan Street, with its shady canopy of old Banyan trees. Treat yourself to an old Florida lunch at Temptations Restaurant where the locals go for casual seafood.
Boca Grande Lighthouse
But no trip to the island is complete without a visit to the 1890 Gasparilla Island State Park Lighthouse overlooking the Boca Grande Pass. Beautifully restored, the lighthouse has a museum and visitor center. Be sure to walk to the beach for a photo. There you are likely to also see a boat parade of fishermen heading in after landing the “big catch.”
“White Pelican Island”
Florida’s White Pelicans
Located in Gasparilla Sound, this un-named island (actually a sandbar) is known to locals as “White Pelican Island.” Here you will find the largest population of white pelicans in the southeastern United States. The birds are migratory, typically arriving in the fall and staying until late spring. Distinctive with snowy white feathers and pink-tangerine colored bills, they are often seen flying and swimming in groups. Shy in nature, and much less social than their cousin, the brown pelican, they avoid open water and prefer isolated areas.
The best (and only) viewing of white pelicans at White Pelican Island is by boat. One of the local outfitters, Boca Boats provides cruises (leaving from Gasparilla Island) that include a view of the white pelicans while admiring some dolphins along the way. If you do not want to go by boat don’t fret, oftentimes you can still find white pelicans by heading to the fishing pier at Boca Grande Causeway. Just before the toll bridge you can pull off and park and walk out on the fishing pier where you will often see white pelicans swimming nearby.
It’s always fun to learn more about the area and ecosystem you are exploring and that is why a trip to the Cedar Point Environmental Park will enhance your visit. The Center is located at 2300 Placida Road and you can visit either on your way to, or on the way home from your island visits. The park provides hands-on programming to build greater awareness of the Harbor’s natural surroundings through wading sea grass adventures, canoe/kayaking, and guided nature hikes. You’ll never really know and appreciate an estuary until you actually roll up your pant legs, grab a fishing net and bucket, and wade into the shallow sea grass. Lemon Bay is a perfect location for a wading trip with a naturalist, and you’ll have a ball scooping (and throwing back) juvenile fish, crabs, shrimp, seahorses, sea urchins, huge welk and tulip shells.
These young marine creatures are part of what defines an estuary and essential for the health and well being of this ecological superstar, Charlotte Harbor. There’s so much to take in on your trip to Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf islands. Whether you make several trips, or take it all in at once, you’re sure to enjoy your visit!
Stump Pass State Park
Royal Poinciana, Boca Grande
Where to Stay and Eat
Beach, WannB Inn
This resort is located on the south end of Manasota Key, directly on the beach, tucked away between the Gulf of Mexico and Lemon Bay while being yards away from Stump Pass Beach Park. Fish, kayak and enjoy all the amenities of the Lemon Bay Aquatic Preserve. The rooms are spacious and have all the amenities you need for a relaxing visit.
Fishing, WannaB Inn
Don Pedro Island
Palm Island Resort boat dock
Palm Island Resort: Ideal weekend getaway (Try Rum Bay or Leverock’s Seafood for dining)
The Fishery Restaurant: fresh fish off the docks
Gasparilla Island (Boca Grande)
The Anchor Inn — Historic District, classic Cracker architecture
Temptations Restaurant (350 Park Avenue) — Old Florida & seafood
The Inn Bakery –casual coffee, pastries, sandwiches and salads
Gasparilla Inn & Club, Boca Grande
Gasparilla Inn & Club – Old Florida elegance, it doesn’t get any better, (pricey, but even a visit is worth it, and open seasonally)
Gasparilla Inn Dining Room –right out of Southern Living Magazine (open seasonally)
The Pink Elephant – Casual restaurant, owned by the Gasparilla Inn, nearby, (known as “the Pink”)
Whidden’s Marina – Just for a visit; on the National Register of Historic Places; Houses the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum
Peace River Seafood, Punta Gorda
Peace River Seafood — Fresh blue crab; 5337 Duncan Road, Punta Gorda
Village Fish Market & Restaurant –will prepare your fresh catch
Hooked on SUP — Eco-tours and rentals, based out of Cape Haze Marina
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If You Go
For information on visiting the area: