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Old Florida at its Best

David Dorle

One of the pleasures of living in this part of the state is that we never have to travel far to find something new and interesting. Within three hours, we can find ourselves in areas that remain virtually identical to the way they were when inhabited by the native Calusa and Seminole, and gain insight into how ancient Florida became Old Florida on its way to becoming South Florida.

Fishermen's Village on the harbor, Punta Gorda, FL.

   It is possible to lose ourselves in the history of communities that sprouted up nearly overnight, some disappearing, others hanging on and now re-emerging with their own unique identity. Punta Gorda, just over a 140 miles due west of Palm Beach, is a case in point. Founded at the picturesque Peace River where it flows into Charlotte Harbor, the community was first settled in the mid-1870s and soon became known as Trabue, after Isaac Trabue, an opportunistic resident who simply decided one day that it should be named in his honor. Community leaders disagreed, but it took them 10 years to officially adopt Punta Gorda (Spanish for Fat Point) as the city’s name.

   Over the years, the area gradually grew through land development, shipbuilding, logging and early tourism—all brought to the area by the South Florida Railroad and the shipping routes extending from New Orleans to New York. The discovery of phosphate along the banks of the Peace River accelerated development, and soon the city was shipping its goods worldwide.

   Throughout the twentieth century, Punta Gorda grew and declined like many communities in Florida, but by the 1990s, it was clearly coming into its own as an affordable tourist destination and provider of raw materials to a number of industries.

   All that changed on August 13, 2004, when Hurricane Charley took a sudden turn from its projected course and put Punta Gorda in its crosshairs. The destruction was widespread, but it led to a rebirth for Punta Gorda.

   There was much that did survive unscathed, including the city’s many murals and most of the key landmarks—not to mention the indomitable spirit of its residents. What has emerged to date (and is still a work-in-progress), is a modern community full of activity and venues for visitors of all ages.

Babcock Wilderness Ranch is a must-see stop near Punta Gorda, FL.

   Babcock Ranch (above) offers the perfect introduction to the modern history of Charlotte County. Traveling through this 90,000-acre working cattle ranch aboard an open-air bus, visitors see the descendant herds of longhorn Cracker Cattle (first brought to Florida by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521) as well as many other cattle breeds, more than 5,000 head in all. Mining, agriculture, logging and horticulture at the ranch have produced scores of goods and discoveries, including extracts leading to the development of such items as turpentine oil and saw palmetto supplements Verdant prairie land leads into cypress swamps and emerges into meadows teeming with hundreds of species of wildlife and flora—all of it within view of the naked eye. If you should see something familiar, it may well be the backdrop of a scene from such films as Pink Cadillac and Gone Fishin’. Close your eyes and you may even picture Sean Connery with his mischievous grin in Just Cause.

Babcock Ranch served as the backdrop for many Hollywood films, including Just Cause, with Sean Connery.

If this scene looks familiar, it could be because Babcock Ranch was the setting for such films as Just Cause starring Sean Connery.

Take a tour of Old Florida with Babcock Wilderness Tours, near Punta Gorda, FL.

Take a tour with Babcock Wilderness Adventures and get a feel for the true Old Florida.

   What makes this visual experience all the more entertaining, however, are the tour guides. Ours was Terry, an enthusiastic scholar of every aspect of the ranch and the value its impact still has on the world today. She is easily one of the best tour guides of any venue we have ever visited. (www.babcockwilderness.com).

   From Babock Ranch, it is a 30-minute drive to Punta Gorda on straight flat roads that tempt you to speed. Don’t. The route is well mined with Charlotte County Sheriffs all too happy to pull you over, so why risk it?

   It is impossible to enter downtown Punta Gorda without noticing its murals depicting scenes both historic and contemporary. Marion Street offers many good restaurants and shops as well as necessity stores. When hunger strikes during your sightseeing, try the turkey croissant sandwich at the River City Grill, or the burgers, or the freshly made soups, or the salads made with organic vegetables from its own patch in nearby Worden Farm. For a nonnative treat, order the Maine lobster roll, a favorite of the owner who should know the real deal from the imitations—he himself is a native New Englander.

Scallops at River City Grill, Punta Gorda, FL.

Some colorful and delicious dishes are served with style at River City Grill.

Cruise with King Fisher Fleet, Punta Gorda, FL

Cruising with King Fisher Fleet.

   Among the city’s many interesting areas, Fisherman’s Village offers an array of independent stores (no chains), many featuring locally crafted items as well as comfortable housekeeping lodging on the building’s upper level along Punta Gorda’s Yacht Basin. A sunset cruise on the King Fisher Fleet will reveal just why this beautiful setting was named National Marina of the Year by ValvTect Petroleum Corp. in 2008.

   Additionally, the Village boasts several waterfront restaurants and offers an expansive array of seafood. Don’t miss the blue crab appetizer at The Village Fishmarket followed by the halibut and a slice of pecan pie—best served with the stunning sunset on Charlotte Harbor.

The Village Fish Market Restaurant, Punta Gorda

Visit the Village Fish Market for food and fun.

   If you’re looking for upscale dining without extreme sticker shock, then Trabue will leave you wanting for little. With its colorfully painted interior of bright yellows, blues and reds, Trabue is a fun-feeling, happy bistro reminiscent of some sidewalk eateries in Manhattan. It features an interesting mix of appetizers and entrées, including a Tuscan white bean soup that will transport you to Florence and escargot served on crostini with just the right touch of garlic and oil.

Trabue restaurant - Punta Gorda

Don't miss the fabulous cuisine of Executive Chef Keith Meyer at Trabue.

The seared scallops or the duck are excellent entrée options, both beautifully presented and carefully prepared by Executive Chef Keith Meyer and served with an impish smile by Linda. Other intriguing menu items include pappardelle beef and salmon with creamed corn, along with a variety of pork and seafood dishes.

   In an age when American restaurants, despite their cuisine, stock only or mostly American wines, it’s always a nice surprise to find a wine list that that features vintages from around the world. Trabue offers some of best moderately priced wines on the market today. Pair the duck with a $42 Côtes du Rhône, and you won’t miss the usual suspects from California.

   After our dinners, we considered the dessert menu with some hesitation, but at Linda’s urging, we shared the fabulous homemade crème brûlée and were glad we did.

   Finally, we rarely go to a restaurant for the entertainment, but guitarist/singer Mike Hirst’s blend of early Eagles, Kris Kristofferson and others artists played and sung with mellow perfection is more than worth stopping by for a pre- or post-game drink at the bar. Never loud or self-absorbed, Hirst struck every chord with the customer’s pleasure in mind. Just perfect.

The Wyvern Hotel, Punta Gorda, FL.

Stay in style at The Wyvern Hotel.

   In addition to lodging venues that have survived Charley and have emerged updated, several new hotels, some national chains, have opened in the last few years. We chose The Wyvern. Our room was comfortable and inviting and, in some ways, luxurious with its pillow-top-mattress and overstuffed down pillows. As to be expected from any fine hotel these days, The Wyvern offers a full complement of in-room and common area amenities, including a cozy bar and restaurant on the first floor and a rooftop bar and swimming pool sporting a great view of the city and the harbor.

   The staff was pleasant and professional, but we do have a word of caution for prospective guests: If you prefer quiet nights in your hotel room, avoid The Wyvern on Friday or Saturday nights. The music from the rooftop bar will intrude on your solitude. For those who prefer to party, this is just the ticket.

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