On the western coast of the Sunshine State lies a stretch of coastline that has successfully sidestepped the theme park overload and skyscraper congestion plaguing other parts of the peninsula.
Charlotte Harbor's preserved oceanfront parks, community concerts, secret seafood hangouts and century-old working ranches offer a taste of vintage Florida not easily experienced elsewhere. And with direct flights from locations like Asheville, N.C., Cincinnati and Allentown, Pa., you don't have to live in a huge metropolis to have easy access. As an added bonus, it's also an extremely affordable place to visit. Following are some of my favorite high-value travel tips for visiting the area.
Food: With dozens of indie restaurants, prevalent outdoor entertainment included with evening meals and abundant access to fresh-as-it-gets fish, the prize for best area food scene goes hands down to the town of Punta Gorda. If hip and trendy suits your venue preference, head to Trabue Restaurant. It offers a fresh Florida vibe while still blending nicely into the town's historical atmosphere.
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Their lunch menu offers a number of plates and appetizers starting at less than $10, with rotating items including fun finds such as Kalamata olive hummus or shellfish served in a garlicky wine broth complete with tomatoes and crusty bread. The biggest steal however is their weekly wine dinner which features three full courses - each with its own wine pour - for $40 a head. Chef will also accommodate vegan requests with a bit of advanced notice.
Prefer a more traditional experience? Head to Peace River Seafood. Housed in a period cowboy shack with outdoor picnic tables, strung lights and its own parrot, the restaurant serves up freshly-processed seafood with newspaper for placemats and hammers serving as the main utensil. Favored by locals and outside of the typical tourist circuit, you'll need to leave the center of town and head into the sticks a bit as you make your way there.
Serving up all-you-can-eat blue crab daily, this is a roll-up-your-sleeves restaurant located a parking lot away from the processing facility where the fishermen drop off their catch. It doesn't get much fresher than that. The price for this decadent crab coma? Just $20. Other menu items worth the splurge include their lobster bites, gator gumbo and key lime pie.
Fun: Looking for a day of educational family fun? Head to Babcock Ranch to experience Florida's cowboy history in an authentic setting situated on 91,000 acres of rustic wilderness. Started one hundred years ago by patriarch Edward Vose Babcock, the ranch is still home to a thriving cattle population, extensive sod farm and a timber harvesting operation.
You'll hop on a bus-sized swamp buggy and cruise past cows still herded by actual quarter horses, see some of the preserved original buildings and stop at a number of wildlife viewing spots worthy of a photo session. Baby alligator cuddling and a walk through the cypress forest are also part of the experience. End your visit with a quick tour of the miniature ranch museum movie fans will recognize from the film "Just Cause." At $24 for adults and $16 for children, it's a one-of-a-kind vacation memory you won't find at any theme park.
A number of free nature experiences are provided through the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, including wading tours to explore coastal wildlife, guided hikes and pontoon cruises interpreted by naturalists. Checflorida.org has full details on the center's complimentary activities.
Fitness: Charlotte Harbor's blueway trails are extensive, offering an affordable framework around which to build your vacation itinerary. Not only do they provide a fairly immediate way to work off most of those vacation calories, they're also a great way to include Rover in your day-to-day activities and work in a little birding. With nearly 200 miles of waterways mapped for kayakers and 57 separate trails rated for ability level and access, there are plenty of routes to choose from.
Charlottecountyfl.com has a full brochure available for download in their community service section, including a full spreadsheet of which trailhead access points charge parking and launch fees and which ones don't. Since many of them are fee free, penny pinchers arriving with their own kayaks in tow can enjoy a frugal getaway indeed.
The town of Punta Gorda also has an excellent free bicycle lending program. Look for the canary yellow bikes available at loaner stations throughout town. Pickup locations include a number of marinas, providing a convenient transport option for those arriving by boat. For those traveling with their own wheels, the city also boasts a free bicycle repair station. How cool is that? If you are in need of marked routes and ideas for places to ride, be sure to pick up the "Punta Gorda Pathways" and "It's a Free Ride" brochures from the visitor and convention bureau.
Fur: Pets are definitely welcome in Charlotte Harbor with a number of multi-use paths, off-leash dog parks and even a souvenir shop designed to meet the needs of furry family members. For example, Edgewater Dog Park in Port Charlotte offers picnic tables, a playground and restrooms. Similarly, at the Hounds of Henry Street, separate areas are provided for both large and small breeds along with a water station featuring a hose for full-body cool downs.
Looking for a puppy present? Salty Paws features retail gifts for both kitties and canines, and hosts a popular Muttini Mingle on the first Thursday of every month where people can socialize along with their pets. Dog-friendly accommodations can be had at Microtel Inn and Suites, with a nominal pet fee of only $20. Their suites come with a microwave and small fridge for supplementing vacation meal costs, and continental breakfast is complimentary.
Theriault is a best-selling author, avid traveler and a veteran in the field of international teaching. Her recent book entitled "Teach Anywhere," advises new and experienced educators about overseas employment, international evacuation tips, and inexpensive lessons which can be implemented anywhere from refugee camps to regular classrooms.