While Florida is home to miles of beaches and some of the world’s most death-defying roller coasters, the snowbird state has yet to garner a reputation as a true foodie destination. Punta Gorda, in Charlotte County, might have something to say about that. Despite boasting heaping plates of fresh seafood, a walkable downtown with virtually no chain restaurants, and a seven-time James Beard semi-finalist chef in its midst (Jeanie Roland of the Perfect Caper), the city of less than 19,000 has, so far, flown under the radar.
What to do
After Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, parts of the city were revitalized, including the waterfront and the historic district. One of the biggest beneficiaries was Fisherman’s Village, a vibrant shopping and dining destination with a marina, military history museum and lots of live entertainment at spots like Harpoon Harry’s and Village Fish Market. The Harbour Walk is another addition, connecting Fisherman’s Village with downtown Punta Gorda, and giving cyclists and strollers pretty views of Charlotte Harbour and Peace River.
Outside the downtown core, there are plenty of ways to work off all that good grub. Head to the remote Don Pedro Island for a chance to boat, kayak or stand-up-paddle-board through mangrove tunnels or get up- close and personal with the manatees, turtles, and even dolphins, that live beneath the crystal clear waters.
What to eat and drink
In Angler Creek, this is the perfect pit stop for anyone visiting Englewood Beach or Stump Pass Beach State Park. The picturesque restaurant, owned by Keith and Laurie Farlow, is best enjoyed from under the twinkling lights and verdant trellis of the patio. The menu offers fusion dishes that mesh Keith’s Caribbean upbringing with Laurie’s passion for Southern cooking. To get a feel for their signature flavour, get the coconut shrimp with a yogurt and strawberry dip and Kentucky-inspired fried green tomatoes in cornmeal batter, before moving on to blackened grouper tacos with kiwi salsa.
When the server hands you a newspaper before your food arrives, you know things are about to get messy. This seafood shack on the side of the highway might not look like much, but the crack of the mallett busting open crab shells is a Pavlov’s bell for hungry visitors. Since all seafood is caught daily, the menu is bound to change, but if you’re lucky you can dig into blue crab, shrimp and oysters served with corn and new potatoes. Grab a seat inside where fishing nets and dollar bills decorate the walls, or head outside to the deck – just be prepared to buddy up on tables.
The best way to enjoy sunset views is with a drink in hand, so we recommend heading to Fisherman’s Village early to snag a riverside seat at this popular spot. Everything that comes out of the kitchen looks drool-worthy, but since the joint has a New England-inspired menu, seafood is a wise choice. With clam chowder, blue crab cake and oysters on the half shell, you really can’t go wrong. That said, whole-belly Ipswich clams, lightly breaded and perfectly golden, deserve top billing. Most menu items are available in lunch and dinner-size portions so you can try a few.
Where to stay
This beautiful boutique hotel is a great spot to lay your head, but you don’t have to stay here to enjoy everything the Wyvern has to offer. The brightest feather in the hotel’s cap is Perch 360, a rooftop bar and restaurant with fantastic views of Charlotte Harbour and downtown Punta Gorda. If you’re enjoying your comfy bed too much to leave, take advantage of their in-room dining service and order locally-sourced contemporary American cuisine from 88 Florida Keys. Chef John Ellis has created a menu that blends classic southern staples like shrimp and grits with more unexpected plates like beef tenderloin pot pie.