Charlotte Harbor Islands
Two of Florida’s well-traveled rivers, the Myakka and the Peace, come together to form Charlotte Harbor, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. All of that water makes the area a great place for paddling and boating—or even just viewing the waterfront.
While the Charlotte Harbor area was damaged when Hurricane Charley hit last August, most natural areas are open and welcoming visitors. Two state parks and a national wildlife refuge let visitors experience the watery side of the region. Don Pedro Island State Park (941-964-0375) is reached only by boat; dock on the bay side of the island. A nature trail and a mile of beach are open to crowd-weary visitors. Look for nesting bald eagles. The entrance fee is $1 per person. Across the water in Cape Haze is the park’s “land base.” Take I-75 Exit #191 and head south to Englewood. The land base is on Route 775 about 7 miles south of Englewood.
Gasparilla Island State Park (941-964-0375) rests on a barrier island in the gulf. Named after Spanish naval-officer-turned-pirate José Gaspar, who is thought to have frequented the area, the park is known for its lighthouse, used from 1890 to 1966. Today the lighthouse serves as a museum. The park is also known for its beach and fishing. Admission is $2 per vehicle. To get there, follow Route 775 south from Englewood to the Boca Grande Causeway. Go across Gasparilla Pass and follow the main road south to the park on the southern end of the island.
Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge is a small collection of islands, together not more than 20 acres in size. Across from Gasparilla Island, the refuge gets few visitors because it is accessible only by boat, and biting insects can be a problem. But if you’re adventurous, contact J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (941-472-1100), which oversees Island Bay.
If you don’t have your own boat or kayak, contact Grande Tours (941-697-8825; www.grandetours.com) in Placida. Take a tour around Gasparilla Island or a bird rookery and dolphin cruise, $21.50. Go on a 2.5-hour guided kayak tour of the mangrove islands for $45. Kayak rentals start at $20 for 2 hours. King Fisher Cruise Lines (941-639-0969; www.kingfisherfleet.com) in Punta Gorda offers several different cruises of the barrier islands. Check out the half-day Peace River nature cruise that goes from Charlotte Harbor up the river, $16.95.
If you want an in-depth look at this part of Florida, order 30 Eco-Trips in Florida and turn to chapter 24, Southwestern Barrier Islands.