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- Gators and More in Southwest Florida
- Looking for Alligators at Babcock Ranch
- Fording the Swamp
- Take a Virtual Sky Dive at the Military Heritage Museum
- Kayaking Old Florida
- See Rescued Wildlife at Peace River
- Find New Florida at Fishermen’s Village
- Don’t Miss a Sunset Cruise
- Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens
- Dance at a Drum Circle on the Beach
- Where to Stay in Punta Gorda, Florida
- Getting to Punta Gorda Florida
When you think “family vacation” and Florida, a certain mouse is likely to be the first thing that comes to mind. But there is so much more to Florida, from alligators to rivers, to history, to beaches and back to alligators. Read on for 9 fun things to do in Punta Gorda and Southwest Florida with kids.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted on this trip.
Gators and More in Southwest Florida
As a city girl, I have to try to love nature. In Florida, sunny days, 85-degree temperatures and lovely vistas make it easy to be a nature lover. Until you see the first alligator.
My husband and I saw our first one as we kayaked along the Myakka River near Venice, Florida. The gator was sunning himself (or maybe herself, I didn’t check), on the banks of the river as we floated past. So, of course, I stopped paddling and pulled out my camera. As I set up the shot, I noticed him starting to move. As I took the shot, I noticed him sliding into the water. As I dropped my camera and grabbed my paddle, I stopped noticing him and paddled away as fast as I could.
Later that day, as I told the story to an older fella, he offered the standard Florida response: ”Don’t worry. They’re more afraid of you then you are of them.”
To which I immediately responded: “I can virtually guarantee that is not the case.”
Looking for Alligators at Babcock Ranch
Still, if you want to experience the real Florida–Old Florida–it comes with alligators. They are in virtually every body of fresh water, from the Myakka River to the local golf course. Nowhere, though, did we see more in one spot than at Babcock Ranch.
This working cattle ranch in Punta Gorda is a must-do activity here. Our tour group included visitors from 5 to 70+ and every one of us was enthralled with the wildlife.
The highlight of a visit to Babcock Ranch is the Swamp Buggy Eco Tour. The tour vehicle is not really a swamp buggy — if you want that experience, head two hours northeast to Westgate River Ranch. The Babcock Ranch “swamp buggy” is a re-fashioned school bus painted in jungle colors with the windows removed to improve viewing. But, like any good swamp buggy, the bus wades through the water and rocks and rolls over the swamp!
The bus tours leave every 30 minutes. While you’re waiting, spend some time in the quaint little museum, wandering through the gift shop or getting a (surprisingly good) bite to eat at the restaurant on site. Or the kids might want to just peer inside the glass cages looking for snakes and other swamp creatures. (If they’re lucky, one of the Babcock Ranch workers will take one out for an up-close look.)
Fording the Swamp
When I visited Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County a few years ago in early March, the swamp was bone dry. This fall visit felt much more swampy, thanks to the 4+ inches of rain Tropical Storm Nester dumped on Florida’s Gulf Coast the day before. Thankfully, all of that water did not translate to a swarm of mosquitoes. But it did mean plenty of muddy water to drive through.
Whether there is water or not, the education offered by the bus driver/tour guides is top notch. We learned plenty about the ranch and its residents — from wild hogs to Florida Cracker Cattle to the alligators.
The downside of all that water was that we saw far fewer gators during this visit. Rather than seeing hundreds of them sunning themselves along the shoreline, we had to look carefully to find those eerie eyes and snouts laying along the surface of the river.
Fun fact courtesy of our Babcock Ranch tour guide: You can tell how big a gator is head-to-tail just by looking at his head. The number of inches from the tip of a gator’s snout to his eyes equals the number of feet long the whole gator is. So, if the gator’s snout is 5 inches, his whole body is five feet.
Take a Virtual Sky Dive at the Military Heritage Museum
I know, history museums aren’t usually the way to a kid’s heart. But the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Florida, could be. Yes, it’s filled with military history and staffed with veterans who are happy to share their stories. But it’s also got the kind of patron participation kids love.
Kids ages 10 and up can learn to fly planes on a flight simulator, jump out of an airplane via a virtual reality headset and learn to shoot a (virtual) gun.
The flight simulators are staffed by retired pilots. Choose the plane you want to “fly” – I picked the P-16 – and practice taking off, flying and landing while watching your progress on screen.
Shooting the virtual gun is just as much fun. The docent showed me how to hold the digital pistol, how to aim it at the digital target and how to shoot it. We were both surprised when I hit the target dead center.
Kids 10 and younger have their own “Discovery Zone War Room” where they can battle remote control tanks that operate much like laser tag games. There, all adults “must be accompanied by a child age 10 and under.” That’s to keep the adults from monopolizing the fun.
New Home for the Museum
My husband and I visited the Military Heritage Museum when it was housed in a tiny space at Fishermen’s Village. The museum moved a few blocks down the street into a space triple the size. The extra room makes it exponentially better. The exhibits are easier to see and understand and there are plenty of video displays running interviews with veterans.
The wall of “letters from home” is an emotional roller coaster. Some letters are incredibly funny. Others will rip your heart out. Plan to spend more than a few minutes reading them.
TravelingMom Tip: The museum has a “hybrid” admission policy – the first floor displays are available free. The second floor charges a small admission fee. Be prepared to pay it. All of the interactive fun is on the second floor.
Kayaking Old Florida
If I could spend my life in a kayak, I would be a happy woman. Now that my kids are out of the house (they dislike kayaking), I never have to compromise on my need to kayak. Even if it means braving an alligator every now and then. But kayaking without fear of alligators? Sign me up!
That’s what we did when we joined a kayak tour to Don Pedro Island State Park with Hooked on SUP. The Englewood, Florida-based company does the hard work—getting the kayaks and stand up paddleboards and all of the equipment down to the water. Then a guide, in our case, Dawn, offers a lesson on how to paddle for the kayakers and SUPers (stand up paddlers) before leading the tour.
The highlight of our tour was passing through a mangrove cave. Talk about feeling like you have paddled back in time! We ducked low-hanging mangrove branches, paddled around some branches in the water and used others to pull ourselves along when the mangroves were too close to paddle at all. (Dawn assured me there were no alligators there. Being a nervous city girl, I still spent much of my time in the mangrove cave worrying about the wildlife. In this case, looking for snakes slithering along the branches.)
We came out on the other side of the mangrove cave to find a tranquil lagoon surrounded by the mangroves. As we paddled around, Dawn searched the water for sealife. She found two kinds of sponges, a jellyfish and a starfish. She passed each one around for us to see up close, touch and even hold.
See Rescued Wildlife at Peace River
There are no alligators at the Peace River Wildlife Center, but there are plenty of beautiful birds. All of them have been injured, mostly by humans, the executive director believes, but some by other animals. The goal of the center is to rehabilitate the birds and release them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released are kept at the center.
This is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood or just in need of 30 minutes shaded from the harsh Florida sunshine. It’s a small, peaceful place. Admission is free and the volunteer docents are knowledgeable and friendly.
Find New Florida at Fishermen’s Village
The neighborhood around Peace River Wildlife Center includes Fishermen’s Village, a feature of New Florida with high-end shopping, fancy food, harbor views and boat rentals.
Fishermen’s Village was developed in an historic fishing village in Charlotte Harbor. It features a collection of locally-owned specialty shops and boutiques selling clothes, souvenirs, and other vacation memories. There’s also a terrific eatery, Village Fish Market, one of 7 fun kid-friendly restaurants in Punta Gorda.
This is also the place for water sports rentals from kayaks to jet skis. Or choose the 4 person Surrey bike for biking around the area.
Don’t Miss a Sunset Cruise
Florida sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are legendary. We booked one of the King Fisher Fleet boat tours expecting to see one of those breathtaking sunsets. Sadly, Tropical Storm Nester had other ideas. The clouds rolled in and the rain started just around dusk.
But the rockin’ dance-able music blasting through the boat’s loudspeakers go the teenagers up and dancing, which was entertaining enough that we hardly missed the sunset.
The fleet sails from the marina at Fishermen’s Village and cruises Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.
Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens
One of the newest attractions in Punta Gorda, Florida, is the Peace River Botanical & Sculpture Gardens. While the gardens are lovely, the huge and life-life art in the sculpture gardens is the draw here.
The botanical garden sits idyllically along the Peace River – don’t miss the boardwalk out to the gazebo for a view of the river. The place is the dream child of Roger and Linda Tetrault. It opened in October 2017 with 11 acres that are home to more than 3,800 plants, trees and bamboos, and 14 sculptures.
Future plans call for the development of 9 additional acres, including a children’s garden. Until then, plan to spend about an hour here walking the paths, learning about the flowers and taking selfies with the sculptures.
Dance at a Drum Circle on the Beach
No trip to Southwest Florida can be complete without a drum circle on the beach. Two beaches within an easy drive of the place we rented in Venice offer drum circles: Wednesdays and Saturdays at Nokomis Beach and Sundays at Englewood Beach. We got to the one at Nokomis Beach and again felt like we had traveled back in time—to the 1960s.
We arrived 5 minutes too late to see a wedding. The bride was barefoot and the groom was barefoot and shirtless. There were a couple dozen drums and drummers keeping the beat. Anyone who was so moved got up and danced to the drumming that seemed to go on and on—until the sun set on the horizon. We took a little wine, some snacks, and folding beach chairs and settled in for a couple of hours of watching people move to the drumming, dresses flowing, beads clanging, and smiles glowing.
It’s a not-quite-so-old Florida tradition.
Where to Stay in Punta Gorda, Florida
We stayed at the pet friendly Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Harborside. This is a basic hotel with everything you need for a comfortable stay – a comfy bed, strong wifi, a decent bathroom, OK pool and good breakfast buffet.
Location is the reason to stay here. It’s right at the edge of the Charlotte Harbor Waterfront. That makes it easy to walk to Laishley Park and just about everything in downtown Punta Gorda, including the restaurants and nightlife. In fact, it’s sometimes easier to walk than drive, thanks to the busy one-way streets.
Coming Soon to Punta Gorda
There are two more hotel options in various stages of readiness:
Fishermen’s Village Vacation Rentals.
These 1-2 bedrooms condo-like units line the second floor of Fishermen’s Village, above the shops. I saw them 3 years ago and they were charming, but a little tired. All XX units have been shut down and are being renovated into beautiful upscale units complete with a full kitchen. And the location can’t be beat. Fishermen’s Village offers shopping, dining, harbor cruises, fishing charters, stand up paddleboard and kayak rentals, and live entertainment nightly.
Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor
This resort is the first to be developed by Allegiant Travel Company, the parent company of the no-frills Allegiant Airlines.
But the resort will have plenty of frills when it opens in Port Charlotte, just across the Peace River from Punta Gorda. Phase 1 is slated to open in spring of 2021. Ultimately, the resort will include a 510-room hotel and 189 extended stay 1, 2, or 3 bedroom suites with full kitchens. The 3-bedroom units will sleep 10. All units will have harbor views.
In addition, the resort will have 17 restaurants and a 5,200-square-foot rooftop pool.
Allegiant, which flies into Punta Gorda Airport, will run shuttle service from the airport to the resort, so there’s no need to rent a car. But, if you want a car to explore the area, there will be a car rental agency on site as well.
Getting to Punta Gorda Florida
Punta Gorda is about a half hour north of Fort Myers, about 90 minutes south of Tampa or an hour south of Sarasota. So flying into any of those cities along the Gulf of Mexico works.
Flying into the small, easy-to-navigate Punta Gorda airport is also an option. The flight choices there are limited, but Charlotte County is growing fast. I suspect the airport will, too, especially after the Sunseeker Resort opens.