Charlotte Harbor Area Capsule Boaterâ€™s Guide Coldwell Banker Morris Realty, Inc. 2825 Tamiami Trail Punta Gorda, Florida 33950 (941) 637-1090
Preface The purpose of this guide is to provide boaters, most specifically powerboaters, with an overview of the opportunities for day trip and overnight boating enjoyment in the area. Our focus is on powerboaters because they are the most neglected group with regard to the availability of this sort of information. However, before we begin addressing this topic, let us provide a bit of information regarding area fishing, sailing and yacht clubs. Fishing in Charlotte Harbor is second to none from bass in freshwater, to mangrove snapper, redfish, snook, cobia and sea trout in the canals and Harbor, to grouper, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel offshore – not to mention our largest gamefish: tarpon, and a variety of shark. Fishing enthusiasts new to the area can orient themselves quickly to the fine points of the local sport by hiring a competent local guide to “show them the ropes”, or by making contact with expert amateurs by joining one of the local fishing clubs or the increasingly active local chapter of the Florida Conservation Association. As for sailors, they will find that Charlotte Harbor is quite simply one of the finest day sailing bays in the United States. One look at NOAA Chart #11426 will leave no doubt in a sailor’s mind that the Pine Island Sound area south of the Harbor is a gunkholer’s paradise and the center of cruising attraction for sailors based up and down Florida’s west coast. Local sailing groups include the Punta Gorda Boat Club and the Punta Gorda Sailing Club, both with inexpensive membership fees and active cruising/racing agendas. For those who enjoy the combination of elegance, formality and camaraderie available in the Yacht Club environment, we offer the Charlotte Harbor Yacht Club and the Isles Yacht Club. Both have attractive facilities and are members of the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs, an association which provides club members with reciprocal privileges at approximately two dozen other fine clubs throughout the state. While the open reaches of Charlotte Harbor are a delight for the sailor, and the island dotted shallows along its shore a fertile ground for fishermen, the day tripping or cruising powerboater will find the most pleasure in exploring the two rivers that form the Harbor and the Caribbean-like island beaches and watering holes that are located along the Intracoastal Waterway both north and south of the Harbor’s mouth.
The Peace River A voyage up the Peace River begins at the U.S. Highway #41 bridge in Punta Gorda. Prior to beginning a venture up the river, we recommend the purchase of Chart #4E produced by the International Sailing Supply in Punta Gorda. This is a large scale, detailed chart of both the Peace and Myakka Rivers made of a wear resistant, waterproof plastic material. For the first ten miles or so the river is tidal and at mid to high tide will allow craft with drafts of up to 4’ to traverse the shallowest spots, although local knowledge is helpful if your draft exceeds 3’. The channel is marked for only 5 miles from the bridge with the last marker, “green 23”, located across from the Harbour Heights development. Along this stretch of the river the shoreline flora begins to transition from the ubiquitous mangroves which line the Harbor to marsh grass. All through your trip up the river you will be exposed to a wide variety of bird life including brown pelicans, herons, egrets, ospreys and the occasional bald eagle. It is on this stretch of the river, especially at mid to low tides on a warm day in fall, winter or spring, that the careful observer will begin to be rewarded by the sight of numerous alligators of all sizes sunning on the bare bank or partially hidden in the marsh grass. After 4 to 5 miles of the marsh grass dominated flora the “jungle” begins to assert itself. The riverbank becomes a riot of oak and cypress decorated with bromeliad air plants and accented by ferns of numerous varieties. Just short of 12 miles past our starting point on the west shore lies Deep Creek Marina and the Navigator Lounge. This, the lone watering hole along our voyage, offers a charming rustic ambiance and a good selection of “stick to your ribs” country food along with beer and wine. Three miles farther, the river is crossed by a fixed highway bridge with a vertical clearance of 8’. This is the end of the line for most of you with flying bridges and some with fixed radar arches. Less than a mile beyond this point lies the remains of an abandoned railway trestle with a horizontal clearance of only 12’ made more interesting by protruding spikes and, especially at times of heavy rainfall, a strong current. We have known boaters that have ventured through this point many times in craft with 8’ of beam with never a scratch, but always a sigh of relief at completion of the passage. For those inclined to pass this point, there lies ahead more jungle, more alligators, the occasional need for a very shallow draft and an increasing demand on boat handling skills and the need for a sharp eye to spot the growing number of underwater obstacles. At any time of the year a day trip up the Peace River will take you into another world. If you wish a private commune with nature, pick a weekday for your adventure. If you wish to add people watching to your agenda pick a summer Sunday when a moderate number of locals can be found boating and picnicking along the way. Just pack a picnic lunch and “drop out”. You never know when you might sight the “African Queen” around the next bend of this wonderfully scenic subtropical stream.
The Myakka River The Myakka, the smaller of the two rivers forming Charlotte Harbor, enters that bay from the northwest. Unless you are fortunate enough to be accompanied by someone with a good measure of local knowledge on your voyage up the Myakka, don’t proceed without a copy of Internal Sailing Supply chart #4E in your possession (this is the same chart that details the Peace River). A second suggestion is that this trip be scheduled to be initiated and completed at other than low tide in a craft that preferably, has a draft of less than 3 feet. The entrance to the river is noted by Charlotte Harbor Markers Red “8” and Green “9” which are separated by one nautical mile and offer a convenient means of calibrating your speed and distance measuring equipment. In the fall and winter season the lower and middle portions of the river will be dotted with round floats denoting the location of crab pots (the same is true of the Peace River). These hazards to navigation, while annoying, are usually indicative of mid-tide water depths in excess of four feet, and in the absence of other indicators can serve as de facto channel markers. Most agree that a river voyage truly begins at the State Highway #776 bridge (24 feet vertical clearance). For the first three miles past the bridge, the river is wide and the western shore dotted with homes and man-made canals. The river then narrows rapidly into a marked channel. This area is dotted with marsh grass covered islands and requires alertness on the part of the helmsman if the proper course is to be maintained. After traveling somewhat less than 5 nautical miles through the marshy island scenery (interspersed with a few riverfront homes and waterfront mobile home parks) you will arrive at the bridge where U.S. Highway 41 crosses the river. Beyond this point the Myakka has a “Scenic River” designation. Care must be taken to avoid the numerous flats for the next two miles (the first one is in mid river just upstream of the bridge). Pay close attention to the navigational notes printed in red on the chart! At the end of this two mile stretch the marsh grass disappears and a subtropical fresh water flora asserts itself. The banks are dominated by oak trees, cabbage palms, palmettos and various species of fern. From this point on the river wanders delightfully and has plenty of depth (4’+) across much of its modest average width of 100’. While the great majority of riverbank remains in its natural state there are several campgrounds and a number of rustic cottages to provide visual variety. As on the Peace River you will be treated to a wide variety of bird life as you cruise the Myakka, but, at least along this portion, you will be less likely to spot as many alligators. Three miles of this and you arrive at the bridge which carries Interstate 75 across the river. This is as far as we have explored, but for those with plenty of time and a small boat or canoe there are many miles more of this river to explore including the Myakka State Park where two shallow but sizeable lakes are located.
Of the two rivers, the Peace is more accommodating to the mid-size runabout or small to mid-size cruiser. The Peace River provides a tropical jungle ambiance while the Myakka is more subtropical in nature. Our rivers offer two pleasant yet distinctly different boating experiences. The choice is yours.
The Intracoastal Waterway South There is so much to see and do in and around the islands surrounding the ICW south of Boca Grande Pass that we placed a limit of 30 nautical miles south of Punta Gorda on our exploration. This is a comfortable day trip distance for a fast (25 kt.) cruise or runabout and a reasonable weekend jaunt for the trawler owner or the motorsailing cruising sailor. The recommended large scale chart for boating in this area is #25E from International Sailing Supply. A very short hop (10 miles) south of Punta Gorda on the eastern shore of the Harbor is the huge Burnt Store Marina Complex which offers a complete amenity package including the attractive Porto Bello Restaurant and bar. Great for a brief day trip or a comfortable overnight. From Burnt Store Marina to Boca Grande Pass is just over 11 nautical miles traveling WSW. The south side of the Pass is defined by Cayo Costa Island, most of which is either county or state park. Both the Gulf shore and the inland shore of Cayo Costa offer magnificent swimming and shelling beaches which are never terribly crowded as they are accessible only to boaters. A portion of the Gulf side is protected by a series of flats and sand bars known as Johnsonâ€™s Shoals. These are perfect spots for day trip picnicking and overnight anchoring. However, navigation in this area requires local knowledge as the shifting sands render charts next to useless. On the back side of Cayo Costa are two good anchorages, the larger being Pelican Bay (which is deeper than the chart indicates â€“ 5â€™ drafts can be accommodated at most tides), which can easily accommodate several dozen craft, and the smaller being Punta Blanco, with room for a half dozen at most in the cover, and a least that many outside, south of the hook that forms it. Pelican Bay should be entered from its northern end (the best water is slightly north of center of the opening) WSW of ICW marker #72. Stay fairly close to the shoreline when entering the cover at Punta Blanco. Moving south along the ICW brings one to the entrance channel of Useppa Island just south of ICW #64. Although this is a private club, there are circumstances under which visitors are allowed and small business group meetings and yacht club visits are encouraged. The Island has a sizeable marina facility which can accommodate large yachts, two restaurant/bar facilities, gift shop, beach, swimming pool, tennis and croquet. Many of the lovely homes are available for rental on a daily or weekly basis to club members, guests and those attending meetings. This inland is utterly charming with an abundance of tropical flora that gives it a Caribbean ambiance.
Just a bit south across the ICW is the Inn at Cabbage Key, an internationally known watering hole and the subject to Jimmy Buffet’s song “Cheeseburger in Paradise”. The restaurant and bar offer a funky and unique atmosphere, the walls being covered with dollar bills signed and left behind by guests (“old” dollar bills are periodically donated to charity to make room for new ones). The food is delicious, there is usually entertainment on weekends and quarters are available (6 rooms in the Inn and several rental cottages). There is adequate dockage both for large vessels and small runabouts, with shore power available for most slips. Don’t miss the gift shop which has an impressive selection of clothing featuring custom graphics and plenty of other goodies as well. Just 3 miles south of Cabbage Key is Captiva Pass which separates Cayo Costa from North Captiva Island. Like Cayo Costa, North Captiva has no mainland connection, but it does have private development on both the north and south ends (the center being a government owned park). The major development on the north end is the Safety Harbor Club which surrounds a beautiful protected cove on which are three delightful small restaurants which serve excellent food. “Over the Waterfront” and “Barnacle Phil’s” have been patronized by members of our staff with great enjoyment. Both serve a combination of delicious sandwiches, steamed shrimp, and black beans and rice for lunch. Both have special deserts and offer a limited selection of gourmet dinners. Only Barnacle Phil’s offers beer and wine. Although we (at the time this was written) have no personal experience with the third Upper Captiva restaurant, “Grady’s”, local travel writers have praised its innovative gourmet menu. Rental units are available for those who wish to extend their stay. Coming down the ICW from the north you access Safety Harbor by following the deep water marked on the chart SSW of ICW #52 to the marked entry channel. There is one tight spot on the entry channel between a sandspit and an old fish house, but it is well marked and 40’ powerboats have been seen in the cove. Continuing south along the ICW to marker #40 you will find the entrance to the internationally renowned South Seas Plantation resort. Catering to affluent tourists this is a truly extravagant facility with multiple restaurants, tennis, golf, shopping, gulf beaches, a wide variety of rental units and more. The marina facility here is first class, but pricey. If you wish to indulge yourself in subtropical luxury, there is no better place than South Seas Plantation. The terminus of our day trip voyage south is ‘Tween Waters Inn. This resort is almost literally a stone’s throw southward of South Seas Plantation. Its entry channel can be found by turning SW from ICW marker #38. ‘Tween Waters is smaller and more rustic than South Seas, but except for the lack of a golf course it offers many of the same amenities. Its location on the most narrow portion of Captiva Island allows the boater to reach a lovely gulf beach within a five minute walk of the marina. Canoe rentals, tennis, and a huge swimming pool with tiki bar are also available. Two restaurants, one the elegant Old Captiva House, are on the premises and several more of Captiva’s finest are within an easy walk. The Crow’s Nest Lounge adjacent to the Old Captiva House almost always offers entertainment and is one of the “in” spots on the island.
The marina facility at “Tween Waters is not large, so it is wise to reserve space ahead for an overnight stay. The return trip to Punta Gorda can be made more interesting by leaving the ICW at market #52 and heading NNE past the east side of Useppa Island. With the help of the chart and the available day markers this passage will save you some time and allow you to re-enter Charlotte Harbor at Jug Creek Shoals just west of the northern tip of Pine Island. Craft with drafts exceeding 3 feet should use caution passing through the Jug Creek Shoals channel at extreme low tides, however. For small craft owners a trip through the channel that divides Pine Island from Bokeelia Island is interesting. The western entry of this channel is just SE of marker #8 which is located at the southern end of Jug Creek Shoals. A fixed bridge with approximately 8 feet of vertical clearance is a limiting factor. A first trip through this channel will be less “exciting” if someone with local knowledge is on board.
The Intracoastal Waterway North Unlike the ICW south from Boca Grande Pass which features the open waters of Pine Island Sound accented by the natural beauty of a multitude of islands, the attraction of a trip north up the ICW to Venice Inlet is primarily the availability of numerous waterfront restaurants and watering holes along the way. International Sailing School chart #24E is the navigation tool of choice for this portion of the waterway. The scenery along this stretch is a mix of open water such as in Gasparilla Sound and the wider portions of Lemon Bay, and narrow sections that resemble somewhat more rustic versions of what one might expect to see along the ICW between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. “Ski Alley”, a long deep bayou bounded by strips of sandy beach that occurs just north of Stump Pass between Manasota Key and Peterson Island, is the main attraction in this stretch for boaters who wish to commune with nature rather than indulge in an exploration of restaurants and resorts. Ski Alley, as the name implies, is a great place to water ski or to explore the protected beach and picnic. To do proper justice to the many dining and resort establishments along this portion of the ICW would require a lengthy guide book in and of itself. Our purpose here is to high light briefly those spots with which we have some familiarity. Just west of the ICW #2 (north of Boca Grande Pass) is the channel into Boca Grande Bayou and the newly rebuilt Boca Grande Marina (old Miller’s). The Boca Grande Marina is perhaps best known as the headquarters for local tarpon fishing activity in late spring and early summer. The Boca Grande Marina offers overnight dockage, a small country store, an extensive gift shop, upstairs Eagles Grille, and the downstairs Miller’s Grille, a popular establishment featuring beef,
seafood and a wide variety of appetizers. North along the bayou is the Pink Elephant Restaurant, an adjunct of the historic Gasparilla Inn. A bit pricey, but the food is excellent and the ambiance exudes a rustic elegance. Traveling north through Gasparilla Sound in the late fall through early spring look for a sandspit full of migratory white pelicans just northeast of ICW #11. These birds are much larger than the native Florida browns and are impressive both on the ground and in flight. Between the abandoned railway trestle and the causeway connecting Gasparilla Island to the mainland, lies a southwesterly headed channel that will take you to Uncle Henry’s Marina Resort which offers 58 slips with electricity, cable TV and laundry facilities. This is a delightful complex that includes a condominium hotel with rooms and suites, a heated swimming pool, the Casual Clam Café, a general store and a liquor store. Approximately four nautical miles north is the mainland marina portion of Palm Island Resort, its entry channel being just north of ICW #7. There are rental units both here and on the island portion of the resort. On the mainland the lone amenity is a swimming pool, but the island boasts beautiful beaches, tennis, swimming pools and the delightful Rum Bay restaurant with a menu that ranges from buffalo wings to filet mignon. Two miles farther on at ICW #17 is the channel to Stump Pass Marina where the poolside Tiki Bar & Grill, open daily, offers exotic drinks, a casual menu and entertainment on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is a great place to party with its large pool area offering a panoramic view of Lemon Bay. By the way, the entrance to Ski Alley and Stump Pass are just across the ICW from this establishment. At the north end of Ski Alley, just before it swings back to the ICW at the bridge connecting Englewood Beach to the mainland, are a number of restaurants; but dockage is limited. At marker #52 the ICW becomes a trench carved by the Corps of Engineers out of, by Florida standards, a ridge of some elevation. Just past mile marker #55 where business US Route 41 crosses the waterway lies the entrance to Venice Marine Center. A few miles farther on, at the juncture of Roberts Bay and Dona Bay, the ICW splits. A left turn here will take you to Venice inlet, the terminus of our voyage north. There are three prominent waterside restaurants along the channel leading to the inlet. One of them, the Crow’s Nest (the one closest to the inlet), offers full service overnight dockage and a large first class seafood restaurant and pub with entertainment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The Crow’s Nest provides a brochure filled with information regarding transportation and things to see in Venice. Weather permitting, the return trip should be made offshore south to Boca Grande Pass for the purpose of enjoying views of some of the world’s finest beaches and the variety of architecture displayed by homes that range from modest to magnificent.