This series of posts will be about the last part of the state I visited, southwest Florida. US 41 through Charlotte and Lee Counties, specifically. I wrote an extensive description of my first visit in April 2010. I made a follow-up trip the following year, to get those bits and bobs I didn’t get before. Now I’ll give you the whole kit and kaboodle, in one nicely wrapped package. Well, two.
Note that this area contains one of the larger concentrations of National Wildlife Refuges in the state. Most are restricted to the public, as they are, you know, meant to be refuges for wildlife away from people.
This part of the state was also hit hard by the collapse of the housing bubble. Couldn’t prove it by me, though. When I was there in 2010 and 2011, there was much hustling and bustling. No empty storefronts I could see, or forests of For Sale signs. They seem to be recovering now, so go and pump some money into their economy, eh?
First off is Charlotte County. In a state with possum monuments and psychic towns and gravity defying hills and bat towers, the first stop on this trip is in a class by itself. And I’ve not seen it yet! I’ve gotten to most everything I wanted in that region, so I dunno when I’ll get around to checking it out. Maybe on the way back from spending a night in Everglades City.
Oh, the quirky attraction, which I hope is still there? It’s in a Dairy Queen off I-75 at the Kings Highway exit. In one of their restrooms, to be specific. It’s the she-inal. Which is a urinal, for women.
What a brilliant idea, right? Not so much. Someone came up with the concept in the ’90s, and they were installed all over the US. In Dairy Queens, primarily. They weren’t popular, though, so they gradually disappeared from DQ bathrooms. This one, near Port Charlotte, is one of the few left. Yep, another of those ‘only in Florida’ oddities that make me love my home state. Thank you, Lord, for making Florida so… abby-normal.
Next stop is a terrific place to learn about the counties’ past, the Charlotte County Historical Center. The lady there when I visited was very helpful. There are a goodly number of books and old photographs, so soak up all the history you like.
Across the street is the site of the old Mott Willis Store. It’s one of the sad NRHP stories, since it was torn down only a year after being added to the Register. Many people labor under the misapprehension that National Register status protects sites from destruction. Not so. It mostly recognizes they’re worth protecting. It allows access to tax incentives for restoration and such, and can be used to promote a place to encourage preservation. But I’ve run across several buildings that have been demolished by man, not nature, after being added. Sometimes money from Uncle Sam can’t fix a problem, doncha know.
From here, head southwest. You’re heading for Boca Grande, but there’s some stuff to see along the way. Like El Jobean. It was a housing development that never really developed. Just off El Jobean Road you can find two NRHPs, an old post office and old hotel across the street. The hotel is barely visible. Not because it’s far from the road, but because it’s horrendously overgrown. I’m surprised that any of it is standing. Unless someone takes an interest in the near future, it won’t be standing for much longer. The post office, on the other hand, is in use. There are some pictures of the area in one room, and the rest is a casual restaurant. I recommend the burgers. The one I had was yummy and decently priced. That and the fries held me over most of the way back to Ocala.
Over a bridge and you’re near two state parks, Stump Pass Beach and Don Pedro Island. The first looks popular (nice beaches). Don Pedro Island is only accessible by boat, so if you’ve not got one (like me), you’ll have to just look at the island from the dock on the shore. (see Google map)
- Dairy Queen she-inal (909C Kings Highway)
- Charlotte County Historical Center (22959 Bayshore Road)
- Mott Willis Store (22960 Bayshore Road) (NRHP)
- El Jobean Hotel (4381 Garden Road) (NRHP)
- El Jobean Post Office and General Store (4370 Garden Road) (NRHP)
- Stump Pass Beach State Park (900 Gulf Boulevard)
- Don Pedro Island State Park (8462 Placida Road)
About 3 miles down from the Don Pedro Island State Park shoreside entrance, take a right onto Boca Grande Causeway. Which will lead you, inevitably, to Boca Grande, which is in Lee County. It’s like several of the islands around here, where there’s a fee to get on them. Usually it’s around 5 to 6 bucks.
Once you pay, you’re on your way. There are a couple more bridges you’ll cross, where you can see quite a few boats on the water. It is built up, but nowhere near as much as, say, Sanibel Island. After the bridges, you’ll be on a narrow two-lane road with a bike/walking path next to it. Eventually the road opens up a bit and you’re in Boca Grande proper.
The historic sites are in clusters, so you’ll be doing the park-walk-drive-repeat tango a few times. But I don’t think you’ll mind, since there’s little traffic and adequate parking all over and it’s so darn quaint.
Keep heading south on Gulf Boulevard and you’ll get to Gasparilla Island State Park, where besides some outstanding beaches you’ll find two old lighthouses. One is tall and metal, which you’ll pass first. At the end of the road is the other, low and square. The keeper’s quarters are right next to it. If you get there at sunrise on a weekday morning, like I did, there’s a good chance you’ll have the place to yourself. I can imagine there are hordes of people here on the weekends. If you look northeast, you may be able to make out the Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a restricted one, so even with a boat you can’t land on it. Admire it only from afar. (see Google map)
- Journey’s End (Beachfront at 18th Street) (NRHP)
- Halstead and Emily Lindsley House (1300 13th Street) (NRHP)
- Downtown Boca Grande Historic District (Bounded by Gilchrist Avenue West, 5th Street North, Palm Avenue East, & 3rd Street South) (NRHP)
- First Baptist Church of Boca Grande (421 4th Street West) (NRHP)
- Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway Depot (Park and 4th Streets) (NRHP)
- Gasparilla Inn Historic District (500 Palm Avenue) (NRHP)
- Boca Grande Community Center (East of Park Avenue, between First and Second Streets) (NRHP)
- Whidden’s Marina (190 First Street East) (NRHP)
- Boca Grande Quarantine Station (833 Belcher Road) (NRHP)
- Boca Grande Lighthouse (in Gasparilla Island State Park) (NRHP)
- Gasparilla Island State Park (880 Belcher Road)
- Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge
In fact, you’re pretty much in the historic district. I’ll dwell on it in a bit, but first the outlying stuff.
Go northeast on US 17 to get to the neighborhood where two NRHP houses are. Villa Bianca is a private home, but you can get fairly close to the Babcock House. I think it’s been recently renovated; it looks practically new when I was there. (see Google map)
Now head back towards downtown. You’ll notice how little developed it is along here. I don’t know why, but it’s nice to see for a change.
The old high school got hit hard by the 2004 hurricanes, but you couldn’t tell. They’ve done a great job with repairs. I was there on a weekday, and the place was in full swing. Nearby is the old railroad depot, which is now a historical museum. (see Google map)
- Charlotte High School (1250 Cooper Street) (NRHP)
- Punta Gorda Atlantic Coast Line Depot (1009 Taylor Road) (NRHP)
North on US 41 will get you back to the historic district. It’s moderate-sized, so you can’t just park the spot and walk the whole thing, unless you want to spend half the day doing so. Check the map link and decide your strategy. Parking is good, with some streets metered. On Retta Esplanade west of US 41, there’s a city park where you needn’t pay for parking. So if you want to do more walking then driving, park here and save yourself some money.
It’s a pretty park anyway, right on the river, so it’s worth stopping at in its own right. There are also standard park facilities available, well-maintained. After you’ve been on as many roadtrips as I have, you find yourself being as happy to find clean public restrooms as interesting historical sites. File them away for future trips. Knowing where the bathrooms are will save you a whole bunch of leg crossing and feelings of desperation.
If it’s open, you can visit the A. C. Freeman House, which has a history museum and Chamber of Commerce offices. Lots of useful info to be had there, I’m sure.
I wasn’t particularly moved when I first visited Punta Gorda. It just seemed like a generic model for midsized Florida cities. The second time, though, I warmed up to it. The weather was as close to perfect as it gets on both trips, which helped. I also noticed how beachy it felt. It’s the architecture; quite a few houses along Retta Esplanade wouldn’t look out of place in Cedar Key or Fernandina Beach. Which is odd, since Punta Gorda doesn’t have beaches. Not even on the river.
I’ve knocked everything off the list that I wanted to see in Punta Gorda, so it’s not like I feel compelled to go back there. But there’s a niggling wish that a new NRHP will get added so I’d have to return to photograph it. And let’s not forget the she-inal. We shall see. (see Google map)
- Punta Gorda Residential District (Roughly bounded by West Retta Esplanade, Berry Street, West Virginia Avenue and Taylor Street) (NRHP)
- Punta Gorda Ice Plant (408 Tamiami Trail) (NRHP)
- Charlotte County Courthouse (227 Taylor St) (AGFHA)
- H. W. Smith Building (121 East Marion Avenue) (NRHP)
- King Arcade (100 block of East Marion Ave) (AGFHA)
- City Hall (326 W Marion Ave) (AGFHA)
- Old First National Bank of Punta Gorda (133 West Marion Avenue) (NRHP)
- Punta Gorda Woman’s Club (118 Sullivan Street) (NRHP)
- A. C. Freeman House (311 West Retta Esplanade) (NRHP)
- Everett Barnhill Residence (321 Retta Esplanade) (AGFHA)
- Gothic style house (401 Retta Esplanade) (AGFHA)
- Methodist Church (507 W Marion Ave) (AGFHA)
- Residence (108 Gill St) (AGFHA)
- Residence (551 Retta Esplanade) (AGFHA)
- Residence (565 Retta Esplanade) (AGFHA)
- Military Heritage & Aviation Museum (1200 W Retta Esplanade)
You can go down Burnt Store Road to get to Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park. It don’t impress me much. If you like hiking or horseback riding, you’ll probably love it, ’cause there are scads of room to do both. (see Google map)
- Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park (12034 Burnt Store Road)
Otherwise, go south on US 41. In a little while, the buildings thin out. You’re not driving through protected lands, but it feels like you are. There’s mostly road and semi-prairieness for the next 15 miles. Enjoy, because after this there’s nothing but city driving.
That’s it for Charlotte County, and a little bit of Lee. Next time, the rest of Lee. See you on the road!
Route length: 100 miles