Punta Gorda beckons golfers, travelers to get outside, active

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Everything about the Punta Gorda area screams outdoors. It beckons: get off the couch and go fishing. Or hiking. Or kayaking. Here it is, come and get some.

It's like weather, wildlife and some of the nation's great bodies of water met up in southwest Florida, between Tampa to the north and Fort Myers to the south, and said, hey, this looks like a good spot. Let's give them something to talk about.

In Charlotte County, it's all about Charlotte Harbor. The harbor dominates the landscape, one of the biggest estuaries in the country fed by two freshwater rivers, the Peace and Myakka. You got your freshwater fishing and your saltwater fishing. Largemouth bass or tarpon today, sir?

Unlike most of coastal Florida, there's room to move in Charlotte County and the nearby Gulf Islands. No clogged arteries, as there are to the north, south and east. To the west lies only the great Gulf of Mexico.

Once you turn off the main roads and into the Cape Haze area, for example, you can go miles through unfettered marsh without seeing a billboard or master-planned community. There are both of those, for sure, but they don't bore into your brain as they do elsewhere in Florida, longtime friend to the developer.

With a population of around 157,000 covering 701 square miles, the area turns you loose to kayak the Blueway Trails - 53 liquid trails covering nearly 200 miles through the harbor - fish or cruise the 365 miles of canals, both fresh and salt, hike the 30,000 acres of the Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park or the 124 square miles of the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area.

If you're a sailor, you can't do much better, especially with the Gulf in your sights; Sail magazine ranked the area among the Top-10 sailing destinations in the country. Money magazine in 1996 said Punta Gorda was the second-best place in the country to live. Then again, it said Madison, Wis., was the best. And it's true -- it will cost you an arm, leg and kidney to buy a house in Punta Gorda.

With all this in mind, golf is almost an afterthought. Still, it is an outdoor sport, sort of, and Punta Gorda has plenty of it, so much in fact that Golf Digest ranked it the third-best metro area in the U.S. for golfers, using access, weather, value and quality as criteria.

Must plays

In an area considered one of the top metro areas in the country for golf, Riverwood Golf Club is almost certainly the best course in the area. Riverwood is a Gene Bates design that is thoughtfully laid out, consistently demanding throughout with a handful of spectacular holes. The conditioning is first-class and - get this - it's cheaper than a roadside corn dog.

"This is a great track," said member Alex Carnahan, a mid-handicapper from Minneapolis. "This is really about the only course I play when I come down here. I figure, why play the others?"

Twin Isles Country Club has been through renovations and hurricanes and through it all, one of the better courses in the Punta Gorda area somehow emerged. The private course is beautifully laid-out, with an interesting mix of yardages and holes, challenging enough but not to the point the average hacker can't have a good round there.

• The St. Andrews South Golf Club is a pretty, open layout that favors those for whom it was built.

"I think it's a perfect design for what it is - a retirement golfing community," said St. Andrews South General Manager Charlie Priester. "You walk a fine line with a golf course like this. You have to make it playable."

The course is definitely that. With a length of 6,103 yards from the back tees and a slope rating of 124 from the tips, it's a course that factors age into the architectural equation. True, there are many holes where a decent drive will leave you with a short-iron into the green, but there are some longer holes and the course is laid out with enough imagination that you'll find yourself using more clubs in the bag than you might think, looking strictly at the numbers.

Solid seconds

Lemon Bay Golf Club has the southwest Florida look, in terms of all the water - the ponds are all nice and symmetrical and well-tended, with birds that look like they were placed there by the maintenance staff - and palm and pine trees interspersed over the open and sometimes marshy ground.

It's very well maintained, especially for a course that used to be open to the public, now gone semi-private.

Deep Creek Golf Club has that look and feel of an old-time favorite, revered by its regulars, like an old bar and its faithful barflies. The course is short, fun and cheap.

Long Marsh Golf Club is one of four courses in the master-planned, Rotonda housing community, the newest, and many say the best. Opened in 1999, Long Marsh is a pretty good bite at 7,120 yards from the back tees, but all in all a fairly easy course. There are no hidden hazards or blind shots and the only water carries are risk-reward situations.

• The Rotonda Palms course is an attractive layout, with a lot of ponds and small, marshy areas and more mounding. It's probably a little more aesthetically pleasing than the others at the Rotonda development, and a little more demanding.

Off course

As mentioned previously, the name of the game here is the great outdoors. Beaches, rivers, harbors, gulfs, hiking and biking opportunities, you can get tired just thinking about it, but in a healthy way.

Stay and play

For those bed-and-breakfast, walk-around types, the Virginia House Bed and Breakfast in downtown Punta Gorda might be right up your alley. The place was built in the late 1880s as a place for Methodists to worship.

It's been restored to close to its original condition, after a series of ownership changes, and the result is what bed-and-breakfast enthusiasts would call quaint and charming: hardwood floors and walls, canopy beds, a working fireplace in the living room and antique fixtures.

For you beach types, Palm Island Resort is one of those resorts that almost meets that marketing slogan all resorts insist on using - the word "unique." First of all, you can only get to it by boat or car ferry, though it does cost a whopping $50 to take the ferry about 75 yards over the waterway - you get a pass if you're staying at the resort.

It's a small, cozy barrier island with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico right outside your front window. No asphalt here at the resort, and precious few cars - most island residents and guests scoot around the island by golf cart. At the resort, the roads are made of shell, and you can hitch a ride with a passing cart if you don't want to rent one. You rarely see people wearing shoes, and there's a slow, relaxing feel to the place.

Dining out

The resort has a little breakfast café that serves continental breakfast and for lunch there is the pizzeria.

The Rum Bay Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, and has terrific baby back ribs, along with seafood and the kind of wacky drinks you expect from a beach resort. Since the villas have refrigerator and cooking facilities, there is also the Rum Bay Store next to the restaurant.

If you want to go to the mainland, Johnny Leverock's Seafood House is just a ferry ride away, and overlooks the marina and yacht basin.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Private golf courses

    Lee Hill wrote on: Dec 30, 2005

    Are private clubs available in this area? I heard of one, Kingsway Golf and C.C. Any info???