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Gulf Islands have much to offer

By Staff | Apr 19, 2011

The barrier islands cover the entire western edge of Charlotte County from Englewood to Boca Grande, and each is more beautiful than the next.

Manasota Key is located at the extreme northern end of Charlotte County. Visitors love this island for its upscale, relaxed lifestyle and its unspoiled beaches and wildlife preserve. There are no high-rise buildings here, no traffic lights, and no crowds. A single two-lane road runs the length of the island with pristine beaches on each side. As you first enter Manasota Key, you enter the state park and wildlife sanctuary. This beautiful preserve is covered with lush, tropical foliage and is home to hundreds of indigenous species. The park service provides full facilities for visitors and a wide range of activities are available.

With more than 14 acres of white sand beach and sand dunes, Manasota Beach is well worth a visit. The area features special spots with picnic tables, fire pits, boardwalks and bathhouse facilities. Blind Pass Beach is ideal for swimming and fishing and has a nature trail for hiking. There is also public docking for boats on the Intercoastal Waterway.

In contrast, Englewood Beach located just to the south has the look and feel of a classic beach town. Shops, restaurants, low-rise condos, plenty of accommodations and every bit of the typically funky lifestyle associated with beach destinations can be found in Englewood Beach. This is an active spot with every contemporary convenience for the vacation traveler. So, if you are looking for something a little bit brash and with more to do at night, this is the place.

To reach Englewood Beach, cross over the Tom Adams Bridge in Englewood, bear to the left, and the beach will be directly ahead.

Heading south, Stump Pass Beach State Park is an incredibly beautiful and essentially unspoiled piece of old Florida that might help you understand what the first explorers found when they made landfall in this region.

With hiking trails throughout the park, you can walk from the Gulf of Mexico to Lemon Bay on the opposite side of the island in primitive luxury. Crystal clear water, natural flora and indigenous wildlife abound in this location and the beaches of Stump Pass are perhaps one of the best places in the entire island chain to collect both sharks teeth and seashells.

Accessible only by boat, Don Pedro Island and Little Gasparilla Island are small slices of paradise, easily seen from the mainland but purposely remote.

Home to the Calusa Indians for thousands of years, the islands were discovered by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s and became home to pirates and smugglers for hundreds of years before giving way to homesteaders and developers in the 20th Century. In 1969, a local developer purchased the island and began a plan to build condos and luxury homes on the beaches. During the development of Rotonda and Cape Haze, a free ferry service was established from Cape Haze, and the island became little more than a private playground for potential buyers and newly landed residents. In 1984, the island once again went up for sale and was purchased by the state as part of the “Save our Coasts” program. The ferry service to the island was stopped and the islands for the most part became natural preserves with limited access.

Today, the islands can be reached by private boat and the state has provided docking, picnic and restroom facilities for visitors. Shorebirds and other indigenous wildlife are present in abundance and this is another incredible spot for shell collectors.

To the south of Gasparilla Island, and easily visible from the state park at the Boca Grande Lighthouse is another island preserve accessible only by private boat or ferry. Cayo Costa has nine miles of beautiful beaches and is rich with pine forests, and mangrove swamps. Pristine and remote, this barrier island is a slice of primitive paradise. Visitors here are much more likely to see manatees and dolphins in their natural habitat than almost anywhere else in the region. For the bird watcher, this island may represent a lifetime of sightings in a single day. Visitors here can swim or snorkel in the surf, enjoy the sun on the beautiful beaches and picnic in the shade of the ancient trees. Because of the shift in tides, shelling is especially good during the winter months on this island. Extensive nature trails provide opportunities for hiking and off-road bicycling. Of course the fishing is great here and anglers can fish from their boats or just throw a line out into the surf. There is also an amphitheatre for educational programs about the island’s ecology and history. If you would like to stay overnight, the park offers primitive cabins and tent camping.

Ferry service to Cayo Costa runs daily from Punta Gorda, Pine island and Sanibel Island. For information on ferry service call 239-283-0015. To make a reservation for an overnight stay, call 1-800-326-3521.