GETTING THERE: Charlotte Harbor is about halfway between Sarasota and Naples on Florida's Gulf Coast, via Interstate 75 or U.S. 41. Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers is the closest airport, about 30 minutes south of the harbor-straddling towns of Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda. AirTran, Continental and US Airways, among other carriers, offer nonstop service to Fort Myers, with round-trip fares starting at $225.
WHERE TO STAY: One of the few small-scale inns in a sea of Charlotte Harbor motels and hotels, Virginia House Bed & Breakfast (233 Harvey St., Punta Gorda, 941-575-8841, www.charlottebiz.com/virginiahs.htm) is a charming, friendly and -- since there is a separate guest entrance -- relatively private alternative to the plate-glass windows and long drab hallways of the usual chains. Rates: $75-$100. Sea Cove Motel (25000 E. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 941-639-0060) is right on the water and is owned by a fastidious German couple, the Leyezas -- which may be part of the reason it's so cheerful and spanking clean. Rates: $38-$65. Best Western Waterfront (300 Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda, 800-525-1022, www.bestwestern.com/waterfront) has the best chunk of hotel real estate in town, with sweeping water views from many of its rooms. Step outside and you're in Gilchrist Park, Punta Gorda's stretch of palms and winding paths along the harbor. Rates: $69-$120.
WHERE TO EAT: There's no sign out front, but if you find the pumpkin-colored house on tiny Sullivan Street in Punta Gorda, you've found the Perfect Caper (320 Sullivan), a smart little bistro with a sleek sense of design and some of the area's best food. Chef Jeanie Roland is clever with dishes, like the blue-nose bass with ginger shallot sauce, but not gimmicky; and husband James Roland will help you navigate the menu and feel like a regular here, even if you're not. Entrees start at $19.
The oldest restaurant in Charlotte County, Waldo's Bistro (139 W. Marion, Punta Gorda), started out in 1929 as Fred's Quick Lunch but is now a sit-down spot listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to regional fare, Waldo's serves some Caribbean-style dishes, such as "Barbados Flying Fish, served with Pigeon Peas and Rice, Cou-Cou Bread and Plantains." Entrees start at $14.95.
Ask locals where to eat and they will give you directions to Port Charlotte's Cap'n and the Cowboy (2200 Kings Hwy., Maple Leaf Plaza) a roadside place that divides its focus between western-style grilled steaks and seafood. My favorite dish was an appetizer, Florida chili, which was less spicy but more interesting than the Texas stuff. Entrees start at $11.95.
WHAT TO DO: A swamp-buggy nature tour at Babcock Wilderness Adventures (8000 State Road 31, Punta Gorda, 800-500-5583, www.babcockwilderness.com) is a great way to get a close look at alligators, bison and other exotic animals while riding through just about every type of local habitat: palmetto and pine woods, cypress swamps, marshes and prairie. Tours are offered daily and reservations are required.
Sightseeing boats docked at Fishermen's Village on West Retta Esplanade in Punta Gorda offer harbor tours and sunset cruises. King Fisher Fleet (1200 W. Retta Esplanade, 941-639-0969, www.kingfisherfleet.com) charges $9.50 for an afternoon tour; the schedule varies seasonally and reservations are recommended.
Although Miami Serpentarium Laboratories (34879 Washington Loop Rd., Punta Gorda, 941-639-8888) is not an "attraction" in the usual sense, if you call co-owner Nancy Haast in advance, and are polite, she and her reptile-expert husband, Bill, will permit you to stand by quietly as poisonous snakes (including local diamondback rattlers) are milked for their venom. If you're lucky, you may get to pet one, too.
NFORMATION: Charlotte County Visitors Bureau, 888-4PUR-FLA, www.pureflorida.com.
-- Peter Mandel