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Welcome home: in southwest Florida, there's a neighborhood for every lifestyle and budget.

With its beautiful shorelines, welcoming climate and fertile lands, the Sarasota-Manatee-Charlotte region has long been a magnet for settlers of all kinds, from the early Native American tribes through the Scottish colonists of the 1880s to later, more prosperous figures such as John Ringling. And it remains so today, with visitors from around the world frequently deciding to follow in those early footsteps and make our region either a full-time or seasonal home.

From the turn of the last century on, colorful characters such as circus impresario John Ringling and socialite Bertha Honore Palmer (of Chicago's famed Palmer House Hotel family) transformed the little fishing and farming village of Sarasota into a resort destination. Starting in the 1940s and continuing for several decades, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist MacKinlay Kantor, John D. Mac-Donald of the best-selling Travis McGee mystery novels, sculptor John Chamberlain and other celebrated intellectuals established an artists' colony here that formed the foundation of Sarasota's flourishing arts community. Manatee and Charlotte counties, meanwhile, developed as tranquil destinations where retirees, most of them Midwesterners, could enjoy fishing, boating and other outdoor pursuits.

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Times have certainly changed in the 100 years since realtor A.B. Edwards showed properties to newcomers in his horse and buggy. Today, the region is welcoming new residents drawn here from all over the country and even abroad by the natural beauty of its beaches and public parks; a wealth of arts and cultural offerings, including our own opera, symphony and ballet companies and an internationally renowned botanical garden; great shopping; and first-rate educational and medical facilities.

Thinking about moving to our area, too? Let this regional neighborhood primer be your guide. down roots on one of its barrier islands, which locals call the keys?

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For centuries, Longboat Key was a camping ground for Native Americans; from the late 1880s to the great hurricane of 1921, it was an agricultural center producing avocados, papaya and tomatoes. Today this 12-mile stretch of beach-to-bay resort living boasts a wealth of great homes, from the million-dollar condominiums of the gated Longboat Key Club on the south end to the wooden bungalows, ranch houses, vacation rentals and low-rise condos of the north end's laid-back Village. Gulf of Mexico Drive, which runs up the island's spine, is lined with hot-pink oleanders and banyan trees and bordered by a popular bike and jogging trail. Realtors say Longboat Key attracts people who could live anywhere in the world, and many of the nation's top retired executives call it their seasonal home.

St. Armands is a lovely old neighborhood of eclectic architectural styles that revolves around the world-famous shopping destination of St. Armands Circle. Beautiful Lido Beach and the circle's terrific restaurants and upscale boutiques are just a short stroll or bike ride away. Platted in the 1920s by Sarasota's most colorful developer, circus magnate John Ringling, St. Armands Circle retains a good bit of his razzle-dazzle. On almost any night of the week, tourists line up outside the ice cream shops, and Harley-hopping lawyers take over the corner coffeehouse. Lots of remodeling has taken place on the older canal-front homes that line the quiet, neighborly residential side streets.

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You can walk to the public beach on nearby Lido Key, where a wave of new beachfront condominiums includes Orchid Beach Club and The Beach Residences, adjacent to the ultra-ritzy Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club. Nearby Lido Shores houses many stylish, mid-century modern homes.

Bird Key, a 510-home enclave just off the Ringling Causeway, has canal-front and bayfront homes with manicured lawns and dramatic city skyline views. Also originally owned by John Ringling, the key was the Arvida Corporation's first big Sarasota development in the early 1960s. Bird Key is a boater's dream, and the Bird Key Yacht Club is the hub of social life here. A mix of executives, physicians, recently retired baby boomers, at least one rock 'n' roll superstar and a controversial national talk-show host live here, but we're not naming names.

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Home to a popular public beach that has won a "world's whitest sand" contest, Siesta Key is the most family-oriented of the area's barrier islands. Residential options range from multimillion-dollar waterfront mansions hidden behind private walls to modest canal-front houses to older mid-rise condominiums on the island's south end. The heart of the key is the surfer-dude-cool Village, with its outdoor eateries, funky shops and ice cream stands. Some people swear the perfect date is a sunset beach walk followed by a daiquiri at a village watering hole.

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Tucked behind sea grapes and bougainvillea, unpretentious compounds for the rich and private predominate on Casey Key, a quiet single-family enclave on nine lush Gulf-to-bay miles. To the north, a historic, 1920s-era swing bridge separates the island from the mainland; and the newly restored Nokomis Beach Pavilion, with its sleek 1950s modern architecture, is at the southern end.

To the south, 7.5-mile Manasota Key straddles Sarasota and Charlotte counties between Lemon Bay and the Gulf. Narrow Manasota Key Road, with its dense tree canopy, seems like a road into Florida's past. Midway down the island is a jumble of historic wooden cottages now known as The Hermitage Artist Retreat. The nonprofit organization, founded by the Sarasota County Arts Council, brings artists, musicians and writers to its unspoiled beachfront campus to draw creative inspiration from the setting.

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SARASOTA

Back on the mainland, meandering along Sarasota Bay, the city of Sarasota, population 53,000, is the seat of county government, arts and culture. Its history is inextricably intertwined with John Ringling, who made Sarasota the winter headquarters of his famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and who built his over-the-top Italianate palazzo, Ca d'Zan, on the Sarasota bayfront. Ringling also built the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to house his priceless collection of Baroque art and willed it to the state of Florida. Today, the museum complex, owned by Florida State University, is Sarasota's biggest tourist attraction. It recently celebrated the completion of an unprecedented $76 million renovation and expansion, making it one of the largest public art museums in the nation.

Two of the city's oldest established bayfront neighborhoods, Indian Beach and Sapphire Shores, comprise the popular museum area. A thriving cultural district, the area also claims the FSU Center for the Performing Arts (home of the Asolo Repertory Theatre and Sarasota Ballet), New College of Florida, Ringling College of Art and Design and a branch of the University of South Florida. Tree-lined Bay Shore Road travels the length of these historic north Sarasota neighborhoods, which are filled with a mix of meticulously renovated estates and modest Craftsman-era bungalows from the turn of the last century.

Sarasota boasts a bustling downtown, and many people prefer to live within walking distance of its shops, restaurants and theaters. Condominium choices are plentiful, from the 1970s-era mid-rises that ring Gulfstream Avenue to the swanky Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, and an explosion of high-end condominium construction earlier in the decade yielded several new complexes. On Golden Gate Point, the tiny spit of land near beautiful Bayfront Park, luxury high-rises have joined the laid-back, '60s-era two-story apartment buildings.

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For those who desire downtown ambiance but like to keep both feet on the ground, downtown's single-family neighborhoods are appealing alternatives. Laurel Park recently became a National Historic District, and young professional families and empty nesters are reviving its Craftsman bungalows and Mediterranean Revival cottages, 270 of which hail from the 1920s.

Nearby Towles Court is an artists' colony with brightly painted, Florida Cracker-style cottages housing galleries and coffeehouses. A monthly gallery walk attracts art-loving browsers. Urban frontiersmen also have done a bit of updating in Gillespie Park, north of Fruitville Road, where old bungalows surround a 10-acre park. The newcomer here is handsome Citrus Square, a mixed-use development of condos and retail on Orange Avenue.

OSPREY AND NOKOMIS

The once sleepy, unincorporated communities of Osprey and Nokomis, located between Sarasota and Venice, awakened to residential and commercial growth in the past decade.

Almost 100 years ago, Osprey was the winter home of Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer, wife of hotel magnate Potter Palmer. She came to Sarasota County in 1910 and snapped up tens of thousands of acres of wilderness, intent on utilizing it for cattle ranching, citrus groves and real estate development. Her bayfront estate, Osprey Point, is now being managed as Historic Spanish Point by the Gulf Coast Heritage Association. Here, the public can tour Mrs. Palmer's water garden, sunken garden, Duchene lawn and fern and jungle walk.

Nearby Oscar Scherer State Park, a 1,400-acre habitat for the elusive Florida scrub jay, offers 15 miles of nature trails, campgrounds and plenty of paddling opportunities on South Creek.

Neighboring Nokomis, the southern gateway to Casey Key, boasts Intracoastal Waterway and canal-front subdivisions, plus homes along Roberts Bay, Dona Bay and Lyons Bay. They're primarily older and a bit more laid-back than Sarasota's waterfront developments, and the lower price tags reflect it.

VENICE

In 1925, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), a railroad union based in Cleveland, Ohio, purchased 55,000 acres in south Sarasota County and hired renowned Boston architect and planner John Nolen to create a resort city that would lure well-off winter residents from the cold Midwest. BLE realtors courted potential buyers with everything from, lobster-and-candelabra picnics on the beach to hunting expeditions in the wilds of eastern Sarasota County. It worked; by the late 1920s, charming little Venice had a winter population of several thousand.

From the start, Nolen pictured a walkable, human-scaled small city, with distinct neighborhoods all within strolling distance of a few-blocks-long shopping district along Venice Avenue. Wide, landscaped boulevards and homes built around playgrounds or parks were central to Nolen's vision for this planned city, which was one of the nation's first.

Today small shops and restaurants flank palm-lined Venice Avenue, and Venice Theatre and the Venice Art Center are the hubs of cultural life. Within walking distance of the compact downtown shopping district are 1920s-era Mediterranean Revival estates surrounded by more modest single-family homes. A few blocks west leads directly to the Gulf of Mexico and Venice Beach, a favorite spot to find sharks' teeth. (The Venice Sharks Tooth Festival draws thousands of people each April.) Here are a mix of 1970s low-rise condominiums and newer upscale projects.

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Surrounding golf course communities--and there are many--offer a wide range of suburban ranch homes and villas with vista views. Long-established Jacaranda Country Club, Plantation Golf & Country Club, Waterford Golf Club, Mission Valley Golf & Country Club, Calusa Lakes, Capri Isles and Pelican Pointe Golf & Country Club have been joined by posh newcomer Venetian Golf & River Club.

NORTH PORT

One of Florida's fastest-growing cities of the past decade, and, at 120 square miles, one of the largest in land area, North Port is home to young families and value-conscious retirees because of its affordable subdivisions and its central location close to 1-75 along the Sarasota-Charlotte county line.

Three major golf course communities, Bobcat Trail, Heron Creek and Sabal Trace, continue to attract active retirees from the Midwest and other Northern climes. More than 80,000 visitors, including many Eastern Europeans, flock each year to the healing 87-degree waters of Warm Mineral Springs in northernmost North Port.

North Port's explosive growth of the mid-2000s slowed precipitously in the last couple of years, and developers have concentrated instead on commercial projects to support all that growth, including a brand-new satellite healthcare center for Sarasota Memorial Hospital that opened last August.

A spot on the scenic

Manatee River in northwest Bradenton is believed to be where Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his crew of 600 first made landfall in North America, in 1539. Today, a quarter of a million visitors from around the world annually visit the De Soto National Memorial to witness the place where De Soto started his infamous 4,000-mile journey across the southeast United States.

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They also visit Bradenton--Manatee County's seat of government and its largest city, with a population of just over 53,000--to relax on its beautiful beaches, play on any of 21 golf courses and cheer on the Pittsburgh Pirates during spring training at old-timey McKechnie Field.

Bradenton boasts a wide variety of family-friendly subdivisions, from leafy, older neighborhoods like Palma Sola Park to the mansions of Riverview Boulevard. Buyers value the area's good schools and houses of worship, mature landscaping and easy access to the beaches.

The mile-wide Manatee River is just one of many charms of the established neighborhoods surrounding downtown Bradenton. Neighborhood parks, the South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium (home of 61-year-old Snooty, the oldest manatee in captivity), Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre, ArtCenter Manatee, a picturesque marina and a big public library have attracted homebuyers.
AT A GLANCE

LAND AREA: 741 square miles

PERSONS PER SQUARE MILE (2008): 426

POPULATION (2008 ESTIMATE): 315,766

POPULATION INCREASE (2000-2008): 19.6 percent

COLLEGE GRADUATES: 20.8 percent

MEAN TRAVEL TIME TO WORK: 23.3 minutes

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME (2007) $48,940


Also downtown, working artists transformed five formerly rundown blocks south of Manatee Avenue into the Village of the Arts. The City of Bradenton pitched in with brick-edged sidewalks and street lighting. Now, in an area that just a few years ago was decidedly edgy, people enjoy the village's monthly art walks.

THE BEACHES

Follow the sunset for a trip back in time to the historic fishing village of Cortez, on the northern mainland shore of Sarasota Bay, a quick hop from the Cortez Bridge that leads to Bradenton Beach. A walking-tour map produced by the Cortez Village Historical Society takes you past the picturesque old wood cottages and fish houses of the village's pioneering families, 92 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, held the third weekend in February, draws more than 20,000 visitors to hear live music, admire nautical arts and crafts and enjoy fresh seafood.

Then hit the beach. The island communities of Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach--all on Anna Maria Island--have a delightful "sand in your shoes" sensibility, despite the recent rise of upscale beachfront condominiums. A free trolley that runs the length of the seven-mile island is an excellent way to capture the communities' essence.

The city of Anna Maria, on the island's north end, is home to lively waterfront seafood restaurants, beguiling boutiques and a popular municipal fishing pier with a breathtaking view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. New construction here is restricted to single-family residences. Simple beach duplexes remain, but on North Shore Drive, million-dollar homes line the Gulf of Mexico. Many of them are weekend retreats for people from Tampa, Lakeland and other parts of Florida. TripAdvisor.com two years ago named Anna Maria its favorite vacation destination in America.

On Holmes Beach, 1960s-era concrete block beach cottages still predominate; they're the kind with terrazzo floors that make fast work of sweeping out sand. Here you'll also find Key Royale, a canal-front community of executive homes where a lot of updating is going on. Boaters especially are drawn to Key Royale's easy access to Tampa Bay and the Gulf.

Even Bradenton Beach, perhaps the area's funkiest beach community, is growing up. The days of the inexpensive beach bungalow are over, realtors say, giving way to sophisticated condominium communities.

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LAKEWOOD RANCH AND EAST COUNTY

Explosive growth took place over the past decade throughout eastern Manatee County. And nowhere is this more evident than in the master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch. In just 12 years, 6,000 homes have been built in this "live, work, learn and play" community, along with a medical center, schools, golf courses, shops, restaurants, houses of worship, a major commerce center and even a polo dub. Lakewood Ranch won the Southeast Builders Conference's prestigious Grand Aurora Award for best master-planned community.

The growth keeps coming. Lakewood Ranch developers eventually plan to build an additional 8,000 new homes northeast of the intersection of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and S.R. 70. And two new villages, Country Club East and The Lake Club, are already under way.

Lakewood Ranch has spurred a development boom in east Manatee County, and several country club communities are located nearby: The River Club, Rosedale Golf and Country Club, Peridia Golf and Country Club, and Tara Golf and Country Club. Nearby, the long-established single-family neighborhoods of Braden Woods, Braden Pines and Panther Ridge offer estate homes on heavily treed sites of more than one acre.

The newest communities here are Neal Communities' The Harborage on Braden River and the ultra-posh golf resort, The Concession. Golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin designed The Concession's course; the community is named for a historic moment in the final round of the 1969 Ryder Cup, when Nicklaus conceded a two-foot putt to Jacklin, resulting in the first tie in match history. Golf Digest named it "Best New Private Course of the Year" for 2006, and in 2009, Golf magazine named it one of the top 100 courses in the country.

The other major thoroughfare extending east and west from I-75 is S.R. 64, and along it are several significant residential developments, including Heritage Harbour, Rye Wilderness and Tidewater Preserve.

ELLENTON AND PARRISH

The biggest push for development now is north of the Manatee River. Less than a decade ago, orange groves, cattle ranches and tomato fields dominated the landscape north of the Manatee River toward the Hillsborough County line. With a recent torrent of residential development, the peaceful old rural towns of Ellenton and Parrish are "busting at the seams," as one longtime realtor put it.

Since 2001, 7,000 homes have been built in more than two dozen new developments. Growth has slowed significantly since the economic downturn, of course. But work continues on Pulte's Harrison Ranch, with an eventual 1,077 homes. And several other major new communities are poised to begin when the economy improves.

The area's rich history is represented by the Gamble Plantation, an antebellum mansion and headquarters of an extensive sugar plantation built by Maj. Robert Gamble. Local legend is that the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin, hid out at Gamble Plantation after the fall of the Confederacy until he could be spirited away to England. Now a state-operated historic site, the mansion is open for tours and is home to the Plantation Festival, a big arts and crafts fair held each April.

PALMETTO

When Samuel Sparks Lamb arrived by boat on the north shore of the Manatee River in 1866, he purchased considerable land holdings in what was to become the city of Palmetto, and named the new community after his home state of South Carolina, the Palmetto State. Wide, palm-lined streets and gracious old homes set amid moss-draped oaks still characterize the town, but to stereotype Palmetto as a sleepy Southern village would be a monumental error.

In the heart of Manatee County's second-largest city, not long ago known more for its tomato packing plants, the tiny downtown district is being revitalized. Many older homes, some from the turn of the last century, have been renovated. The private Bradenton Yacht Club and the Regatta Pointe Marina are boaters' meccas. On quiet Snead Island, outdoor lovers flock to 195-acre Emerson Point Park, with nature trails, canoe launches and panoramic views of Tampa Bay and the Sunshine Skyway.

Perhaps the catalyst for Palmetto's building boom is Riviera Dunes Resort & Yacht Club, a 288-acre riverfront development just over the DeSoto Bridge, two minutes from downtown Bradenton. Active retirees are drawn to its 220-slip deepwater marina, trendy Mangrove Grill restaurant and custom single-family homes and condo towers.

CHARLOTTE COUNTY

Nestled between Sarasota and Fort Myers along the banks of Lemon Bay, Charlotte Harbor and the Peace and Myakka rivers, Charlotte County offers more than great fishing, boating and unspoiled wilderness. It's teeming with arts, culture and history, top-rated restaurants, new and planned waterside living and shopping. And now that Money magazine has named Port Charlotte at the top of its 2009 "Best Places to Retire" list, thanks mostly to its affordable waterfront living, it's not "Florida's Best Kept Secret" anymore.

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Charlotte County has 28 miles of beaches, 821 miles of shoreline, much of it protected by the state, 16 golf courses and 70 parks. Manasota Key, the Babcock Wilderness area, Englewood's charming Dearborn Street and Punta Gorda's Fisherman's Village all attract visitors, but it's the varied, affordable homes and balmy weather that turn them into residents.

Five years after Charlotte took a devastating hit from Category 4 Hurricane Charley, thousands of new hurricane-hardened homes have gone up. County leaders say Hurricane Charley brought the community together, united under the goal of rebuilding. It also gave planners an opportunity to dream big and redesign the area, as evidenced by the more consistent Mediterranean look along the main U.S. 41 commercial corridor, the new schools, and the upscale hotels and new Laishley Park and Marina that have been built.
AT A GLANCE

LAND AREA: 694 square miles

PERSONS PER SQUARE MILE (2008) 216

POPULATION (2008 ESTIMATE): 150,060

POPULATION INCREASE (2000-2008). 6 percent

COLLEGE GRADUATES: 17.6 percent

MEAN TRAVEL TIME TO WORK: 23.6 minutes

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME (2007) $46,328


Charlotte County's serene waterways have drawn visitors since 1513, when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed on Charlotte Harbor. Soon after, fishing camps rose up along the banks, joined in later years by thriving cattle farms. Lured by world-class fishing, Northerners vacationed here in the late 1800s, but it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that development took off. That's when brothers Frank, Elliot and Robert Mackle and their General Development Corp. began converting millionaire Arthur C. Frizzell's cattle and timber ranch into a city of 25,000 home sites, promoting to winter-weary Northerners the deal that would become the state standard: a two-bedroom, one-bath vacation home for $10 down, $10 a month for 10 years.

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Charlotte's hundreds of miles of manmade canals provided quick access to the harbor and Gulf of Mexico and gave working folks a waterfront paradise. Redevelopment has changed some of that, but many modest waterfront homes remain.

About 330,000 annual visitors come here to enjoy waterfront breezes, outdoor festivals, the weekly jazz jam in Gilchrist Park, the Charlotte Symphony, Tampa Bay Rays spring training baseball at the Charlotte Sports Park, a burgeoning arts community and, of course, year-round access to the water.

BURNT STORE

Along Burnt Store Road, neighborhoods--many with sailboat masts peeking above the rooflines--are set among farmlands and still-undeveloped property, and many offer concrete seawalls, deed restrictions, quick access to Charlotte Harbor and a growing number of shopping centers. Access is now easier with the recent expansion of Veterans Parkway, which links Charlotte County to neighboring Fort Myers. The gated Burnt Store Marina is home to more than 1,600 families and has a 425-slip deep-water marina, direct Gulf access, and 27 holes of golf and traditional country club amenities at WCI Communities' Burnt Store Marina Golf & Country Club.

CAPE HAZE PENINSULA

Beach proximity is the draw for this peninsula offering distinct neighborhoods in Gulf Cove, Grove City, Placida, Rotunda and South Gulf Cove.

Cape Haze, on the southern end of the peninsula, has luxurious waterfront homes and many condominium projects built in the last decade. Deep-water canals provide easy access to Boca Grande Pass. The Cape Haze homeowner's association owns 300 feet of private beach on Don Pedro Island for residents.

Canals are carved into the western boundaries of Grove City, creating fingers of state-named streets that jut into Lemon Bay or skirt Oyster Creek. Mobile homes make up most of the entry-level housing, while prices for those on the higher end, such as the private, gated Eagle Preserve, tend to reflect their water proximity. Cedar Point Environmental Park, off Placida Road across Lemon Bay, offers guided nature walks, an environmental visitors' center and nature programs.

Near the southwest tip of the Cape Haze peninsula, Placida is surrounded by some of the best fishing waters in the world. In addition to existing single-family homes and gated communities, Placida is home to the exclusive Coral Creek Golf Club, which was recently named one of Florida's top 30 courses by Golf Digest. Nearby are the Placida Harbour condominiums, whose residents enjoy a private ferry to a beachfront club on nearby Little Gasparilla Island.

Built in the 1960s and pitched nationally by spokesman Ed McMahon, the golf course community of Rotonda was developed unusually with seven pie-shaped neighborhoods: Pebble Beach, Oakland Hills, Pinehurst, Broadmoor, Long Meadow, White Marsh and Pine Valley. The eighth section is dense environmental preserve bordering Coral Creek. Four additional neighborhoods (Rotonda Heights, Rotonda Lakes, Rotonda Sands and Rotonda Villas & Meadows) are located just outside the circle.

On the western bank of the Myakka River, water views are the big draw in Gulf Cove, although the majority of homes in this gridlike neighborhood don't have them. Those that do can enjoy a nearly mile-long view corridor over the mighty Myakka. Non-waterfront property owners can take advantage of the community park, which has a boat ramp.

In the 1950s, General Development Corp. created South Gulf Cove, digging 126 canals totaling 55 miles for freshwater and saltwater fishing and providing access to Charlotte Harbor through the Interceptor Lagoon. Until recently, this deed-restricted community of 6,200 acres had remained pretty much undiscovered as buyers opted for the more in-town locations of Port Charlotte and PGI. Today, with recently built shopping centers, restaurants and four area golf courses, buyers are seeking out South Gulf Cove, where more than one-quarter of its 15,000 lots are on the water.

ENGLEWOOD

Straddling Charlotte and Sarasota counties, the tightly knit, Gulf-front community of Englewood has a small-town feel, lots of mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses, and affordable housing. That's starting to change as developers are attracted to its location on the Gulf of Mexico and the Myakka River. But it hasn't changed its flavor, where, as one local told us, "It's the kind of place where the hometown hardware store will put a sign in the window, 'Gone to lunch, be back soon."'

Most of the area's 50,000 residents live on the Charlotte side of the border, which includes tranquil Englewood Beach. Heading north along the water are condominiums, million-dollar homes on secluded Manasota Key, and miles of unspoiled beaches. In town, a YMCA and the Lemon Bay Performing Arts Center provide a host of activities.

The Myakka River borders Englewood on the east, making waterfront sports popular pastimes. Several creeks provide access to Lemon Bay, which was named for the lemon groves established by two brothers who settled the community in 1884. They platted one-acre lots near Lemon Bay to create a downtown area. Now Dearborn Street has become a shopping destination, with charming local shops and restaurants.

PORT CHARLOTTE

Money magazine caused a great buzz of excitement in September when it named Port Charlotte the No. 1 "Best Place to Retire" in America. The magazine cited the huge drop in housing prices since 2005--down 63 percent--and the fact that 40 percent of homes are right on the waterfront.

The county's most populous community, with nearly 50,000 residents, Port Charlotte was developed in the late 1950s by General Development Corp. with hundreds of two-bedroom canal-front homes, many of which were rebuilt during the boom of the past decade. Several 55-and-older, maintenance-free, manufactured-home communities that boast golf courses and full social calendars are here, too, such as Riverwood, a 1,300-acre, gated, all-ages golf and country club community developed by Centex Homes, which stretches along three miles of the Myakka River in and has the county's only Golf Digest four-and-a-half-star championship golf course. On the west side of U.S. 41, buyers will find homes with sailboat access south of Edgewater Drive, the popular Edgewater Dog Park, and one of Charlotte County's few gated yacht communities, Grassy Point.

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PUNTA GORDA AND PUNTA GORDA ISLES

Charlotte County's only incorporated city, Punta Gorda has been named one of the country's best places to live by several national publications, in large part because of its charming historic district, four nature and waterfront parks and Fisherman's Village--a riverfront entertainment complex with boutiques, restaurants and a marina.

Punta Gorda, Spanish for "broad or fat point," was named for its location on a wide sweep of land that juts into Charlotte Harbor. The city traces its roots to a landing on the Peace River by Hernando de Soto in 1539.

It remained a fishing town until the 1880s opening of the Punta Gorda Hotel, which welcomed more than 3,300 guests, who returned to the North and spread news of the great sport fishing in the waters off Boca Grande.

Traces of the city's past are still evident throughout a state-designated historic district, where turn-of-the-last-century homes with tin roofs, gingerbread woodwork and heart-pine floors are located within a restored Old Florida setting of cobblestone streets, and shade trees. Nearby Laishley Park has a 400-foot fishing pier, a public boat ramp and the Spirit of Punta Gorda, a sculpture made from scrapped storm steel commemorating the first anniversary of Hurricane Charley. The rebuilt Charlotte County Events Center is open, and Punta Gorda's 1920s-era courthouse has been restored.

Punta Gorda Isles, one of Charlotte County's most upscale and oldest neighborhoods, is intersected by more than 100 miles of canals emptying into Charlotte Harbor. PGI's canals and seawalls are maintained by the city, and home prices are influenced by seawall age, condition and distance from the harbor.
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Author:Denton, Ilene
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:4935
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