It's always refreshing when friends, family and journalists visit Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands and rave about it. It's as though they've just discovered buried treasure. Earlier this month I showcased the area to three travel journalists who were unaware of the special and unique attractions, accommodations, restaurants and shopping we had to offer. And, all three of these journalists live in Southwest Florida. Their whirl-wind trip of Charlotte County took them from the Christmas tree lighting in Punta Gorda to the waterways of Charlotte Harbor to the beaches of Englewood. Rock Stars on a Boat We were given the rock star treatment as the guests of Capt. Doug Buuck, organizer of the 21st Annual Charlotte Harbor Lighted Boat Parade. He arranged for us to be in the parade and in the boat with him. It was incredible getting up close to the colorful and festive boat displays and a thrill waving and shouting out "Merry Christmas" to the thousands viewing the parade. His wife Sally ensured we were fed and hydrated while Capt. Bill Thurlow captained the boat and made sure we had holiday hats to wear. Capt. Doug Buuck & Capt. Bill Thurlow Heart of the Destination is in the Passion of the People In addition to being pleasantly surprised about all there is to do, the journalists frequently commented about the passion residents have for the area. We met up with Punta Gorda Mayor Harvey Goldberg at the Christmas tree lighting and he explained the small-town American feel the destination has. City of Punta Gorda Mayor Harvey Goldberg & Kelly Hudson, Florida Travel & Lifestyles, Dec. 3, 21010, Punta Gorda, Fla.

Over at Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary, owner Lauri Caron shared her passion for the facility. At first glance, it's just another refuge for exotic and wild animals but learning the story of each animal and the emotional investment Caron has made humanizes the sanctuary. Many of the animals, including bears, lions, tigers and monkeys, were harmed by the hands of humans and Octagon is providing a comfortable place for them to live out their years. (Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary, 41660 Horseshoe Rd., Punta Gorda)

Freelance Journalists Kelly & Kevin Merritt and Lauri Caron at Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary For a better understanding of Florida beaches and why they are important for our environment, Missy Christie with Charlotte County Community Services’ Parks and Natural Resources provided an amazing and educational tour of Stump Pass Beach State Park. Touring it with Missy gave me a new perspective and respect for the park. We saw a pair of bald eagles building their nest and a gopher tortoise seeking shelter. She explained the nesting habits of snowy plovers and how they lay their eggs on the sand without protection. She cautioned when you hear a bird squawking on the beach, it probably means you’re close to a nest so be careful where you step. Gopher Tortoise Spotting - Missy, Ann, Kelly at Stump Pass Beach State Park, Fla.

During this trip I was reminded why so many of us choose to live in Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands. It's the passion of our neighbors who enjoy the same things we do: the natural amenities, great restaurants, terrific attractions, boutique shopping and that small-town America charm.

Hope you will come visit soon and take advantage of our good nature.

This article appears in the Jan. 2011 issue of The Parrot Entertainment Magazine.