Coastal Cruising

By: Terry Tomalin

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Island hopping the West coast of Florida

The Gulf coast of Florida is blessed with both open ocean and sheltered harbors for the cruiser and day sailor. With so many great anchorages and waterfront restaurants, a boater can literally island hop down the coast. Trips can be as long or short as you like. Each island has its own personality, from the wild, untamed beauty of Anclote Key Preserve State Park to the first-class luxury of Sanibel Island.

Boaters will find the waterways well-marked and maintained. All you have to do is fill up the boat with gas, break out the nautical charts, plan your route and get under way.

The Gulf Islands of St. Pete/Clearwater

The Gulf Islands Geo Park – Anclote Key, Three Rooker Bar, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island – welcome boaters for a mixture of day and overnight use.

Anclote Key, with its 123-year-old lighthouse, offers great primitive camping. You can only get there by boat, so that ensures a certain degree of privacy. Sitting on the deserted beach on a spring morning as the sun filters through the pines, it’s not hard to picture yourself in another era, a time when conquistadors and Native Americans ruled this stretch of coast.

Three Rooker Bar doesn't have much vegetation, but it’s popular with boaters, especially on the weekends. It is not uncommon on a spring day to see 100 boats rafting up, so get there early and use proper etiquette.

Heading south along the coast, the next island is Honeymoon Island State Park. The north end has a beautiful beach but because of the shallow water and strong currents, it can be difficult to come ashore. Keep traveling south to Caladesi Island State Park. Boaters can approach from the gulf side and drop anchor on the beach outside the marked swimming area. Caladesi and Honeymoon were once one island, but a hurricane in the 1920s separated them. The body of water that runs between them is called Hurricane Pass.

Island hoppers will find Caladesi particularly accommodating because of the 108-slip marina on the bay side. Overnight docking with electricity and water hookups is available, but boaters must register before sundown. A small café on the island serves beer and wine – a nice, unexpected perk.

Like Anclote and Caladesi, Shell Key Preserve has long been a popular destination for boaters and anglers. The State of Florida managed the island for years, but Pinellas County took over in 2000, developing a management plan that strikes a delicate balance between protecting the fragile ecosystem and accommodating the thousands of humans who visit Shell Key each year. The south end of Shell Key is directly across a narrow channel from Fort De Soto’s North Beach, named the No. 1 U.S. beach in 2009 by TripAdvisor.

About half of Shell Key’s 1,800 acres are designated as a bird sanctuary. This area extends into the shallow water in some parts of the preserve. Thousands of protected migrating shorebirds – including the American oystercatcher, least tern, snowy plover and black skimmer – stop on Shell Key each winter. Camping is permitted, but all plants and animals are protected.

Nearby, at the mouth of Tampa Bay, historic Egmont Key can be accessed only by private boat or public ferry. During the Seminole Wars, the Army held prisoners there. It also served as a Union naval base during the Civil War. Years later, during the Spanish-American War, huge guns were positioned there to guard the mouth of Tampa Bay. Egmont Key has a functioning lighthouse and is a great spot for snorkeling among the crumbled ruins of the fort offshore.

Since 1974, this 400-acre island has served as a national wildlife sanctuary. The island provides a crucial nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles and numerous threatened and endangered migratory shorebirds.

Sarasota South

On the south side of Tampa Bay you’ll find Anna Maria Island and the quaint old fishing village of Cortez. The weather always seems to be warm and balmy on Anna Maria, which the explorers reportedly named after the wife of the King of Spain.

Cortez, on the eastern shore of the Intracoastal Waterway, is equally rich in history. Once the center of the Gulf Coast’s mullet industry, Cortez is one of the few places in Florida where you will find an actual working waterfront. Stop in for a fried grouper sandwich, some stone crab claws or the area’s signature dish, smoked mullet.

If you follow the Intracoastal Waterway, you’ll find several marinas that accept transient boaters and restaurants that serve dockside diners. Boaters then have their choice of following the sheltered inland route, or if the weather is fine, heading out into the Gulf for some coastal cruising.

Sarasota took the title of “performance boat capital” of Florida away from Miami, and now this stretch of water is a favorite location for poker runs and offshore powerboat races. The Otter-Lido Key anchorage offers access to St. Armands Circle with its many high-end shops and restaurants.

Down to Charlotte Harbor

From Venice south, boaters have a myriad of choices. Gasparilla Island, Placida Harbour, Useppa Island, Boca Grande and Charlotte Harbor’s Burnt Store Marina have all had long love affairs with the boating public.

Since the time of the Calusa Indians, this has been water country; it is much easier to get around by boat than by car. Stop by Cabbage Key Inn and sample the cheeseburger that is said to have inspired the singer Jimmy Buffett to write his tribute to America’s favorite sandwich.

Afterward, head out to Cayo Costa State Park, where boaters can camp or rent one of the rustic little cabins. Bicycle rentals are available at the ranger station, or you can head out on foot and explore the miles of wilderness trails.

But if you’re looking for something a little more elegant, try the South Seas Islands Resort and Yacht Harboron the northern tip of Captiva Island, one of the best-known stopping places in Pine Island Sound. Transient boaters will welcome the first-class accommodations, including a full-service spa and a nine-hole golf course with PGA-certified professionals. From sailing lessons to fishing with the pros, families will also love customized learning vacations offering more than 30 enriching adventures. Named one of Parents Magazine’s “Top 10 Beach Resorts for Families,” South Seas Island Resort is both a resort village and wildlife sanctuary, spanning two-and-a-half miles of shell-laden beaches.
 
If You Go

Boaters must always plan for the worst and hope for the best when venturing out on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Florida’s West Coast is well-suited for everything from 17-foot flats boats to 100-foot mega yachts. With good charts, books and sources online, boaters shouldn’t think twice about venturing out on their own. One of the best books on the area is Claiborne S. Young’s “Cruising Guide to Western Florida.” The seventh edition, updated in 2008, is available at most marine supply stores.

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