Live the Outdoor Life
Just below the surface of the aquamarine waters off Fort De Soto Park, I spotted what looked like a half-ton potato cruising toward me. If other swimmers hadn't tipped me off that manatees were grazing just offshore, I might have run on water to get back to the beach. Instead, I stood in chest-high water as a troop of manatees moved by, peacefully munching on seagrass.
Not that you get to swim with manatees every day here (note: it's illegal to touch them), but when you're in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, you're literally surrounded by wildlife and opportunities for outdoor adventure. Biking, hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, paddling, windsurfing, kiteboarding, parasailing, bird watching – name the activity and chances are you can find it here. With so much to do and no shortage of stunning scenery, living the outdoor life comes naturally.
Swimming, Surfing and Boating
Located on a peninsula with a string of barrier islands, the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area is a sea-lover's fantasy. There are more than 35 miles of sandy beaches and 600 miles of shoreline.
The typically calm Gulf of Mexico makes for great swimming and skim boarding from Pass-a-Grille Beach to Honeymoon Island State Park. Off the coast of Egmont Key (accessible by ferry or private boat) you can snorkel over the ruins of Fort Dade, a Civil War-era fort. When the surf's up, surfers and boogie boarders head to Sunset Beach. Jet skiers make their own waves throughout the area – you can find vendors on most beaches and at John's Pass Marina.
Those who prefer no-wake zones find plenty of placid waters for canoeing and kayaking. Try paddling inside Caladesi Island State Park near Clearwater (also check out the park's nationally celebrated beach) or around St. Petersburg's Weedon Island Preserve. In Tarpon Springs, bring your own kayak to check out the mangroves and lake views of the paddling trail at Fred Howard Park. Then kayak over to Anclote Key Preserve State Park to explore its lighthouse and pristine beaches.
There's always a natural breeze on the Gulf to put wind in your sails. You can take a sailboat cruise from Clearwater Beach Marina or captain a boat from the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key. Boaters will find several public ramps throughout the area, including an 800-foot-long boat launching facility at Fort De Soto Park.
You're likely to see fish jumping when you're out on the water. If it whets your appetite for angling, cast your line and reel in a redfish or tarpon, in season. If you prefer to fish from land, drop your line from the Redington Long Pier, Clearwater Beach's Pier 60, the St. Petersburg Pier, the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier or the Gulf and Bay piers at Fort DeSoto Park. There are also many wade-in fishing spots at waterfront parks on the Gulf and Tampa Bay, such as Weedon Island Preserve, Fort De Soto Park (almost seven miles of access), Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park.
Hiking, Biking and Birding
Although water is a big feature of the area, you don't have to get in it or on it for outdoor adventure. Whether you prefer 10-speeds or tandems, you'll find miles of bike paths inland and along the water's edge.
The Fred E. Marquis Pinellas Trail stretches from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. The paved path passes through neighborhoods, downtowns and retired orange groves (no motorized vehicles allowed). Fort DeSoto Park has 7 miles of bike trails, and you can rent bikes of all styles at the gift shop there. If you prefer to tread it, the large county park also has miles of hiking trails.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, Weedon Island Preserve, Brooker Creek Preserve and Sawgrass Lake Park have education centers and scenic boardwalks to stroll. You're sure to see a variety of birds and may even spot an alligator sunning itself. Boca Ciega Millennium Park in Seminole is part of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission's Great Florida Birding Trail (the 185-acre park also has a Paws Playground for dogs). Other stops along the Great Florida Birding Trail include Honeymoon Island State Park, Fort De Soto Park and Caladesi Island State Park.
Parasailing and Panoramic Views
Floating above the Gulf of Mexico under a colorful parachute, parasailers get a seagull's-eye-view of the coast. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Tampa Bay. You can find parasail operators on most developed beaches including Madeira Beach, St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach.
Sand Key and the Sunshine Skyway are also popular spots for the more extreme wind sports. North Beach Windsurfing School offers lessons near Fort De Soto Park, which is another hotspot for windsurfing and kiteboarding (especially on the east end). In the northern part of the county, Hurricane Pass between Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island state parks is another great place for catching some air.
For a more grounded thrill, you can always take a leisurely drive over the area's famous Sunshine Skyway Bridge. With its signature golden-yellow cables, this graceful bridge towers nearly 200 feet in the air at its highest point, providing – for only a one dollar toll each way – some of the best views around.