Ocean fireflies, yoga, manatees, Indian mounds, Fort Lauderdale’s rich and famous and Everglades camping all have one thing in common: You can best access them via paddling.
They look like flying embers from an undersea fire, but they are cool to the touch. These flicks of blue-green light that scatter in all directions at the slightest disturbance in the water are bioluminescent organisms that bed in the lagoon waters of places like the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. In spots, they are so thick that the water is aglow and everything underwater – seagrass, fish and even your hand – takes on a Harry Potter dimension.
Kayaking is the preferred way to experience this wizardry. Outfitters A Day Away Kayaking Tours (321-268-2655) and Adventure Kayak of Cocoa Beach (321-453-6952) explain the natural bioluminescent phenomenon as well as the area’s history as they lead the way to the glowing sea. Tours run summer to early fall, when the organisms are most visible.
One of the great things about paddling is that it enables you to shimmy into places you can’t reach via motorized boat and see things you might overlook. The downside is that manpower is slower than horsepower. North American Canoe Tours’ Everglades Adventures (239-695-3299) combines both for an overnight camping trip that takes you deeper into the swamp than most adventurers would ordinarily have the time or energy to paddle.
From Everglades City, a motorized skiff carries you and your kayak to swamp trailheads, eliminating open-water paddling against tides and winds as well as having to carry gear. You and no more than five others (including a naturalist guide) will paddle through narrow mangrove tunnels, camp on raised platforms above the swamp swimming with gators and explore areas of the Everglades few ever see. All of the Everglades paddling trips involve at least two nights of camping and require some paddling experience.
Glitzy Fort Lauderdale
For something tamer, take a kayak tour of the extravagant waterfront houses that belong to Fort Lauderdale’s rich and famous. A Full Moon Kayak (954-328-5231) guide will give you the skinny on who lives where and what they do, as well as other local history. The outfitter offers an easy two-hour paddle or a five-hour trip that includes a tour of the historic Stranahan House, which nestles the riverbank farther upstream (also check Blue Moon Outdoor Center).
The Great Search in the Florida Keys
Paddlers in search of inner peace and fitness can join a sunrise yoga class on Indian Key Historic State Park, which is now accessible only by kayak or canoe. Backcountry Cowboy Outfitters (305-517-4177) in Islamorada supplies the kayak, class and snacks and offers the tour in the cooler months. After the one-hour yoga class, you can explore the streets of the 1830s ghost town that was the first county seat of Dade County. Better yet, go for a swim.
Paddling Charlotte Harbor
Nestled along the Southwest Gulf of Mexico coast, the waters of Charlotte’s Peace and Myakka rivers converge to form Charlotte Harbor, Florida’s second-largest estuary covering 270 square miles. With 830 miles of shoreline, this pristine coastal area offers a unique network of barrier islands, river passages, tropical hammock, pine flatwoods, freshwater marsh and mangrove forests. Situated south of Sarasota and north of Fort Myers, the Charlotte Harbor & The Gulf Islands region provides a slow-paced, friendly and natural counterpoint to busy coastal areas.
In winter, the Crystal River becomes home to more than 300 manatees – the largest gathering of West Indian manatees in North America. These gentle sea cows flock to the warm waters north of Tampa and west of Ocala from October to March. There are plenty of captains who will take you to them, but with Kayaks and Beyond (352-795-2255) and Adventure Outpost Tours (386-454-0611) you’ll see much more.
These relaxed paddling trips give a quiet view of numerous springs, overgrown Native American villages and temple mounds along the coast of Kings Bay and the headwaters of the Crystal River. The immediate thrill is having a 1,200-pound herbivore elephant-cousin surface beside your kayak. Crystal River is the only place in Florida where you can legally swim with manatees (and only with a proper guide).
This article was originally published in the 2008 edition of Outdoors Getaways. Click here to view or order more VISIT FLORIDA publications.