Carefree Cruising

    By Amy Shepherd Nance

    Have a carefree time in St. Petersburg and Clearwater - be a pirate for a day, take a sunset cruise or go deep-sea fishing.

    To call the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area a watery paradise is an understatement. Downtown St. Petersburg owes much of its flavor to its waterfront location, where The Pier provides a staggering five stories of shopping and food, as well as views of Tampa Bay. The Friendship TrailBridge – a multi-use trail – is over two miles long and can't resist casting itself over the water. Barrier islands bearing historic lighthouses and bird refuges dot the horizon, and the best local restaurants serve up fresh Gulf seafood within sight of it.

    There are keys and passes and islands, each offering something a little different from the next and each commanding your attention. All that stands between you and them is the endless water stretching out before you, all changing colors and gentle tides, waiting to be navigated.

    Wondering what to do with all this view? Want to go boating, but don't want to play captain? St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer a variety of inspired ways to chart the coast, from free-wheeling pirate ships to sunset cruises and deep sea fishing.

    Kick things off with Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise on his family-friendly reproduction pirate ship Pirate's Ransom for a spirited tour of the Intercoastal Waterway, the Clearwater Beach coast and the Gulf of Mexico. Little Buccaneers get pirate hats, water pistols and an invitation to be as loud as they like - captain's orders - upon boarding the ship. The seadog and scallywag crew, wearing eye patches, pantaloons and bandanas, commence rigging while steel band music plays and brew (beer, wine and champagne for adults) is distributed.

    While the ship steams along, kids take a pirate oath and are treated to legends, games and face painting. The swashbuckling team instigates a conga line and dancing. Adults can escape to the top deck to mingle, spot dolphins and check the progress of the 125 passenger, engine-powered boat.

    If it's serenity you're after, reserve a seat and chill out on the Shell Key Shuttle Sunset Cruise, a 1½-hour eco-oriented tour through the barrier islands and waterways near Pass-A-Grille and St. Pete Beach. Pack a picnic dinner or bring a bottle of wine to enjoy while the low-impact catamaran glides through the residential channels, where rugged cabins and beach palaces are on view. You'll tour a chain of spotless barrier islands as well, all of them lovely enough to be marooned on. Your knowledgeable captain describes the nesting shorebird population on well-preserved Shell Key and encourages passengers to look for manatees in the water, all while the sunset colors the sky. (Sailing schedules vary, so call ahead for reservations.)

    For an interactive thrill, hop on Clearwater's 72-foot speedboat – touted to be the world's largest – the Sea Screamer. For half of this adventure, you'll tool around in the waters off of Clearwater Beach and take a jaunt to Sand Key Pass as the captain regales you with stories about the area. But brace yourself: once the yellow Sea Screamer reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the boat speeds up and it's suddenly an invigorating ride on the open sea. Sit in the back and get soaked or admire the boat's impressive wake from the front of the ship. The captain guarantees you'll see a dolphin or your next trip is free, and he delivers. They frolic in the wake and jump alongside the boat. Some lucky passengers even spot calves and manatees.

    If you want to spend the day scouting and hooking kingfish, hogfish and grouper, Clearwater's Queen Fleet offers two boats ranging in size (the largest a 90-foot catamaran) and both are available for private charters. With big sundecks, cool lounges and well-stocked food booths, anglers can kick back when they aren't casting and trawling. The expert crews of the Super Queen and Gulf Queen boats - which can accommodate up to 150 people - make the fleet a perfect choice for parties or group excursions.

    For deep-sea fishing, Queen Fleet's onboard fish-finding equipment can't be beat. The crew supplies tackle and offers to clean the fish too. You can charter a boat for half-day or full-day trips. Sun decks and covered lounges keep you comfortable.