Explore the beautiful beaches and keys around Tampa Bay.

About three hours due west of the Indian River Lagoon, Florida's largest open-water estuary, Tampa Bay, is home to one of the nation's busiest ports. But don't let seagoing freighters keep you off the water. The big ships stick to the 40-mile long, 43-foot-deep channel, while the mangrove-lined shoreline is a playground for kayakers, canoeists and anglers in small boats.

The bay has dozens of quiet little getaways among the more than 100 creeks, rivers and streams that drain into this 2,200-square-mile watershed.

On the western shore, the mangrove-studded waterways of Weedon Island Preserve offer an excellent day trip. The four-mile trail that meanders through the maritime forests and seagrass beds can be completed in a few hours, as long as you don't spend too much time chasing the snook, red drum and spotted sea trout that thrive in the preserve's protected "no motor" zones.

While this 3,700-acre preserve offers some of the best fishing and canoeing in the state, Weedon's Paul Getting Memorial Trail is 1.27 miles of boardwalk and paved trails that takes hikers deep into the mangroves to observation platforms and a tower. An environmental education center features an exhibit gallery with interactive displays and a local artist gallery.

But to keep the preserve pristine, access is limited. The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes 15 minutes before sunset; admission is free. Visit their website at weedonislandpreserve.org for full details.

To access the canoe trail, launch next to the fishing pier at the end of Weedon Drive, located just south of the Gandy Bridge on the northeastern edge of the City of St. Petersburg. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat because it can get hot. Insect repellent is also recommended.

But if you are an experienced paddler looking for a more "extreme" adventure, head toward Ft. De Soto, on the southern tip of Pinellas County.

This county park, named after a fort that was built in 1898 to guard against a Spanish naval threat that never materialized, has an excellent canoe/kayak trail that snakes along a sheltered bay. And Ft. DeSoto is also the best starting point for a trip to Egmont Key, a national wildlife refuge just a few miles offshore.

The island, a major seabird nesting area with plenty of human history as well, can be reached with an hour of hard paddling. There is no public transportation to the 400-acre preserve, yet thousands of people visit it every year.

Fishermen troll the deep drop-offs on the northern edge for king mackerel and cobia. Swimmers and snorkelers gather in the protected shallows of Egmont's leeward side, especially on an incoming tide when clear water flows in from the open ocean.

Islands such as Egmont Key are rare and occur in fewer than 10 percent of the world's coastal waters. Floridians should consider themselves lucky. The state's west coast has a string of these natural beauties stretching from Anclote Key in the north to the Ten Thousand Island in the south.

While the run out to Egmont is easier in a powerboat, the strong tidal currents and busy freighter traffic that create large waves make this crossing suited only to the most prepared, experienced sea kayakers. Ferry service to Egmont, provided by a private company, is available at the Bay Pier.

Visitors can explore the island by foot, count dozens of tortoises, and end up near some old fortifications. During the Third Seminole War, the island was used as a prison for captured Indians. Later, during the War Between the States, it served as a Union Naval base. During the Spanish American War, gun batteries were built on both Egmont and Mullet Keys (Ft. DeSoto) to guard the entrance to Tampa Bay.

Despite the fact that several of the gun emplacements have been claimed by the sea, you can still spend an afternoon wandering the system of trails that snake through the brush and experiencing plenty of history first-hand.

Or, just wander the deserted beach and look for shells. That is the beauty of Egmont Key - there is a little something for everyone.