Whether you’re reading this up North and planning your next Florida visit, or you’re in Sarasota awaiting the onslaught of spring breakers of all ages, this time of year is perfect for exploring Florida’s waterways. Depending on your tastes, you can find peace and quiet at a relaxed pace or pump up your pulse with a full-fledged adventure. There’s plenty to do on or around the water right here, but we’ve scouted out some sensational experiences all around the state. For a few days spent with family or friends, there’s nothing better than Florida’s world of water.
Snorkeling John Pennekamp State Park, Key Largo
If you haven’t yet paid a visit to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, what are you waiting for? The first underwater park in the U. S., Pennekamp includes 70 nautical square miles of Atlantic Ocean waters. Of course you can fish, camp, kayak or take an excursion on the glass-bottom boat, but we recommend the 2 ½-hour snorkeling tour. The crew can give you a quick tutorial on snorkeling, and you can rent equipment including a wetsuit for cooler days.
You may not glimpse sharks, but you will see undersea wonders aplenty, including schools of colorful fish off the reefs, which are between three and eight miles offshore; you’ll also see the famous Christ of the Deep statue at Key Largo Dry Rocks Reef.
Snorkel tours are $29.95 for adults; $24.95 for those under 18. Key Largo is between 4 ½ to five hours from Sarasota. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, 102601 Overseas Highway, Key Largo; (305) 451-6300. pennekamppark.com. Accommodations nearby range from the family-friendly Rock Reef Resort to the more upscale Hilton Key Largo Grande Resort.
Explore the dry Tortugas Islands
Islands in the Stream
Not too many tourists make it to the beautiful Dry Tortugas, isolated just 70 miles west of Key West, and there’s a reason for that: These seven tiny islands are accessible only by boat, and there are no accommodations on land. But for those seeking pristine reefs and unique history, this is a must-do expedition—one that Sea-Clusive, a custom charter company based in Key West, can make happen for you. Their 60-foot M/V Playmate comes with a professional crew, gourmet food, four cabins and plenty of opportunities for spearfishing and diving the 60-foot-deep, high-visibility waters of the Tortugas Bank.
Trips usually run three to five days, which allows time to explore historic Fort Jefferson, one of the largest of America’s 19th-century coastal forts and site of the Civil War-era prison that housed Dr. Samuel Mudd (the doctor who aided an injured John Wilkes Booth). From March to September, 100,000 sooty terns nest in the area, joined by roseate terns, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants, too. Private charters run $2,800 per day. Sea-Clusive Charters, (305) 744-9928. seaclusive.com.
Houseboat down the St. Johns River
Up a Lazy River
Take a trip back in time along the St. Johns River on a houseboat rented from Holly Bluff Marina in DeLand. The St. Johns offers plentiful wildlife and nature in a setting that could have been lifted from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek writings. Pine flatwoods yield to oak hammocks and cypress swamps; moss-draped live oaks provide a Southern Gothic atmosphere; and egrets, great blue herons, ospreys, alligators and turtles are ready for their close-ups.
Houseboat rentals include full kitchens, air conditioning, heat and showers; you provide the soap, beach towels and binoculars. Holly Bluff owners Judy and Rick Armstrong have been renting out houseboats here for 20 years, and they’ll provide a handy guidebook and helpful advice about piloting their boats, which can sleep from four to 10 people at rates ranging from $850 for a weekend (high season) to $2,800 for a week in an “executive” craft. It’s a little over a three-hour drive from Sarasota, but you may feel like you’ve traveled much, much farther from the hustle and bustle of daily life. Holly Bluff Marina, 2280 Hontoon Road, DeLand; (800) 237-5105 or (386) 822-9992. hollybluff.com
Fish for Tarpon in Boca Grande
Fishermen say that the tarpon is the greatest game fish in the world—a long streak of silver that leaps and fights with heart-stopping strength and spirit. And some of the best tarpon fishing anywhere is right here in Southwest Florida.
This May, you can join sportsmen from all over the world at the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, now officially back under the authority of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce, working in conjunction with the 50 or so members of the Boca Grande Fishing Guide Association. This year’s tournament (a catch-and-release event to aid in fishery conservation) takes place May 17 and 18 (check out worldsrichesttarpon.com), but Lew Hastings of the chamber says tarpon season really runs most of the year in the Boca/Charlotte Harbor area.
Most tarpon aficionados seek out an experienced guide (you’ll find plenty at bocagrandefishing.com), and frequently end up staying at one of several charming historic lodgings, like the Anchor Inn, Gasparilla Inn & Club, or the Innlet, which has its own marina. Boca is just about 50 miles away; for more information, call the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce, (941) 964-0568, or go to bocagrandechamber.com.
Swim with Manatees In The Crystal River
Meet the Gentle Giants
The Crystal River-Homosassa River area of Florida is the only place in North America where you can legally swim with these gentle sea cows; although there are several companies offering photo ops, we recommend Bird’s Underwater Manatee Tours, which have been featured on the Today show and the Travel and Discovery channels. The tours, which last three to four hours, depart at 6:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. April 1 through Oct. 31 and 6:15 a.m. and 11 a.m. Nov. 1 through March 31, but the early-morning tour is your best chance to be assured of being in the water with manatees. (The population here can range from 100 to 400 manatees; dolphins are frequently on view, too.)
The $45 cost includes mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit; $35 more buys you a custom DVD of your own manatee experience to treasure. Boats are fully enclosed, with changing rooms and porta-potties. The trip to Crystal River takes about 2 ½ hours from Sarasota; reservations for the tours are required. 320 Northwest Highway 19, Crystal River, (800) 771-2763. birdsunderwater.com.