With a vibrant cultural life, some of the country’s best beaches, and more than 1,500 slips, St. Petersburg is the perfect destination for boaters looking to slow down and absorb the best that south Florida has to offer.
St. Pete sits snuggly between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s done a lot in recent years to revitalize its once dull reputation as both a spring break and retirement destination. Its waterfront parks host the Dali Museum, featuring surrealist works of art; the Museum of Fine Arts, with works ranging from ancient to contemporary; and Mahaffey Theater, home of the Florida Orchestra. It is also the home of a professional soccer team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
By redeveloping the waterfront, arguably the city’s best feature, and renewing interest in the historic district, the city is transforming itself into a bonafide southern holiday destination.
With weather so beautiful it earned the nickname “Sunshine City,” St. Petersburg has award winning beaches, highly rated restaurants, great state and national parks, excellent shopping, craft breweries, farmer’s markets and remarkable cultural experiences. It holds the Guinness World Record for ‘most consecutive days with sunshine,’ at 768 days.
Chased out of the Florida Panhandle by November's slowly declining temperatures, we sought refuge in the warmer, sun-drenched latitudes of Florida. We all know the shortest distance between two places is a straight line. The Great Loop's straight line across the Gulf of Mexico from Carrabelle to Tarpon Springs is a distance of 170 miles and deposits you alongside the best Greek restaurants west of Athens. Located on the Anclote River, the Tarpon Springs City Marina is in the thick of the action along the town's main thoroughfare and indulges your senses with tantalizing aromas. Spiritus twisted her way off the main river to nearby Turtle Cove Marina, which provided a somewhat quieter respite from the flocks of tourists strolling the city's sponge docks.
A scant 10 miles south lies the city of Dunedin, a quaint little berg which left us smitten and refused to free us until the end of December. The small, intimate Dunedin City Marina placed us a stone's throw from downtown while to the north, the larger Marker 1 Marina seemed to be the Looper favorite. Dunedin residents love to flaunt their Scottish heritage. Kilt-fitted bagpipe bands (several of them!) proudly marched through the streets during the annual Christmas parade. Joining the throngs of culinary aficionados after the parade, we found everything from barbecue to Irish stew, haggis to quesadillas and stone crab to amberjack. The same can be said for the neighboring city of Clearwater Beach, sans kilts and bagpipes. Here, the main attractions are the marvelous white sand beaches and the seemingly endless number of fresh seafood restaurants, all conveniently located near the Clearwater Beach Marina.
All the fine dining forced us to get some much-needed exercise, making the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail an invaluable weight-control asset. The 38-mile rail-trail stretches from Tarpon Springs in the north to St. Petersburg in the south. Utilized exclusively for cycling, walking or jogging, the trail passes through the towns of Palm Harbor, Dunedin, Clearwater, Largo, Seminole, South Pasadena and Gulfport. For many Loopers, this trail is reason enough to justify cruising with bicycles.
Glancing at a Rand McNally you'd think that much of Florida's west coast is just one big megalopolis. But the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway between Tarpon Springs and Fort Myers Beach has countless scenic anchorages to provide peace and solitude. Well-known waterfront cities like St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Venice hum with activity.
As someone once said, If you're bored here, then you're just a boring person! The area surrounding Charlotte Harbor, which is actually a huge bay, has many fascinating places to visit. Englewood, Boca Grande, Burnt Store, Pine Island and Punta Gorda are just a few. But the spot we kept returning to (three times!) during our Great Loop experience was the anchorage at Pelican Bay, adjacent to the island of Cayo Costa. The island is a Florida State Park, accessible only by boat, ferry or helicopter. This peaceful well-protected anchorage allowed us to see dolphin, manatee, alligators, bald eagles, owls, woodpeckers and pelicans; lots of pelicans! Several days we packed a picnic, rowed our dinghy to shore and walked across the island to the Gulf of Mexico. Even in January we enjoyed relaxing swims, long strolls along the beach and hikes on the wooded trails. Before returning to Spiritus, we always stopped by the park ranger station to grab a Klondike bar out of the freezer. They have all the flavors!
When approaching Fort Myers Beach, a vacation destination in its own right, a decision has to be made. Some folks decide to leave the protection of the GICW and continue south to spend the rest of winter in the Florida Keys.
We decided to head east on the Caloosahatchee River and stop for a while at the City of Palms: Fort Myers. Enjoying their tepid weather throughout the rest of January, we explored south Florida by car. Day-trips to Naples, Marco Island, the Everglades and Sanibel Island created many fond memories.
In February we continued our east-bound cruise up the Caloosahatchee River, eventually reaching the western shore of the seventh-largest freshwater lake in the country; Lake Okeechobee. High winds have a dramatic effect on the lake's 9-foot average depth, so it was imperative to listen to NOAA reports before leaving the protection of the river's lock system. However, we easily crossed the lake in just one day. The St. Lucie Canal on the east side of the lake completes the waterway joining Florida's two coasts, essentially linking Fort Myers Beach in the west to the city of Stuart in the east.
Nature's barrier islands provide a continuous, well-protected avenue along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway for cruising Florida's eastern seaboard. As we departed Stuart at the end of February, we realized that you cannot travel more than a day without going through a town with beach in its name; Jensen Beach, Vero Beach, Melbourne Beach, Cocoa Beach, New Smyrna Beach, Daytona Beach, Flagler Beach, Fernandina Beach. Despite the similarity in their names, each town is unique in its history or its culture and are all worthy of a visit.
A stop at Vero Beach City Marina made us linger to explore the local area from the water's edge. Don't pass up the chance to delve into the history of the space program near Cocoa Beach. The ever-popular Cocoa Village Marina was a convenient location for us to enjoy the museums and tours in and around the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. Race fans know that Daytona Beach is home to the Daytona 500, held in February each year. How cool would it be to stay aboard your boat during race weekend? Or during Bike Week in March, like we did? If I had a nickel for every Harley that rumbled past our slip at the city marina, I could afford a new chart plotter!
And if history is your passion, then plan to stop in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S. The AICW provided a great view of the historic St. Augustine Lighthouse just before we reached the St. Augustine Municipal Marina. Even this Floridian learned some state history at the nearby Lightner Museum, housed within downtown's historic Hotel Alcazar.
With so much to see and do, cruisers can easily maintain a pace that prevents wandering north of Jacksonville before April. That's what helped me keep comfortable in shorts!
Our journey started as we pulled out of Waterford Harbor Marina in Kemah, Texas, in May aboard our sailing vessel Fidelity, a 42-foot Valiant. My husband, Kevin, Windy, our Boston terrier, and I were excited to cross the Gulf of Mexico and explore the many towns that dot the shores of Florida with hopes of finding our future homeport. Oh, the places you'll go with a 6-foot draft and 60-foot mast!
After crossing the Gulf of Mexico, our landfall was Clearwater Harbor Marina, which provides easy entry from the Gulf and plenty of deep water for a 6-foot draft (as long as you stay in the channel). The marina's floating docks are key, especially when the swift current catches. The facility is conveniently located near Cleveland Street, Clearwater's entertainment district. It's an easy trek to the beach by water taxi or a stroll over the bridge. Frenchy's Original Café is a must-do for the famous Florida grouper sandwich.
After a lovely day cruising about 40 miles offshore, we made our way to the Harborage Marina at Bayboro in St. Petersburg. We arrived after closing and were greeted by Leon, the night guard, who provided us with the ever important "keys to the gate." Windy thoroughly enjoyed her time at the marina, given the surplus of dog treats provided by the staff, which made it one of the most pet-friendly marinas we visited. It's number one on our list of possible homeports after our adventures on Fidelity wind down.
Just a short walk from Harborage is historic downtown St. Petersburg. Among other don't-miss spots, The Chattaway has great burgers and cold beers. No car is needed -- unless you want to make the trip to Mazzaro's, the best Italian market ever. Nearby, Island Nautical does great service work and repairs. We installed new dingy davits from MarTek and bought a new dinghy to hang off them.
After our stay in St. Pete, it was time to get Fidelity a little farther south. We made a quick stop at Longboat Key then continued on to the Venice Inlet to Crow's Nest Marina and finally arriving at Boca Grande Marina on Gasparilla Island. The approach into Charlotte Harbor was easy, the narrow channel and turn into the marina well marked, and the marina staff talked us into the harbor to avoid the shallows. The marina's docks were pristine, and the on-site restaurant, Miller's Dockside Bar & Grill, was the perfect place to settle into upon arrival.
Golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation in these parts Windy loved riding around and eating at the Loose Caboose, where she ordered from the doggie menu. The landscape's many banyan trees are remarkable, and the pastel-colored "old Florida"-style homes are atmospheric and beautiful. It was a great spot to slow down and enjoy the quieter side of things.
Before we got too settled in this lovely place, we decided to move on. We awoke to a thick layer of fog that lifted by mid-morning, when we were already well underway to our next stop, Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina in Fort Myers Beach. On approach, the busy port was full of commercial and recreational boats but provided a good depth for Fidelity and was extremely easy to navigate.
Dave, the marina's harbormaster, was incredibly hospitable, but unfortunately we were forced to leave early due to an approaching storm front. We set sail for Marco Island Marina, which would be our home for the next couple of months. As we approached Capri Pass, we were thrilled by the sight of boats sailing in the waters of Marco Island.
Marco Island is a great port with easy access to Gulf sailing, deep water and plenty of dining and entertainment options. The channel into the marina is well marked and the fairways are wide enough for an easy docking experience. Some of our favorite spots for a bite to eat during our time there were the Island Gypsy Cafe´ (a dinghy ride away from the marina), the Italian Deli (excellent New York-style pizza) and the Esplanade.
After several months on Marco Island, Fidelity was ready to head to Key West. By now, Chris Parker, the weather guy, had become Fidelity's most important satellite crew member. There was a small window between storm fronts so we took it and sailed to Stock Island Marina Village in Key West. We had a fun stay, and the marina shuttle was more than sufficient for exploring downtown Key West.
Marathon Marina and RV Resort was our next stop. The marina has new, concrete floating docks, and the on-site Lazy Days South was the perfect spot for happy hour and dinner.
Then it was on to Miami. We cruised past Key Biscayne and downtown Miami to Miami Beach Marina. Giovanni, the dockhand, was a pro with the lines, which came in handy because a strong current surges through the marina but the prime location makes the effort worth it. We enjoyed South Beach's Art Deco architecture, not to mention the bars, restaurants and beach, and then decided it was time for our next destination, Fort Lauderdale.
Bucking the current through Government Cut, Fidelity had her first sail in the Atlantic. Our timing was near perfect with the 17th Street Bridge opening, and a quick turn put us into the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six Marina. The on-site restaurants, Grille 66 and Pelican Landing, were both great dinner spots. A little bit farther aheld, Louie Bossi's Ristorante Bar Pizzeria, 15th Street Fisheries, and South Port Raw Bar rounded out our top picks for food, atmosphere and price in Fort Lauderdale.
Soon enough, it was time to get underway to Jacksonville and up the coast before hurricane season. A few quick stops we made during this leg of the trip deserve mention. Lake Park Harbor Marina, just north of Riviera Beach, is a great stopover, with floating docks and a low-key atmosphere. Fort Pierce City Marina in Fort Pierce is another wonderful destination the floating docks were in excellent condition and the staff knowledgeable. At Cocoa Village Marina in Cocoa Beach, the dockmaster and crew greeted us personally and made us feel right at home. And Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast was a true luxury with swimming pools, restaurants, and doggie treats for Windy.
After the 20-plus-nautical-mile, winding ride past Matanzas Pass, we pulled into the St. Augustine Municipal Marina, and the masterful docking crew handled everything like a finely tuned machine. St. Augustine was a particularly lovely stop and is number two on our list of top ports of call, offering everything from history to dining to shopping. Windy loved her morning walk through the historic part of town, and almost every restaurant we visited welcomed her with a bowl of ice water.
But hurricane season was approaching. It was time to move Fidelity to her summer home. We sailed offshore and then motored up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville's Marina at Ortega Landing. And then we immediately began to look at locations where we might put her in the winter, and to make plans to explore the East Coast in the spring. With so many great ports to chose from, we have some homework to do.