Explore the wilds of west-central Florida

Nobody knows Florida's wild life better than Jeff Klinkenberg, who writes about Florida culture and the people who make the state unique. Klinkenberg joined the Times in 1977, and his work takes him from Pensacola to Key West.

So when it came time to write up a dream list of outdoor excursions for out-of-visitors, we just turned the navigating chores over to him. Here's his list of must-visits for anyone who appreciates visiting nature. Take it away, Jeff...

When out-of-town guests fly into town, I start talking about natural history as soon as the hugs and kisses are over with. Crossing a bridge, we begin looking for the dorsal fins of surfacing dolphins. We look for ospreys perched on the light poles and pelicans soaring over the water as they hunt minnows. My guests often ask about the energetic fish they see leaping from between the white caps. "Mullet,'' I tell them. "And maybe we'll eat some at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish.''

Myakka River State Park

9 miles east of Interstate 75 at the State Road 72 exit in Sarasota

Every tourist wants to see alligators. Lurk near any freshwater lake, pond or canal long enough and most likely your guests will get their thrill. But I always head for Myakka River State Park (9 miles east of Interstate 75 at the State Road 72 exit in Sarasota) about an hour south of downtown St. Petersburg for a sure thing. The park's gators are plentiful and huge. You see them from bridges and from shore — and, if you're brave — from rental canoes. I like to take my guests on a trip aboard the Gator Gal, the park tour boat that ventures out into the reptile-infested lake. Your guests need to bring their cameras. Park admission $5 per carload. Boat tours ($12 per adult) leave every 90 minutes beginning at 10 a.m. No credit cards. Call (941) 365-0100 for information.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park

Encountering a manatee in the wild is a longer shot, but I see them all the time in coastal rivers and bayous in the winter. They poke their nostrils above the water, take a deep breath and dive in a great swirl. For a closer look, I drive to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, about an hour up the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 19 from my home. Your guests will enjoy the eye-popping closeups through a glass window at the springs. Park admission is $9 per adult. For information, call (352) 628-5343.

TECO's Manatee Viewing Center

6990 Dickman Road, Apollo Beach

If you're short on time, try the Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center at its Big Bend Plant in Hillsborough County's Apollo Beach. During cold weather, manatees, often by the hundreds, cavort in the warm water pouring out of the plant as you watch from a platform. Free admission. For information, call (813) 228-4289.

Shell Key

I love to watch the birds on remote beaches. "Remote" means you can only get there by boat. Shell Key is a small island halfway between St. Petersburg Beach and Fort De Soto near the mouth of Tampa Bay. If you lack a boat, take the "Shell Key Shuttle" from the Merry Pier on Pass-a-Grille, south of the Don CeSar resort. Birders from all over the world visit the island during winter to see birds that have migrated from the Arctic and Antarctic circles. The shuttle costs $22 per person and leaves every two hours starting at 10 a.m. You'll need to bring your lunch, drinks (and a trash bag for when you go home) and your binoculars. There's always a chance to see something unusual, from red knots to peregrine falcons. For information, call (727) 360-1400.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Explore the wilds of west-central Florida 12/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 12:59pm]

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