It's quite a haul. An hour from Tampa. An hour and a half from St. Petersburg.
And, to get there, you either have to pay tolls on the Suncoast Parkway or stop and go through traffic lights and snarls on U.S. 19.
Who — in their right mind — lives up here?
Lucky people, that's who.
Like Tampa business owners Jeff and Sara Fox.
On a recent beautiful, sunny day, the longmarried couple left the coziness of their screened-in porch, a human bird's nest of sorts, nestled in and under the branches of a giant tree on the riverbank, to climb down the stairs to the dock. They grabbed their two seafaring dachshunds, Riley and Baby, and climbed into their deck boat to meander down the winding and crystal-clear Weeki Wachee River, where they pointed out manatees and shore birds, dodged kayakers and waved to neighbors as they talked about finding — and living in — paradise.
The couple, who moved to Florida more than 40 years ago from the New York City area, were living on a lake in Lutz when, Fox said, he was thrown into a midlife boating crisis after inheriting a kayak from his stepfather.
You should take it out on Weeki Wachee River, a friend told him. It starts at Weeki Wachee Springs, the state park of mermaid fame, and flows a mere 7 miles out to the Gulf of Mexico.
They were immediately smitten. The river. The manatees. The mermaid shtick. The Old Florida feel. They kept their house in Lutz and bought a weekend home on one of the canals off the river. That was 2003.
Less than two years later, they sold both of those houses and bought their dream home right on the banks of the Weeki Wachee River. (Most of the shoreline is protected wildlife habitat, but there are some houses along it.) They've never looked back — except, of course, to compare their former life with this one and bask in the glory of making such a right decision.
The couple sat at a table on their large screened-in patio, taking turns naming the types of wildlife they've seen: otters, bears, deer, hogs, turkeys, vultures, woodpeckers; when, as if on cue, there was a rat-a-tat-tat on the roof. It was the woodpecker they've seen around the house before, Sara says. Which got them talking, without skipping a beat, about the kinds of birds they see: egrets, blue herons, bald eagles, ospreys, cormorants, ibises, wood storks, hummingbirds …
The river temperature is 74 degrees year-round, perhaps a little chilly for most people, but not the Foxes — or the manatees that view the river as their own private spa when the temperature in the gulf drops.
One of the couple's favorite pastimes, Sara said, is chasing the sun, which means that just before twilight, they get in their boat and head to the open waters of the gulf to watch the sunset.
One time, Jeff said, a pair of manatees escorted them all the way down the river before handing them off to a pair of waiting dolphins for the rest of the journey.
In this magical place, that's not at all hard to believe.
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.