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Experience a mini Florida vacation by getting out on the water

So you'd really like to get out on the water and feel the wind in your face as you watch frolicking dolphins and dream of sun-kissed sandy beaches. Yep, you need a cruise. But money's tight; the swine flu pandemic is giving you pause about a cheap boat trip to Mexico; and you don't have a spare vacation day to just take off for a few days. • Why not consider a local Tampa Bay cruise? Sure, they don't have those spiffy deck chairs, the discos and the outrageously overpriced drinks to go with your never-ending buffet. But they're relatively inexpensive and they give you a unique view of the surrounding waters that you don't get simply schlepping over the Howard Frankland. • We've rounded up a sampling of boat tours in the area that seem like safe bets for a morning, afternoon or day of fun. To be sure, this is just a small sample. You can find more at entertainment.tampabay.com in our listings (look under the Attractions tab at the top of the page). Or you can go on the Web and check the usual tourist gathering spots — John's Pass, the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, the Clearwater Beach Marina — to find a boat cruise that looks tempting. — Compiled by Times staff

RIVER BOAT CRUISE, WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS STATE PARK

6131 Commercial Way (Near U.S. 19 S at SR 50), Weeki Wachee; (352) 592-5656

COST: $24.95 adults, $16.95 ages 3-10

WHAT WE LIKED: A slow float on the Weeki Wachee River offers the chance to see an array of Florida wildlife including nesting bald eagles, mullet, cooter turtles, blue heron, wild turkey and deer. Wish the spider monkeys still lived in their riverside shack. Guides provide plenty of nature tidbits, like the fact that Spanish moss is a member of the pineapple family.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: Drought conditions leaving the river only 3 feet deep and less navigable, shortening the ride to 25 minutes. Maybe that also explains the vampirish yellow flies that kept passengers wincing and swatting.

INSIDER TIP: Bring a telephoto lens and bug spray.

WORTH THE TICKET? Absolutely, since it also includes admission to Buccaneer Bay water park, and the fabled underwater mermaid shows. Old Florida at its finest.

THE BASICS: The cruise launches from within the park, with first departure at 10:15 a.m. each day. If you'd rather do a solo cruise, canoes and kayaks are available to rent.

Steve Persall, Times staff writer

Pier Dolphin Cruises

800 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 647-1538

COST: $20, $17 seniors and military with ID, $12 ages 3-12. Under 3 free.

WHAT WE LIKED: The boat wends its way through the waters surrounding some of St. Petersburg's most valuable real estate on Snell Isle, making this almost like a tour of the pretty rich and almost-famous. The captain is full of anecdotes (we think mostly true) about who lives where, and many of the names will sound familiar. The boat also tours the Coast Guard station near the USF campus, so it's a treat to see some of those cutters up close. And most of the times we've been on the boat, we've seen dolphins, a couple of which delight in riding and flipping through the boat's wake.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: On a dead calm day in the summer with no dolphin sightings, it can be very tedious. But be careful on a really windy day; boarding can be tricky as the boat bounces up and down.

INSIDER TIP: If you have a tiny tot, be sure to bring a camera. The captain will often offer the chance for them to "drive" the boat, which makes for a nice photo op.

WORTH THE TICKET? Sure, especially if you've never seen the city from the water. It gives you a real sense of living someplace special. And those friendly dolphins are definitely a bonus when they hit that wake.

THE BASICS: The Dolphin Queen takes you on a 90-minute, 13.5-mile tour. Restrooms are available. Snacks, drinks, beer and wine available for purchase. Tours leave at 11:30 a.m. and 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Subject to change; call for updates.

Anne Glover, Times staff writer

Shell Key Shuttle

801 Pass-a-Grille Way, St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1348

COST: $22, $11 ages 12 and younger (beach umbrellas, masks and snorkels and shell bags included).

WHAT WE LIKED: Capt. Alva Sholty, below, narrates the one-and-a-half hour sunset cruise through the barrier islands south of Pass-a-Grille, including the 180-acre Shell Key Preserve. A native South Floridian and an environmentalist, Sholty's narrative is savvy about local lore and full of whimsy. Highlights include celebrity homes like the Augie Busch compound (of the Busch beer-brewing dynasty), tales of the first settlers and sightings of endangered birds and dolphins and manatees.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: The seating is hard plastic and, for this long a stretch, not ergonomic. (A carry-on seat pad is an idea). What did we expect from a pontoon boat? The 49-passenger vessel is otherwise serviceable. The large deck boxes that face the seating improvise nicely as buffet tables for your wine and cheese or beer and chips.

INSIDER TIP: For $3, you can buy an all-day parking pass along with your boarding ticket. Come early and enjoy an afternoon in quaint Pass-a-Grille as a prelude to your sunset sojourn. Also, if you want to hear Sholty's spiel, better do it now rather than later; he has announced he's trying to sell the business so he can sail off into retirement.

WORTH THE TICKET? You bet. For the same price, we also like the 10-minute shuttle to pristine Shell Key Preserve, where, for two- to six-hour intervals, you can hike, bird watch or just lie on the beach. We walked knee-deep on a bed of live mollusks and pretended we were a 16th century explorer.

THE BASICS: Daily departures at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., with return trips at 12:15, 2:15 or 4:15 p.m. Also the 90-minute sunset cruise departs approximately one hour before sunset (times vary with season). Restroom available. Coolers, chairs and sunscreen are encouraged. Reservations required for sunset cruise only.

Luis Perez, Times staff writer

Sea Life Safari Cruise, at the Clearwater Aquarium

25 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater; (727) 462-2628

COST: $21.35, $19.95 seniors, $13.75 ages 3-12

WHAT WE LIKED: Trolling through the gulf with an enthusiastic marine biologist and several aquarium volunteers, we loved the crew's earnest energy and surprising knowledge of all the million-dollar mansions lining our route. Maybe they should add a Realtor and turn it into a two-hour seminar on luxury homes.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: Though the tour was supposed to dig up a host of marine life, pulling a net behind the boat to fish out assorted creatures, the day we went the critters were all on vacation or something. The crab trap turned up empty and the net fished out a few foot-long sardines. Not exactly the safari promised in the title.

INSIDER TIP: A stop on a nearby island will yield lots of nifty shells for anyone who digs that kind of thing.

WORTH THE TICKET? For this rider, not really. Like a lot of Florida attractions, it's a pleasant ride that would be priced at half the cost anywhere outside a tourist mecca.

THE BASICS: The two-hour cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway off Clearwater Beach is on an open-air-powered catamaran, guided by a marine biologist from Clearwater Marine Aquarium. On each tour, a trawl net is pulled to gather a variety of sea life, such as sea horses, puffer fish, crabs, stingrays, conchs and more. It stops at Compass Cay for exploration and cruises close to bird sanctuaries. Restroom available. Snacks and drinks available for purchase. Small coolers are welcome. It departs at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily.

Eric Deggans, Times staff writer

St. Pete Yacht Charters and Sales

500 First Ave. SE, St. Petersburg; (727) 823-2555

COST: Prices vary. A 35-foot Catalina that seats six goes for a rate of $420 that covers up to eight hours (or about $70 a person for the day) and includes the boat, captain and sales tax. Larger boats, which can seat up to 12, go for $556 for up to eight hours.

WHAT WE LIKED: The ability to get out on the water in a sailboat without the hassle of owning a boat is a pleasure to be experienced at least once in life. Sit back and let the boat's captain steer you around the bay, or, if you are an experienced sailor, take over the wheel. And if it's a nice breezy (and dry) day, you can enjoy a leisurely sail out to Egmont Key, where you can have lunch, swim a bit and head back before using up those eight hours.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: This time of a year can be a little dicey with the weather, and a storm can come up on you quickly. Your relaxation factor goes down exponentially when the clouds turn dark, the boat begins to heel dangerously to one side and lightning starts to flash. Luckily the folks at St. Pete Charters keep a close eye on the weather reports and will reschedule your trip if the weather looks too iffy. And if you do get caught? They find a safe haven if they can and wait it out.

INSIDER TIP: If you do go for eight hours, you'll want to be mindful of your beverage consumption. Always bring more water than beer, advises Page Obenshain, the owner. And remember that you're on a boat. That means using a marine bathroom — no flushing and limited water on board. Don't worry, though, the crew will give you a lesson on how to be eco-friendly to the ocean. (And if you're not? $100 minimum to unclog a toilet, says Obenshain.)

WORTH THE PRICE? A resounding yes. Being with family or friends for a day of sailing is both relaxing and adventurous. Isn't this why you moved to Florida in the first place?

THE BASICS: Call ahead for reservations, as walk-ups are difficult to accommodate. Excursions are offered every day of the week, and hours are flexible. So if you want to sail from 1-9 p.m. to catch a sunset, go for it. You can bring your own food, or catering can be arranged. The charter business will soon begin offering cruises for up to 48 people (think weddings or private parties) aboard its new schooner, the Grand Nellie (left). Rates for that haven't been set.

Anne Glover, Times staff writer

Wild Dolphin Eco-tour at Florida Aquarium

701 Channelside Drive, Tampa; (813) 273-4000

COST: $21.95, $19.95 seniors, $17.95 ages 3-11. Combo ticket for Florida Aquarium and eco-tour available. Buy tickets at Florida Aquarium box office.

WHAT WE LIKED: Especially on hot days, being out in the breeze of Tampa Bay is delightful. And there's plenty of visual variety, with close-up views of the port en route to quiet inlets and bird sanctuaries.

WHAT WE DIDN'T: Antsy kids and their parents might find the rules restrictive; no running or climbing allowed! But it's nice and safe, with high railings and a watchful crew.

INSIDER TIP: Bring sunscreen, water and a hat that won't blow away. The boat sells soft drinks and beer, and you can buy snacks in the aquarium cafeteria.

WORTH THE TICKET? Definitely. We saw about eight dolphins, including a few calves. But even before those sightings, our 6-year-old daughter was fascinated by the big ships. "This is fun!" she said, as we left the dock. "And I haven't even seen one dolphin yet."

THE BASICS: The 90-minute eco-tours of Tampa Bay are aboard the new Bay Spirit II. This review is based on the smaller 49-foot catamaran excursion, which was replaced recently with a double-decked 72-foot powered catamaran. Restrooms available onboard. Call for tour updates. First come, first served. No reservations. Tours leave the Florida Aquarium at 2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; noon, 2 and 4 p.m. Sat.; 2 and 4 p.m. Sun. (weather permitting).

Tom Marshall, Times staff writer

Tips

Before you go

. Consider the weather. Many won't go out if it's raining or stormy, but the longer ones could encounter a storm even if the weather is nice upon launch.

. Think about safety if you can't swim. Many of these are very stable pontoon boats, but you want to know where the life jackets are if you need to get one on in a hurry.

. Think of what kind of tour is best. Some of these are eco-tours and focus mostly on the wildlife; hold out for a different experience if you're not into that.

. Think about borrowing a higher-end camera if you want a good dolphin photo. They can come and go so quickly that they'll just be a blur on a point-and-shoot.

. Remember to tip the captain and crew if they've done a good job and they have a tip jar.

Experience a mini Florida vacation by getting out on the water 06/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 3:25pm]

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