CLEARWATER — The palatial Fisherman's Paradise resort boasts something for the angler with everything: a helipad, a marina, a two-floor gym, a health spa, a sports bar, a 900-bottle wine cellar, even a movie theater.
Did we mention it's a boat?
The five-story "floating palace," moored 15 miles off the Clearwater coast, is a barge that has been transformed into a $25 million luxury mothership for deep-sea anglers and divers. Pulled by a tugboat, it will loop between the Gulf of Mexico, Panama and Belize.
After six years of construction, it will open to guests Sept. 9 and will stay here for six months. A helicopter ride, a charter fishing tour of the Middle Grounds and a night's suite will cost $599, with a $100 yearly membership.
At 385 feet long, the barge is longer than a football field and most multimillion-dollar "superyachts." At 5,000 tons, it weighs more than all the gold in Fort Knox.
To check in, guests must dock their boats in the barge's marina, travel via shuttle boat, or fly from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport aboard a Sikorsky S-76, a soundproofed helicopter that operations director Christopher Longrie calls "the Bentley of the skies."
While aboard, anglers can charter one of eight powerboats or catamarans for fishing or diving. Catches will be cleaned by the crew, then served for dinner, packed in fish boxes with a saltwater ice-maker, or preserved with a flash freezer.
Landlubbers can relax at the sauna, salon, massage room, sun deck, restaurant, pool bar or 1,000-gallon saltwater aquarium, watching an octopus, Popo, that the crew found in the marina. Mahogany-trimmed halls are adorned with sculptures of dolphins, marlin and crabs.
The barge runs on three 180-kilowatt diesel generators, 380,000-gallon fuel tanks and two desalinators that produce 6 gallons of fresh water a minute. Trash and sewage run through an onboard waste treatment plant, incinerator or trash compactor.
Yet for all its size, the barge only sleeps 36. VIP suites have king beds and are decked in Italian marble.
Six years ago, Gary Boesch, the retired founder of insurance giant AmeriLife, and Longrie, a computer and electrical engineer, bought an old transatlantic pipeline barge and tugged it to the Dominican Republic. Cheap labor gutted the barge and built five steel decks into its shell.
It was anchored off Clearwater in late 2009, and local craftsmen began work on flooring, masonry and finishing touches. Clearwater harbormaster Bill Morris said residents of beachfront condo towers began calling to report the mysterious glow of lights on the horizon.
Rumors of the lavish barge swirled on online boating forums. When in international waters, some speculated, the Paradise would become a floating den of iniquity with a brothel and casino.
But Longrie says the barge won't have anything so illicit. It will follow fishing laws, won't house prostitutes and will keep gambling to a few upper-deck slot machines. "Believe me," he said. "I've heard it all."
The barge is built to withstand hurricane-force winds and is on contract with a tug company that, with 24 hours notice, could pull it from the path of a storm.
Yet the barge remains at the mercy of the seas. In December, amid strong winds, it broke from its mooring 15 miles west of Clearwater Pass and drifted within a mile of Indian Rocks Beach. Crews tugged it to a Port of Tampa shipyard for repairs and a bigger anchor.
Emily Woodberry of Melbourne was recently boating with her all-women's spearfishing group, the Lady GaDivers, when charter boat captain T.J. Shea brought them by the barge as a surprise.
"I was drooling. The inside, those rooms are like a five-star hotel's," Woodberry said. "A couple of the girls that toured it that day said, 'I don't care how much it costs, I want a weekend on this boat.'
"If I had $600 a night, I'd be on the boat. But I'm more of a $70 charter girl myself."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.