Pontoon trip on Pithlachascotee River serves up scenic bliss

Passengers on the Miss Daisy II get a view of boaters hanging out near an island off the Gulf Coast on Thursday. For a decade, Capt. Ray Kelly, in top photo, has been offering locals and tourists a view of the Pithlachascotee River and the Gulf of Mexico from his pontoon boat.

KERI WIGINTON | Times

Passengers on the Miss Daisy II get a view of boaters hanging out near an island off the Gulf Coast on Thursday. For a decade, Capt. Ray Kelly, in top photo, has been offering locals and tourists a view of the Pithlachascotee River and the Gulf of Mexico from his pontoon boat.

PORT RICHEY

Life is sweet aboard the Miss Daisy II. Jimmy Buffett croons from the CD player. Beer and bottled water chill in the portable cooler.

And the view, well, it's nothing short of sublime.

If you've never seen New Port Richey from aboard a 40-foot-by-12-foot pontoon boat: "It's totally different, really beautiful," says Capt. Ray Kelly, the owner of the Miss Daisy II, who has been taking locals and tourists on colorful jaunts down the Pithlachascotee River for a decade.

No doubt about it, the river, which gently meanders through the historic towns of Port Richey and New Port Richey, may well count among the most scenic in Florida.

What makes the river unique, though, is its abundance of eclectic, if not disparate, architecture: newly minted McMansions built during the recent boom days; distinctly Florida Cracker cottages with metal roofs and airy screened porches; and the last Mediterranean-revival relics from the nearly forgotten real-estate boom of the 1920s.

Throw in a house designed by a disciple of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and another built for Sally Rand, the fan dancer (the actress named by Cecil B. DeMille, who gained fame for her famous "fan dance" at the 1933 World's Fair), and it's easy to bliss out for an afternoon.

'Little Hollywood'

In the halcyon years before the Great Depression, silent screen stars flocked to New Port Richey, crowning it Florida's "Little Hollywood." Silent film star Thomas Meighan built a 13-room home, Jasmin Point, along the river in 1928. Although it was demolished in 1960, one of the buildings and the swimming pool still exist.

There's the old tiled-roof mansion and boathouse reportedly connected to actress Gloria Swanson (though she most likely never lived in it), and another home thought to have been built by a relative of child star Shirley Temple. Another house is said to have belonged to the mother of country singer June Carter Cash, while another reportedly belonged to the late golfer Gene Sarazen, one of only five golfers to win all of the major championships in his career.

Spend a few hours on the Miss Daisy II and you'll know every last detail.

"I could be a real estate editor," jokes Kelly, 60, who retired from a career in the Navy. In his youth, he worked on a construction crew that helped build the World Trade Center.

He grew up in a small town along the New Jersey shore and found his first job as a hired hand aboard fishing boats. Kelly migrated to Port Richey in 1993 after visiting a friend in the area and then buying a home in Hudson through a booth in the Hudson flea market.

Inspired by his brother who ran a pontoon boat for tourists in New Jersey, Kelly bought the first Miss Daisy in Bonita Springs and cruised back up the Gulf Coast to Port Richey, fishing and taking his time.

He's also a gifted raconteur so full of tidbits about local history that passengers return again and again, sometimes just to hear him talk.

Detour into gulf

"Oh, I like the captain — I think he's funny and I need a good laugh," said Shirley Smallwood. Although she's sight impaired, Smallwood, who traveled Thursday afternoon with a group from the Grand Court in Tampa, has taken the trip several times aboard the Miss Daisy II.

She says she loves the sound of the water and the congenial banter.

Ditto for her seat mate, Ronnie Hutchinson, 86, a former trapeze artist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus who holds a master's degree in education.

"It's so nice," said Hutchinson of the tour, which includes a detour out into the Gulf of Mexico to see the beautiful, weathered stilt houses that look like Dust Bowl shacks on legs.

Hardly, though.

"The people who own those mostly have streets named after them," Kelly said with a laugh.

In fact, Kelly knows just about everyone along the river's banks, from tanned women hanging out by their suburban swimming pools to the guy fishing along the seawall of a home with Grecian statuary and a spiral staircase to the roof.

Out in the gulf, he knows what's what, too: He notices a sailboat that appears to have been abandoned and bellows out, "Anyone on board?" He considers calling the Coast Guard.

He also notices the little things, pointing out dolphins and manatees and offering his own sunglasses to visitors to see "every blade of sea grass in water that's clean as a whistle."

For those who want to hear the stories and see some prime west-central Florida waterfront homes, Kelly pilots regular excursions along the river. For $19, you get two hours with one of Pasco's best raconteurs and free beer and bottled water.

"People drive up and down (U.S.) 19 and don't know what it looks like back here," he says. "It's a whole different world."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

>>If you go

Trip down the Pithlachascotee River

The Miss Daisy II leaves from the Seaside Inn, 5330 Treadway Drive in Port Richey. For information, call (727) 819-1754 or visit www.missdaisyboattours.com. Tickets are $19 for adults and $12 for children.

Pontoon trip on Pithlachascotee River serves up scenic bliss 09/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 9:13pm]

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