Hillsborough water taxi a pleasant way to get from A to B

The Tampa River Taxi charges $5 for rides throughout the downtown waterfront and also does private charters. The commuting view can include dolphins, manatees and snook.

TRISTAN WHEELOCK | Times

The Tampa River Taxi charges $5 for rides throughout the downtown waterfront and also does private charters. The commuting view can include dolphins, manatees and snook.

DOWNTOWN — It's true that I rarely get ruffled.

But like most everybody else, I occasionally exhibit some level of road rage while driving.

(Like when the guy in front of me makes a last-second turn or that driver who moves at the rate of a sloth. Surely, these people know I'm late for an appointment.)

So the idea of taking a water taxi to lunch intrigued me.

It sounds so peaceful.

I'm envisioning a mahogany gondola from Venice steered by a serenading Italian with a delightful accent.

Oh yea, lunch.

"You don't have to worry about anything," says Capt. Cliff Conatser, who started the service several months ago. "Leave the driving to me."

I wear a floppy straw hat in the noonday sun as two friends and I board his boat recently behind the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Conatser is a California native who moved here about 15 years ago. His 38-foot flat bottom Carolina Skiff is named, appropriately, Fun Boat.

He does Friday night happy hours, as well as lunch trips.

"We're surrounded by water," he says. He ferries from Channelside to north of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and places between.

He picks people up at downtown docks or Davis Islands and Harbour Island homes. He takes them to Jackson's, Marriott Waterside, Cafe Dufrain and the Tampa Bay History Center.

The people who board for a trip along Tampa's shoreline sometimes see dolphins and manatees, snook and hammerjacks. Farther upriver, maybe an alligator.

But on this day, I see a white grocery bag floating near the surface of the tannin stained river.

There's another.

We cruise past Blake High, then Stewart Middle School. On the east bank, Conatser points out the old brick trolley barn, built in 1911. It's one of just a few in the country and the only one in the Tampa Bay area.

Conatser is honing his story repertoire.

Take the one about Henry B. Plant's electric boat. Designed by Thomas Edison, it was used to ferry hotel guests up the river.

Conatser admits he's not so sure that it's true.

I later try to verify the tale, but can only link Edison to designing the electrical system in the hotel.

The water reflects the hot sun.

"It's so close," says my friend, surprised, as we round a bend and see Rick's on the River ahead. She had plotted an indirect route over miles of roadways, whereas the river took a direct route.

Night trips reveal another side of Tampa, Conatser says, a prettier side.

In time, he plans to add voyages to Hillsborough bay islands and to St. Petersburg.

I'd never considered our waterways as an option for commuting. But paired with other modes — streetcars, buses, rails — it could make a viable web of the city.

Conatser's riverboat may have come at just the right time, as some in the area cheer urban living over suburban sprawl.

Other projects highlighting the Hillsborough are also under way, including the city's much-discussed Riverwalk and the Heights development project, along the river just north of downtown.

It takes us 12 minutes from our launch at the Performing Arts Center to Rick's, north of downtown. That includes a stop to drop someone off.

It would take six minutes to drive the 1.8 miles. At least that's what the Google map says.

I'm all for any idea that has the potential to pull cars off the road — especially if they happen to be painfully slow drivers prone to last-second turns.

if you go

The Fun Boat

Cliff Conatser charges $5 per trip or $125 for a maximum of 40 people for private charters. (Bring your own bottles and hors d'oeuvres.)

Call (813) 369-8294 to reserve a spot or visit the Web site at

www.TampaRiverTaxi.com.

Hillsborough water taxi a pleasant way to get from A to B 03/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 4:30am]

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