Tropical Island Getaway is excited to share this recent article called "Away for the Day An island of seclusion" written by Kristen Smith of the Bonita Banner.


 

Away for the Day: An island of seclusion

Egmont Key at Tampa Bay is accessible only by boat

By KRISTEN SMITH, kmsmith@naplesnews.com

Egmont Key sits at the mouth of Tampa Bay virtually forgotten.

Few visit this state park accessible only by boat. Those who do navigate their own boats or book tours on the few charters that cart tourists to the island for a glimpse of the ruins, of the 87-foot high lighthouse, for snorkeling in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and hunting for seashells along the island beaches.



Phillip and Paula Preston from Lancashire, England, take a break with their children Bradley, 4, and Daryl-Ashlee, 2, on the second floor of the Battery McIntosh on Egmont Key south of St. Petersburg Thursday afternoon. The gun batteries were built in the early 1900s when Fort Dade was established on the island before the start of the Spanish-American War to defend Tampa Bay. Photo by David Ahntholz

One of those charters is Tropical Island Getaways out of Treasure Island near St. Pete Beach. Along with the ride to Egmont Key, visitors will also get a dolphin show — if the critters are feeling playful — a snorkeling adventure and an hour-long exploration of the key.

In all, it's a four-hour tour. It can be much longer if the dolphins are frisky and respond to the surging water from the boat's motor and to the rocking tunes of the Beach Boys blaring from the stereo system.

Last week was Tracie Johnson's second time on a Tropical Island Getaway cruise to Egmont Key. The entire family was all smiles.

"Let's put it this way, the kids weren't disappointed to come back again this year," she said. "There is so much for everyone to do. I like it all. I like the shelling and we didn't get to see the dolphins last year, but no one was seeing the dolphins. This year we got to see a lot."

Johnson, from Virginia Beach, also took home a full back of seashells last year. An hour on the key barely gives the family enough time to do and see everything.

"It gives my son plenty to do and there's nothing he can hurt and the worst we can do is leave him on the island," she said with a laugh. "My teenagers like it and if you can please them, that's the hard part."

There is plenty for everyone to see and do on Egmont Key, although much is off-limits to tourists as the island is not only home to Egmont Key State Park, but also Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge and the Shore Bird Refuge.

IF YOU GO

Egmont Key State Park is accessible only by boat.

For more information, call the park at (727) 893-2627 or visit the Web site or another site.

To book a trip on Tropical Island Getaway to Egmont Key, call (727) 345-4500 or visit the Web site.

Signs warn visitors to keep out of protected areas, and park rangers cruise on four-wheel all-terrain vehicles to enforce the rules.

But what is open to visitors is varied in its scope.

There are ruins offshore for scuba diving or snorkeling. There are sandy beaches perfect for sunbathing and shelling. A lighthouse, on the National Register of Historic Places still shines.

For those bent on a bit of exploration, there are the crumbling battery ruins of Fort Dade once housed on Egmont Key.

During the Spanish-American War, the island was used to protect Tampa Bay from invasion, but the Spanish never ventured close. Still, by 1906 the island flourished into an island community of 300 residents complete with telephones, electricity, a bowling alley and movie theater, a hospital, a jail and tennis courts. By 1923, it was all over and the fort was deactivated.



A dolphin plays in the wake of the Tropical Island Getaway boat Quest II in Tampa Bay to the delight of passengers on the ride back to the dock on Treasure Island Thursday afternoon. Photo by David Ahntholz

Now the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, whose members guide vessels through the bay's channel and to the docks, houses its operation on a small part of the island.

There are more gopher tortoises than humans on Egmont Key, its past more deep and rich than its future will ever be.

For now, the only people to roam the island are the boatloads of tourists hoping for a glimpse of history and touch of the history of Florida while leaving the pink, plastic flamingos and fertilized golf courses behind.

"I felt like I was in another world," said Sue Durante of Naperville, Ill., who was vacationing on St. Pete Beach with her son and husband, Tom. "The peace, the quiet, there's nothing there."

Tom Durante, too, liked the four-hour trip to the key, which stretched into a five-hour trip.

"Every part of Florida we see is cleaned up ... but the island is pretty much left as it was," he said.

"It reminds me of Gilligan's Island," Sue piped in. "I would have loved to have more time to explore it. I would have had a good walk around. I would have loved to swim."

With the tour, there is an hour for snorkeling either at the ruins or at the grassy flats where the charter boat captain hops in and helps the visitors scoop up deep purple live sand dollars from the bottom of the floor of the bay — souvenirs of the trip they call them. Any live conchs found, they ooh and ahh over and toss back in.



Tracie Johnson, right, and her daughter Megan, 14, snorkel for sand dollars off Egmont Key, south of St. Petersburg, near the Quest II boat from Tropical Island Getaway. Photo by David Ahntholz

"It's the whole part of it," said Frank McIntyre, manager of Tropical Island Getaway. "Some people like the (dolphins), some people like digging for dollars and some people like exploring and some people like laying under a palm tree without a whole bunch of cabanas around them."

The captain of the Quest II, who chartered the Durantes and the Johnsons last week, does a little bit of everything with the tour. He snorkels, he enjoys the key and the joy he gets out of cruising that boat — nothing can beat it.

"Everything above the water is different on a daily basis as well as subsurface," said Warren I. Koehler, a five-year captain.

He's fascinated by the trails the fighting conchs leave on the ocean floor, awed when given the chance to swim with manatees and was stunned when a few weeks ago a group of pygmy killer whales were spotted near the boat.

"It's the best job in the world," he said.

 

Visitors can see the lighthouse built in 1858 to guide ships past Egmont Key and into the mouth of Tampa Bay. The lighthouse, built to "withstand any storm," replaced the original 1848 lighthouse, which was damaged by storms in 1848 and 1852. Photo by David Ahntholz

Tropical Island Getaway Home Page,    Map,     More Pictures,    IslandSnorkeling,     Big Turtle,      Sightseeing,     Dolphin pictures from boat trip

Contact Features Editor Kristen Smith by email at kmsmith@naplesnews.com



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