Kelly Alley

The travel bug is biting hard this summer, and the itch to light out for a change of scenery is in full force.

Of course, staying in a certain area for any length of time is bound to be exciting and filled with adventures, and that’s exactly what recently played out for this now weary traveler.

So, I’m splitting up the account of my little jaunt to the outer coasts of Tampa, Florida. For the next two columns I’ll try my best to remember and run down my adventures in the Clearwater/Saint Petersburg/Tampa Bay area of Florida.

From Knoxville, it takes roughly ten and a half hours to hit the Tampa Bay area. Factoring in any traffic hiccups and gas stops to pause and stretch your legs or grab a snack, I reckon it averages out to about twelve to thirteen hours of travel time, eleven if you’re really focused and don’t hit any traffic.

The first day or two when you arrive typically doesn’t prove to be too exciting – checking-in, unpacking luggage and getting acclimated to your lodgings – so I’m not going to bore you with the details of all that.

However, in the process of doing all that you might decide you’re feeling pretty peckish. Probably one of the best things about traveling to the beach is all the ice cream shops within a short walking distance from where you might be staying. The second-best thing is that, as an adult, you can unashamedly have ice cream for dinner if you so please, which is exactly what I unofficially recommend doing.

If you ever find yourself around the Indian Rocks Beach area, I would strongly suggest giving Haze Ice Cream a try. Not only does it have fantastic ratings – 4.8 was the lowest I could find – they also offer more than 21 flavors and dairy-free options. All the ‘creams are made fresh in-house and are available at decent prices, with most items in the $4-6 range. If it’s available, give the seasonal apple pie flavor a try – cookie butter is another good one too.

The nice thing about the Saint Petersburg/Clearwater area is that there are also several state and county parks nearby for when you get tired of soaking up the sun and getting water in your ears. The ragtag bunch I was traveling with started itching to go kayaking and, lo and behold, there was a park not too far away Fort DeSoto Park lies about an hour south of Indian Rocks Beach and about 20 minutes southwest of Saint Petersburg. Access to the park costs $5, or $5.75 if you take the toll road route.

The fort itself was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1898 and was used during the Spanish-American War. The area opened for civilian use in 1939, with the exception of military use during World War II. A sandhill crane named Ruby can usually be found outside of the main office of the park, serving as Fort DeSoto’s unofficial mascot.

The park is almost a Shangri-La for the adventurous, offering one of the best beaches in America, fishing, birding, camping, hiking, historic ruins and of course kayaking. It also provides launching points for ferries heading out to Egmont Key State Park and Shell Key Preserve.

The only issue I found with the beach part of the park is that there is ample parking but considerably little space on the shore to park your towel and umbrella.

Our party of mostly inexperienced paddlers set off from our home away from home in time to arrive when the kayak rental opened at 9 a.m. the next day. Prices were fair for rentals – split with my paddling partner, a double kayak for two hours only cost $20 a piece.

Kayaking itself is an experience, and one I highly recommend trying regardless of your location. The trail we took meandered us around mangrove-lined coves and islands, with chances to explore tight tunnels made by the roots and branches of the trees if we wanted a bit more adventure.

Within these tunnels lived hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny crabs. Often you could also spot rhinoceros beetles, fondly nicknamed “killer” beetles by one member of our party, perched above your head and to your side as you paddled among the mangrove roots.

The only true worry about paddling along this trail is the number of fish flopping out of the water. At one point my kayaking partner and I counted about twenty fish popping above the water within the span of 10 minutes.

Along with the fish, crabs and beetles, the only other wildlife we saw were snowy egrets and a young shark pup swimming around before we launched our kayaks.

The same day we discovered the ferry that takes folks out to Egmont Key State Park, a wildlife refuge only accessible by boat, all for around $25 per person. We unanimously decided to take a trip out there the next day to snorkel and explore the deserted buildings of Fort Dade and the island’s small 1858 lighthouse.

The snorkeling proved a bit of a bummer, as the water was far too cloudy from the dredging project going on to rebuild the quickly eroding shores. The remaining empty buildings of Fort Dade would be fun to explore with more time, but our return ferry ran a tight schedule and we had to be aboard by 2:30 p.m.

All in all, the ferry rides to, from and around the island proved to be the most exciting part of that day. Those on the snorkeling trip were treated to two manatee sightings.

However, it was the return trip to Fort DeSoto that made the $25 fare worth every penny. Those aboard were treated to sightings of a large spotted eagle ray and not one or two dolphins, but four – one male and three females.

The dolphins, of course, put on quite a show, delaying our ferry trip by about twenty minutes. Not a one of us complained, and our captain graciously shut off his engines and played the role of spotter for those with eager eyes, all the while spouting off facts about the aquatic mammals for those with eager ears.

I reckon this just about puts us up to the middle part of this adventure, much to the relief of my typing fingers. Part two will be along soon, so stay tuned for more sunburned, artificially tropical-smelling adventures.

Kelly Alley is a junior studying Journalism and Electronic Media. She can be reached at kalley2@vols.utk.edu.

Columns and letters of The Daily Beacon are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Beacon or the Beacon's editorial staff.

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