Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Used Pontoon Boats - The secret islands of Pasco County, Florida

Hi gang, Rick here at Used Pontoon Boats. A string of tiny islands on Florida's Gulf Coast offers seafaring day trips in a scenic, undiscovered water world.

Just when I thought I had explored every unbridged island along Florida's West Coast, a boater guy in New Port Richey perked up my ears with talk of Anclote Key, Sandbar, Three Bar Rooker, Durney Key and Dutchman's Key.

I've made a hobby -- you could call it an obsession, really -- of island-hopping Florida's Gulf Coast. It started with day trips to Cabbage Key and North Captiva Island from our home on Sanibel Island, but in recent years I've found myself ''collecting'' new conquests -- Egmont Key, Caladesi Island, St. Vincent Island, Keewaydin Island, Mound Key, Shell Island and others.

Pasco County, home to New Port Richey and these mystery islands, itself is something of a secret. Stretching across Clearwater's and Tampa's backyard, it has developed as a bedroom community in recent times, but has a past filled with celebrities and scoundrels.

The scoundrels, I like to believe, hid out on castaway islands -- away from the law and from everyone, for that matter. Today the islands present themselves for weekend warriors looking to get away from the drone of Highway 19 traffic. But since it's not a big tourism area, boating out of New Port Richey can be tricky if you don't have your own vessel.


Charters by pontoon or sail are available for a day trip from New Port Richey, but we had set our minds on a girls' adventure without captains, men, children -- you get the picture. Diane and I booked a Bentley pontoon boat through Danette at Anclote Adventure, ignored spousal advise that we might need their help, and listened carefully to Danette's list of ``don'ts.''

I should mention that I have a little nautical experience while Diane had zilch, but it doesn't require a lot, fortunately. A pontoon is the perfect day-cruising vessel, but any craft will do as the channels are deep and well-marked.

I agreed to captain first as we headed out a long canal into a gulf channel. Traffic was light that day in the middle of the week, but on weekends becomes brisker.

We first turned north to visit the historic fish houses stalking the waters around tiny Durney Key. Like all of Pasco's secret islands, Durney stays natural, with a patch of sand that attracts beachers, picnickers, and snorkelers in search of seclusion and all that's pristine. Its best quality is its stance in the midst of those cool, blast-from-the-past fish houses, which you can photograph but not enter.

From there we headed southwest to Anclote Key, the biggest of the area islands and the only one with a structure -- a 19th century lighthouse relit in 2003 following a vigorous fund-raising program. Anclote is now under the auspices of the state park system and boasts four miles of beach. Primitive camping is allowed on the island. Otherwise, New Port Richey offers a variety of chain hotels.


Just north of the island itself, the Sandbar is a popular spot for beaching and picking up sand dollars, but rocks and shallows make it a bit tricky. Several boats were anchored there that day, but after pulling an itinerant rope off our prop (big ''don't'') and thanking the gods of the seas that it did no more damage than to set off the governor alarm, we decided to observe the Sandbar from a distance. Besides, storm clouds were brooding to the east and hurling the occasional spear of lightning.

We made our way to the island's south end with one eye on the sky. The storm appeared to be headed out of our way so, after a couple of near bottoms-out in skinny waters, we found deep water where we could pull up on the leeward side of Anclote, anchor, and follow the boardwalk to the lighthouse.

Aside from the lighthouse, Anclote and Dutchman Key, which is tucked into Anclote's leeside belly, are populated mostly by birds, including oystercatchers, bald eagles, ospreys and piping plovers.

Rattlesnakes also inhabit the island, the interpretative signs told us, which added to the sense of desolate eeriness.

We became most familiar with another form of biting fauna during our brief visit, however: mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Which is why we decided to do our picnicking back on the boat, rather than at the provided tables and barbecue grills, the only concession, along with a primitive potty, to visitors. (Camping is allowed, but you must carry in and out everything you need, including water.)

That decision proved wise once we reached the boat and saw the tide had swiftly defected. It was only with the added muscle of the park ranger (we love you, Mr. Ranger!) that we were able to avoid calling Danette to be rescued from our infraction against one of her hugest ``don'ts.''

Three Rooker Bar, another hot spot for weekenders, lies to the south, actually in Pinellas County. At that point, however, we decided we had had enough adventure, so back to port it was.

Discounting near stranding and burning up the engine, plus a few close calls with Mother Nature, we felt thoroughly women-empowered on our island-hopping foray.

If you choose to let someone with more experience pilot your adventure, try Miss Daisy Boat Tours or Windsong Sailing Charters. If you bring your own boat, you can find a number of ramps.

From the channel in toward Durney Key, you can continue on the Pithlachascotee River (mercifully shortened to Cotee in local jargon) and its riverside mansions into downtown New Port Richey, a charming hometown scattered around a park.

Stop on your way for libations, munchies, and music at the funky Crab Shack. It's a great place to toast the end of a seafaring day in this scenic, undiscovered water world. Thanks to CHELLE KOSTER WALTON, Special to The Miami Herald for this.

Used Pontoon Boats, By Cathy Henry and Rick Ostler
Used Pontoon Boats-North American Waterway

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