10. Mangrove tunnels, South Lido Park
This is a strange little paddle just a few minutes from downtown Sarasota. Dark, narrow canoe trails twist and turn through a tangled mangrove canopy. Not for the claustrophobic. But then you pop out into bright sunshine of Sarasota Bay, which only heightens the contrast of the tunnels.
Several outfitters rent boats at South Lido Park.
It would be great if these mangrove trails had an exotic history of Native American tribes or Spanish pirates, but the truth is that they are mosquito-control ditches cut in the 1950s. Now they’ve become popular eco-tourism destinations.
Branches covering the canoe trail are literally dripping with tiny mangrove crabs, which is creepy or fascinating or both.
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9. Egmont Key, Tampa Bay
An epic trip, especially from Anna Maria Island, but you better know what you’re doing. And you better be ready for several hours in your kayak. The rewards of this paddle include the beaches and history of Egmont Key, along with spectacular views of the Sunshine Skyway.
Michael Lutus, a Bradenton kayaker, loves to paddle from Anna Maria to Egmont.
"That's all I do," he says, laughing. "It's the perfect destination. You're going from one island to another island. The Tampa Bay entrance, you have a lot of water movement to play around in. You've got rays, you've got sharks, you've got everything.
"The best trips are at night; I do a lot of night passages. Once it gets dark, everything quiets down. The stars are incredible out there."
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8. Little Sarasota Bay and North Creek
After putting in at Vamo Road, you paddle south along popular bird rookeries. Now comes the tricky part. If you can find a narrow gap between oyster beds and mangrove mounds, it will lead east into the quiet shade of the creek. Not everyone finds it on their first try.
After several bends in the creek, you reach U.S. 41. Soon the stream is choked with vegetation. Then it’s time to turn back.
On the return trip, if you’re lucky, an outgoing tide will shoot you right through that same gap in the mangroves.
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7. Alafia River, Valrico
This paddle is worth a 90-minute drive east of Tampa. Clear water flows over limestone shoals. Huge oaks and tall pines shade a narrow stream. Lonely sand bars practically beg you to stop for a picnic.
Call Alafia Canoe Rentals (there is no website) at (813) 689-8645. A lady named Sybil Cribbs will probably answer the phone. Her family has run the livery business for 35 years.
The banks of the Alafia River are covered with hundreds of cypress trees and cypress knees. A special treat. The spring-fed water is cool and clear, which is probably why there are so few alligators.
A stiff current will push you downstream on the Alafia, but you can count on working up on appetite. Rural highways near the river are lined with barbecue joints and roadside taquerias.
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6. Braden River, Bradenton
This is a smaller stream and better paddle than the nearby Manatee River. Old Florida scenes are draped with Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Confederate flags fly over docks decorated with signs that say “Elvis Presley Boulevard.”
Times change, but the Braden River doesn’t.
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5. Boca Grande Pass
A challenging paddle south of Englewood. The pass between Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa State Park is famous for tarpon and (gulp) hammerhead sharks. Now that’s something to think about as you navigate a spin cycle of tides, currents and white-capped waves.
Gasparilla Island is a lovely road trip for the drive down. Fine restaurants and finer beaches. A lighthouse museum is where most people park to paddle.
The state park on Cayo Costa is blissfully quiet. Hurricane Charlie knocked down the Australian pines that shaded a gorgeous campsite, but there is still tent camping and cabins. You’re close enough to hear the surf and savor a sea breeze.
4. Myakka River
At Myakka River State Park, east of I-75, lots of people rent kayaks and paddle in Upper Lake Myakka. Much more picturesque, though, is a trip down the river itself. You can spot gators in the water and deer in the woods. Adventurous souls may continue down to Gator Hole, which draws a large number of huge reptiles.
Lots of paddlers prefer the stretch of Myakka south of the state park. A local favorite. The stream winds through quiet woods and pastures.
Further downstream, just west of I-75, lies Snook Haven, a local favorite, which rents boats and sells beer and sandwiches. Some paddlers go all the way to Myakka State Forest near Englewood.
3. Neville Preserve, Little Sarasota Bay
Birders love the quiet islands of the Neville Preserve. This is where pelicans swoop, mullet jump and kayakers skim. Lucky paddlers spot a manatee or two. Most people launch their boats at Turtle Beach Park near the south end of Siesta Key.
For a classic double trip, explore the shallow waters of the bay for awhile, then drag your boat across a narrow strip of sand to paddle in the surf, too.
This is what used to be Midnight Pass, as in the “Open the Pass Now!” bumper stickers you still see around town.
2. Gulf of Mexico
OK, this is a pretty broad category, but just about any uncrowded beach will do for gulf paddling. Playing in the surf is fun, even (or especially) if you capsize. Then there’s the golden sun, white beaches and turquoise water.
In the morning, kayakers enjoy a flat sea and clear water for snorkeling and sightseeing. By noon, the wind kicks up surf along the shore. In the evening, paddlers can savor the sunset and maybe even spy the elusive flash of green as the sun disappears into the sea.
1. Peace River, Arcadia
Peace-ful paddling flows within an hour’s drive of the Gulf Coast. Campers savor quiet bluffs along the shore. Fossil-hunters sift the sand for mastodon bones.
Several outfitters rent boats in Arcadia.
The Peace River continues downstream toward Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor. Locals hang rope swings from prominent banks of the river. Lots of boaters and fishermen stop for a bite at the Nav-A-Gator Restaurant .