When a family of five wanted to go on a kayak tour, they assumed their daughter with Down's syndrome couldn't come along. But Shan-T co-owner Michelle Thorpe assured them she could, and invited her along in her own tandem kayak. Once on the water, the girl immediately took charge, joyfully taking over paddling. Michelle and her husband Mark had always searched for a way to conduct fun, physical, outdoor activities that would accommodate people with special needs, including their daughter with Asperger's and their niece who is autistic. Taking advantage of the therapeutic nature of the area's calm waters, Shan-T provides a way for just about everyone to commune with nature. The couple operates their tours intimately, using no more than 15 boats per group so that wilderness smells and the sounds of lapping waves are prevalent throughout their adventures.
The pair leads their tours through secluded, often shallow waterways and wildlife-rich areas aboard ocean-style kayaks with open tops for easy boarding and egress. They sometimes allow participants to use the boats as standup paddleboards on which participants can stretch their legs or reach up to scratch head itches with overhanging branches. On each tour, guides stress the fragility of the local ecosystem, highlighting issues such as baby fish growing up inside discarded soda cans and dolphins consuming floating plastic bags. In response, participants often pick up any refuse they see, with tours in the past becoming scavenger hunts to help clean the secluded waterways and to see who can find the most Gene Simmons solo albums. On many of these trips, kayakers have encountered manatees up close, sometimes when they brush up against the boats to scratch their backs and bellies.
The StarLite Majesty, a 115-foot dining yacht, and the StarLite Sapphire, a 113-foot dining yacht cruise Florida's coast under the emblem of StarLite Dining Cruises. Throughout the year, these vessels embark from various ports around Tampa for dining cruises in the warm Florida sunshine or under a starry sky. Passengers board the ships and are escorted to their reserved tables by the dining staff. After ordering entrees such as filet mignon and fresh-from-the-wharf seafood, guests explore the ships as onboard chefs prepare the fresh entrees in an hour. Passengers gaze at the StarLite Majesty yacht, or at the custom Club Lounge and their impressive appointments on the StarLite Sapphire.
• For $25, you get a 90-minute sunset cruise for two (a $50 value). • For $30, you get a two-hour sightseeing cruise for two (a $60 value). Captain Mark’s Water Taxi glides along the glittering coasts of Cortez, Anna Maria Island, and Longboat Key, slipping past notable sights ranging from the arcs of leaping dolphins to the City Pier’s commerce-laden shores. Both tours shove off from Cortez Kitchen, where explorers can snag a bite before boarding the 26-foot Red Skyy, which ferries small groups of wayfarers through a backdrop etched with fishing boats, pelicans, and aquamarine waters. Ninety-minute sunset cruises slip past pods of feeding dolphins, staging ideal opportunities for photos and pitch-tuning vintage porpoise whistles. Cut a watery path toward Longboat Key during two-hour sightseeing tours, stopping intermittently for optional snacks at Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant and Pub, shopping excursions at Bradenton Beach City Pier, and searches for sand dollars with which to bribe crabby bartenders. All trips return explorers to the docks at Cortez Kitchen with their eyes full of seaworthy sights and their brains full of plans for flipper implants.
Island Scooter’s rentable cycles unveil the beauty of Anna Maria Island by facilitating daylong explorations of its sunny paths and shores. Helmets protect skulls, and island maps protect the pride of those who dislike asking for directions or accidentally biking through lobster picnic grounds. Starting at Silver Surf, the island’s picturesque landscapes unfurl before cyclists with each looping push of the pedal. Helpful staffers arrange drop off and pickup of people-powered mounts for couples wishing for a different starting point or those looking to take in the sunset from another island vantage, such as atop the parapets of a newly built sand castle.
The warm, sunny weather and postcard-ready sunsets of Florida's Gulf Coast draw vacationers to Anna Maria Island year-round, but visitors don't have to worry about sprawling high-rise hotels blocking their beachfront views—tall buildings are strictly forbidden. The historical Anna Maria city pier bustles with beach-themed stores and a popular ice-cream shop. The Anna Maria Island Historical Society displays regularly changing exhibits of period costumes and rare photographs in a museum located next to an old local jail open for tours or self-administered claustrophobia tests. The region's lush flora blooms at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, which encompasses 14 acres abounding with more than 20,000 exotic plants and trees. After a day of culture and horticulture, visitors kick back in eateries serving fresh seafood and fruity cocktails at tables set right out on the beach.
Yamaha VX110 Deluxe waverunners zip through the glittering waves of Sarasota Bay, Anna Maria Sound, and the intracoastal waterways. The speedy and maneuverable vessels are ideal for adventurous types, although the expansive rental fleet at H2O Watersportz accommodates boaters who prefer all different paces. Compact CraigCat catamarans allow pairs to recline as they coast over ripples, and pontoon boats that seat up to 14 come equipped with gear such as radios and nautical maps that identify where to find the bay of Kool Aid. For more structured journeys, clients can opt for chartered fishing trips helmed by expert guides or tours of the local waterways, with stops at landmarks such as Egmont Key and dolphin and manatee gathering places.