Continuing south down the west coast on the way to the Florida Keys, we start hitting the big cities of classic warm-winter Florida: Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Punta Gorda, and Naples. We wrap up the west coast of Florida by traveling back in time in Everglades City and keeping an eye out for crocodiles at an anchorage in Everglades NP.
Click the Google Map button below to open the map in a separate window. There you can zoom in/out, and click on the icons to see pictures and more info on the various places along our route.
It was time to leave the small towns and beaches of Old Florida and leap into the 21st Century of the more modern and populated cities of the southern Gulf Coast of Florida. We were still far enough north that we were getting some occasional cold spells and nights could get chilly, so were ready to continue ‘chasing 70.’
From Tarpon Springs, we would once again be traveling in the protected Gulf ICW rather than open ocean. This has the advantage of a well-marked channel, scenic routes, and best of all no crabpots to dodge. It also means a lot more boat traffic to compete with, especially on weekends in these more populated tourist areas.
Clearwater Beach Dec 19-22, 2022
Clearwater Harbor Dec 23 - Jan 2, 2023
Clearwater Beach was fun, but downtown Clearwater creeped us out a bit.
Clearwater Beach was our first stop for a few days. A long narrow strip of beautiful beach along the Gulf – really more of a barrier island – it is separated from the rest of the city by the ICW and connected by a bridge. It is lined with hotels, restaurants, surf shops, and tourist activities such as fishing, watersports, and just hanging at the beach in one of the many bright blue beach clamshells. It’s a hoppin’ place. The marina was right in the heart of the action, next to all the fishing charter and tour boats. We knew most of the other Looper boats there, but as is typical for the holidays many were just ‘parked’ there for a couple weeks while owners traveled back ‘home’ to be with family.
We had decided that both of us having an e-scooter would make getting around some towns easier. The foldable bike is not designed for hills and it could be slow going compared to Dave on his scooter. So when we saw a scooter shop in Clearwater Beach, Dave said ‘let’s go look.’ I had a flashback to various other times in our marriage when we were ‘just looking’ that had resulted in a dog, a RV, half an airplane, and a condo. They had some very nice ones with longer range, smoother ride, and other features. I didn’t think I needed anything that fancy (nor that expensive), but I noticed Dave taking a particular interest in one model. And when the nice lady told him that she had it model in red, I immediately knew exactly where this was going. Thus I ended up the proud owner of a used Costco-special NInebot scooter and Dave a shiny red, tricked out eMove cruiser. I am perfectly happy with the simpler hand-me-down, and know it would have driven Dave bonkers if I was tooling around on a scooter with more bells and whistles than his.
It was a whopping 1.4 miles across the channel to Clearwater Harbor on the mainland side, where we would be for almost two weeks. The day after we moved there the tentacles of Winter Storm Elliott reached all the way down to Florida. We had two days of high winds that howled through the rigging of sailboats nearby and had us rocking at the dock. It left the whole port side of the boat with a salty crust from sea spray. When those calmed, we still had some really low temps for the area with nights dipping below freezing and daytime highs in the 40s. So the Christmas weekend was spent pretty much hunkered down.
But as unusual as the weather was, the harbor area of Clearwater was even odder. It was the nicest, newest downtown area we had ever seen that was totally devoid of people. It looked like it was on ongoing work in progress, but it so far did not seem to be able to compete with Clearwater Beach in attracting visitors. We, at least, enjoyed all the Xmas lights – but it was lacking the people factor to make it truly festive. A contributing factor was that several square blocks surrounding this main downtown was all Church of Scientology. Beginning in the 80s, the church had slowly transformed what was a blighted downtown, beautifully restoring the historic Fort Harrison hotel and other buildings. But the public was not allowed in any of these. The buildings had opaque windows, manicured landscaping hid ground floors from view, and security cameras visible everywhere. Private buses shuttled workers to the buildings, and we never saw employees in any of the local establishments. It all felt very sterile and a little creepy. And no, we did not see Tom Cruise. Further adding to the weird ambience was the very frequent background sound of wailing sirens, several times an hour, the whole time we were there.
Between the weather and lack of anything right there, the bright side is that we had no distractions in working on our long To Do list.. The biggest item was Dave was able to finish the required coursework for his Coast Guard Captains certification. I worked on some smaller boat projects and some pediatric continuing education, and Dave also did some routine boat maintenance. It wasn’t all work though. We enjoyed a quiet Christmas, binge-watched a couple of our favorite series, socialized with the few Loopers also there, and took the bus down to Madeira Beach for lunch and a change of scenery (although it looks an awful lot like Clearwater Beach). But overall, would have to say Clearwater was a bit of a disappointment.
Jan 3 - 6
St. Petersburg delighted us.
The municipal marina was right downtown, and it was a very busy, artsy, vibrant area. There were lots of high-rise condos, so plenty of people out biking, running, enjoying the many outdoor restaurants, walking dogs, and enjoying the large park with its banyan trees. Reconnecting with our friends on Inconceivable here after they had returned home for the holidays, we went to the Dali museum, had dinner at Stillwaters (with that name, we just had to go), and traversed the new Pier/Park with its art, kids playground, and sunset views. The free Trolley around the downtown was a great way to get a feel for all that was there, and our driver Terrance was full of stories and seemed to know everyone, greeting people by name as we passed by or stopped at a traffic light (and pitched his idea to us of opening a HyVee grocery store right downtown ‘in case we were rich,’ he said). The music from buskers on the Pier could be heard on the docks at night. We walked and scootered through the neighborhoods of homes, condos, and historic hotels. We loved how alive St. Petersburg was with people of all ages and parks and art and crowded sidewalk restaurants with their string lights and the soft glow from the flames of patio space heaters. We left wanting to return for a longer stay sometime.
Sarasota reminded us of the Circus.
While in St. Pete, we saw a brief mention on the Looper Facebook page about a bridge that was closing. Usually we see the official announcements for these things weeks in advance, but somehow had missed this one about the closure right when we wanted to pass through. Uh-oh. We would need to expedite our travels or get stuck for a week; we eliminated a planned anchorage and only had one night in Sarasota so we could get beyond the bridge the day before it closed. Bummer, but such is the cruising life. We told several other Loopers who also hadn’t seen an official announcement and then scrambled to change their plans, so it wasn’t just us.
So we really only had an afternoon in Sarasota, and the one thing we really wanted to do was see the Ringling Estate. As soon as we got the boat situated, we called an Uber. I like taking Ubers because you get some real personalities, and Eric was certainly one of them – starting when he drove right past us (the only people standing there) as we frantically waved and I had to text him to tell him he had just driven right past us. Then Dave ended up having to follow on Google maps and telling him where to turn, because he was busy telling us how he had recently moved from San Diego because – of all reasons — they didn’t have good enough steak there. We did, as a bonus, get a list of all the top purveyors of red meat in the Sarasota metro area. Our Uber driver on the way back was a very competent young woman who knew the roads well and had a more diverse palate. And the Ringling Estate and Museums were well worth the trip.
Englewood (Lemon Bay East anchorage)
This anchorage was chosen solely because it got us past the bridge that was going to be closed for a week. It was in the tiny and predominantly residential town of Englewood, and we dinghied ashore to explore the two short blocks that made up the ‘downtown.’ Unfortunately everything was closed because it was Sunday, but it was a nice stroll, followed by a lovely evening on the water.
Punta Gorda charmed us.
A big reason for taking the detour up Charlotte Harbor was to see some Looper friends we hadn’t seen since the Hudson River, and who we found out had decided to buy a dirt house in Punta Gorda because they liked it so much. Once we got there we understood the attraction. A quiet little town, it had a central understated downtown area among older and well-kept neighborhoods. It seemed to be more of a senior and seasonal population, but we noticed was how well used the many bike paths and the fitness equipment along them was. We enjoyed the pool at the marina both days, as well as dinner with the crews of Inconceivable and Baker Street Blues, both of whom we had essentially met when we first started the Loop almost a year ago. We would have liked to stay longer, but there was a cold front approaching and we needed to get further south.
Cayo Costa State Park (Pelican Bay anchorage)
Cayo Costa anchorage is a popular one with Loopers and other cruisers. It was plenty large enough for the 10 or so boats there, one of which was Chipmonk, a Canadian couple who we had been Loop-frogging with since Chicago. We also met a new Looper couple from Lake Elmo, right next door to Stillwater MN. We dinghied to a nearby sandbar to walk the shell-covered beach with Roxy and then just sit at the water’s edge enjoying the late afternoon sun and quiet.
The Devastation of Hurricane Ian
The first half of the route further south to Naples would take us past the Ft. Myers area, Ground Zero for Ian. The first thing we noticed was the absence of trees and vegetation. As we passed Captiva and Sanibel Islands, which are typically high-end resorts and expensive homes, we could see all the blue tarps on roofs. Shoreline debris and destroyed boats had been cleaned out, which was a sign of progress. The most sobering and saddening was the near-total absence of ‘signs of life.’ Beaches were empty, no cars visible in driveways or on roads, barren patios and decks, no private docks jutting out from backyards. Lower levels of houses and condo buildings were boarded up. Not only were all the structures just shells, but so were the neighborhoods and communities.
Naples dazzled us.
We departed Cayo Costa with Chipmonk. After passing the Ian-destroyed areas the Gulf ICW ends at the southern tip of Sanibel Island, and the rest of the way to Naples was offshore. Inconceivable had been a couple days ahead of us since St. Pete, having gone ahead to make a needed stop at the Ranger Tug dealership, and we caught up as they came out of the Caloosahatchie River just ahead of Chipmonk and us. It was a calm day and a smooth trip – until we turned into Naples Bay. Boats of all sizes were zipping all around us in the narrow channel up the bay and we were getting waked like crazy for the 2+ miles to the marina – it was some of the roughest waters we’ve been in this whole Loop! But we still got occasional glances at the opulent homes along the canals of Naples. Wowie.
With its beautiful downtown area and Mediterranean style, Naples was a nice place to wait out a few days of winds and rough seas. It was rather high end, with designer stores, fancy restaurants, and frequent sightings of Bentleys, Mazerati, and Lamborghinis. We enjoyed being lookie-loos and admiring all the art and architecture, but were afraid to touch anything. Watching a group of women teeter down the dock and boarding a sailing catamaran for a sunset cruise wearing 4” stillettos and leather pants, all I could think of was that it was a man overboard exercise waiting to happen; my sense of high fashion clearly resides more in the Nautical Pragmatic Style.
Everglades City transported us back in time.
Once the weather improved, we headed for Everglades City and the legendary Rod and Gun Club. Lines and lines of crabpots posed a challenge, and then we had to time our arrival with high tide to get past some shallow areas up the Barron River, with a couple spots having us glued to the depth monitor. Inconceivable took the lead since they have a shallower draft and they were radioing back their readings as well. This was cruising as a team sport. But it was a beautiful trip.
The Rod & Gun Club is almost 100 years old and a time capsule of the bygone era of big money in Old Florida. Presidents and Hollywood Golden Age elite were regular visitors in its heyday. It’s now third generation family run and such an institution in the area that we witnessed a helicopter fly in and land on the grounds so the occupants could have lunch there. Beyond the Club, we were pleasantly surprised by Everglades City, with its vintage feel as well. We took a fun airboat ride on a chilly morning through the mangroves, and scootered with Inconceivable out to Chokoloskee Island.
Cape Sable anchorage in Everglades NP
Last stop along the Florida west coast before crossing to The Keys was an anchorage in Everglades National Park. The two crews dinghied to the nearby beach and had it all to ourselves. We had heard that there were crocodiles there, so we kept a watchful eye out and Roxy close. We were both disappointed and relieved that we didn’t see any. That night, being so remote and no moon, we were treated to some amazing star-gazing. Venus was just above the horizon and so bright that it cast an illuminated path on the water.
From here we will cross Florida Bay and leave the Florida mainland behind. We have planned extended stays in a few destinations, totally ‘slowing our roll,’ enjoying boat life and destinations. We have only about 400 miles until we complete Our Loop. We are considering this to be our ‘transition time’ from the Looper lifestyle of moving every few days to what will be our post-Loop-full-time-living-on-a-boat lifestyle. We are thinking about the places we want to visit for longer periods. Without the time demand of route planning, reservation making and changing, we will have more time for exploring other activities. The epilogue of this adventure will become the prologue of the next.
But first…we want to be lulled by the turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and beautiful sunsets of The Keys.
Pops’ Stats Corner*
- No of Days: 30
- Travel Days: 10
- Miles Traveled: 359.5 (312.6 nm)
- Anchorages: 3
Cumulative Great Loop
- Started March 17, 2022 in St. Augustine, FL
- Travel Days: 137
- Miles Traveled: 5611.1 (4878.9 nm)
- Anchorages: 23
- States Visited: 18
- Provinces Visited: 2
*Pops is what the family affectionately called Dave’s dad. He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked. This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.