Crystal River to Tarpon Springs, Caladesi Island and St Pete

By the time we got to Turtle Cove Marina at Tarpon Springs, about 10 days’ dirty washing had accumulated. I’m not normally so slovenly, but we had had no opportunity to do it.

It’s usually a chore, but the laundry at Turtle Cove was conveniently situated in the clubhouse building which overlooked the swimming pool. So we passed a pleasant afternoon doing the washing.

Near Tarpon Springs
Doing the laundry at Turtle Cove Marina

Tarpon Springs was described in the guide-books as the nearest thing to Greece, outside Greece. Rather surprisingly, this description turned out to be quite accurate. Greek people came here 100 years ago to work in the sponge industry, and still do. They brought their culture and cuisine with them. The town centre was within easy walking distance of the marina so we wandered down to have a look in the shops and have coffee in one of the Greek cafes. We bought amazing bread and baklava from a Greek bakery. There were even kafenions with shouty Greek voices emanating from their dark interiors, where tourists didn’t go.

Dodecanese Boulevard, Tarpon Springs
In the coffee shop

In the evening, we ate at the Rusty Bellies’ Waterfront Restaurant. It was popular and packed out, but it wasn’t a hardship to sit in the shade with our margaritas while we waited for a table.

Rusty Bellies from the water

From Tarpon Springs, we could have made a straight run through Clearwater to finish our Loop at St Pete, where it all started more than 5 years ago. We had bought Carina at Treasure Island, Clearwater, and taken her across to St Pete where we’d spent a week equipping her before we had actually set off. We’d come to like the city during that first anxious week of getting everything ready and wondering if we could actually do this Loop thing. St Pete felt like the start of our Loop, and we decided that was where it would finish, where we would announce to the world that we’d crossed our wake, and celebrate appropriately.

But I had noticed, in Skipper Bob’s book, a passing reference to Caladesi Island. It’s an unspoiled island, accessible only by boat, but there’s a marina there run by Park Rangers. There’s a small cafe, but no bars, no tourist shops, and no grocery stores. We had time to go there.

Caladesi to St Pete
Anclote Key, on the way to Caladesi
Honeymoon Island

Caladesi is rather special. The marina is hidden away down a system of channels that pass through the mangrove. ‘Channelization of mangrove areas was done before the state park was established. This type of land alteration would not be allowed under today’s management practices,’ the Island Trail Guide rather primly states.

The channel at Caladesi
The marina at Caladesi

We got there at lunch time and headed over to the beach, a 5-minute walk away through the dunes. Ferries come from Honeymoon Island and elsewhere, so we didn’t have it quite to ourselves. For a not inconsiderable fee, you can hire a beach umbrella. The State Parks are not above making money out of their visitors, but really there was no choice in the matter. It was getting hot out in the sun.

The beach from the dunes
No description
Caladesi Beach, looking towards Honeymoon Island

The next day we walked the Island Trail, through 2.5 miles of the interior of the island and finishing on the beach, passing from the coastal strand to a pine flatwoods community. Unfortunately the coastal hammock part of the trail was closed because of prescribed burning, a land management tool which reduces the risk of wildfires and recycles nutrients into the soil.

Sabal Palms
Blackeyed Susan
Gopher tortoise prints
Bark
A young South Florida Slash Pine establishing in the flatwoods
Ancient Pines
Cats Eye Pond
Wild hibiscus
Prickly Pear Cactus

The beach was almost deserted. There was a severe thunderstorm forecast, and the ferries weren’t running.

We left Caladesi for St Pete, but we had a night at anchor at Boca Ciega first.

Near Treasure Island

As we passed through Clearwater and Treasure Island, we tried to identify the inlet where Carina had been docked when we first bought her. We think this one was it, with a new boat tied up in Carina’s place.

Treasure Island
From the anchorage at Boca Ciega

We couldn’t help feeling excited as we approached St Pete, and saw the entrance to the familiar Municipal Marina.

Approaching St Pete
Entering St Pete Municipal Marina

It was quite windy and Ian was worried about docking. Frank, the dockmaster, had assured us that he’d be waiting to take our lines, and he was. As we tied up, I asked about the laundry facilities.

‘Sure, we have a laundry. There’s a lounge there too, with a TV. But you gotta watch Fox News. You’re not allowed to watch CNN. That’s the Communist channel.’

Then, ‘I guess you guys spend a lot of time laughing at our President.’

After five years, we’re getting a bit more used to American humour and the use of irony. But we’re British, and so we couldn’t possibly comment.

Safely tied up at St Pete Municipal Marina, view from the flybridge

It was over. We felt a mixture of sadness, relief, gratitude and euphoria.

As we’d approached the end of the journey, I’d imagined this day. I thought I would go to Publix, get some champagne, possibly buy myself a small, expensive reward for persevering throughout my trials and endeavours, and have a celebration dinner at an upscale restaurant.

We did none of those things. We had lunch on the boat, and eventually we wandered downtown. Ian has an unerring instinct for finding ice-cream shops, and it didn’t let him down. Being in St Pete, it was a posh one. As well as ice-cream, it sold a variety of exotic teas, jams in fancy jars, and other esoteric preserves. Ian had an obscurely-flavoured ice-cream, and I had English breakfast tea, which came in a technical, tetrahedral bag.

As we were leaving, we thanked the waitresses. They thanked us back and wished us a great afternoon. Then one of them remarked on the cuteness of Ian’s socks, and they dissolved into giggles. Of course, it’s not only Americans who find the sight of an Englishman rocking shorts with lace-up shoes and short, striped socks amusing.

In the evening we went to Fresco’s for dinner. It’s a lively waterfront restaurant and bar next to the marina, with good food, a nice atmosphere and it was just right.

We had to wait a few days for our Gold Looper’s flag, which the AGLCA had sent to us at Marina Jack’s in Sarasota.

Except that it wasn’t really over. Apart from the fact that we had booked Carina into a boatyard in Port Charlotte for storage during the summer, we had no clue what we were going to do next, either in the short term or the long-term. And we had another 3 weeks before our return to England.

But we have made one decision. Carina is for sale. We’re spending the remaining time revisiting some places in Florida that we liked the first time around, and discovering new ones.

So there’ll be one more blog post after this one, but it seems the right time to thank everyone who has followed me, and especially those who left kind and supportive comments. What started as simply a way of letting people know where we were and what we’d been doing, grew into something a bit more. In the moments of anxiousness, boredom, missing home and our family and friends, of which there were some, having to look for the positive and the funny things to write about, of which there were many, was therapeutic. Thank you for the encouragement.

I should also thank the people we met along the way who helped us, gave us advice and stopped us getting bored with our own company. In particular, Jim and Susan who rescued us that memorable September day on the Illinois River.

And I suppose I should thank the Captain, who takes me out of my comfort zone and gives me all these experiences to write about.

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Crossing the Gulf to Steinhatchee and on to Crystal River

Eddy and Captain Kim had both suggested that Ian consider the long crossing from Carrabelle, direct to Tarpon Springs, rather than going to Steinhatchee. I could see that he was entertaining the thought. This was alarming. The long crossing was 160 miles, and would take us 26 hours, rather than the 10 hours to Steinhatchee.

We don’t have radar. We don’t have autopilot. The idea of being awake most of the night, steering the boat though the darkness and sleeping fitfully on the bridge upstairs, followed by a full day of boating, and, in my role as galley slave, trying to provide meals as the journey progressed through possibly harsh conditions, had zero appeal.

It was non-negotiable. Quite apart from the unpleasantness and potential dangers, the way we have done the Loop right from the beginning was to try to see as much as possible of the areas we were travelling through. I wanted to see the Florida coastline and the small towns and villages along the way.

But the most compelling reason was that we had an invitation in Steinhatchee. Our friend Susan’s Aunt Rhoda lived there and had her own private dock, and we had been invited to use it. How could we not?

We had made a head start by anchoring out at Alligator Point, twelve miles east of Carrabelle. We left at dawn, in calm winds and waters.

Alligator Point at dawn
Leaving Alligator Point

As soon as we cleared the shelter of Alligator Point though, it got bumpier and we were glad of the prophylactic dramamine we’d taken. The first three hours were rough, but there’s something awesome about being in a small boat, completely out of sight of land, which had only happened a few times on the Loop.

The Gulf of Mexico

But things calmed down and in the end it was a pleasant cruise into the Steinhatchee Channel.

Approaching Steinhatchee


Steinhatchee

Ian had phoned Rhoda to let her know what time we’d be arriving and to get instructions about how to find the dock. However much you scrutinise the chart, or Google Maps, it’s never quite so simple in the reality. Rhoda said that her sister was fixing dinner and they’d be waiting for us. We weren’t completely sure, in the uncertainty of a phone conversation with not very good reception, whether this implied a dinner invitation, or just that they would help us dock.

Steinhatchee

We were getting close to Steinhatchee when an authoritative voice hailed us on the radio.

‘Carina. This is the boatyard at Steinhatchee. You have a reservation with us this evening. Over.’

We looked at each other. Our first thought was that somehow we had messed up, and that we had booked ourselves into a boatyard as well as arranging to stay at Aunt Rhoda’s. Ian assumed his most polite, slightly apologetic, tone.

‘This is Carina. Er……thank you for that….I’m not sure what’s happened here…we do actually have an arrangement to stay with a friend and so….’

‘Carina, that’s correct. You’re staying on my sister-in-law’s dock, we’ll meet you there and you’re expected for dinner with us.’

We’d been a bit slow to realise that the authoritative voice belonged to Jack, Susan’s Dad, and that her Mom, Bobbi, was cooking dinner for us. Jack and Rhoda were there to help us tie up on the dock and Rhoda drove us down to their house, where we had a lovely meal and a great evening with them all, overwhelmed by their generosity and hospitality.

We left Steinhatchee the next morning. Rhoda came down with a flask of coffee for us before we left, and Bobbi and Jack waved us off.

Ian and Rhoda
Leaving Steinhatchee
The channel out of Steinhatchee

Our next stop was Suwannee, tucked away in a wooded inlet amongst the swamps. We’d seen a lot of dolphins since coming back to Florida, but these two did their special synchronised swimming just for us.

Dolphins
Approaching Suwannee
Leaving no room for doubt
Gateway Marina, Suwannee

The channel into Suwannee is very shallow and we’d been advised to arrive and leave only on a rising tide, just before high tide. So we couldn’t get away till after lunch the next day but it was a short hop down to an anchorage off Cedar Key.

Leaving Suwannee
Night time at Cedar Key

I had thought that once we reached Steinhatchee, that would be the end of sailing across open water. How wrong I was.

What I had failed to appreciate during the discussions about the route we should take round the Panhandle was that because the coastal waters are so shallow, you have to go several miles out along the channels, into the open water, to get from one point to another. You can’t stay close to the shore, as I had been imagining.

The journey between Cedar Key and Crystal River rivalled the Lake Ontario Experience. Once out of the channel, the waves steadily increased in height and frequency until some of them were getting on for 3 feet. Usually we don’t go out if the waves are bigger than one foot. We were still quite a way from Crystal River, our next stop, and I kept remembering a conversation we’d had with a Gold Looper back on the Trent-Severn in Canada. He had regaled us with the story of how they had been somewhere in the Gulf, when nine foot waves suddenly appeared out of nowhere and without warning. We watched anxiously for any signs of bigger waves coming.

It was a long day. By the time we got into the channel leading to Crystal River, things had calmed down but I felt sick and had a splitting headache.


But the marina where we stayed, Pete’s Pier at Kings Bay, had a golf buggy that we were able to use, and I’d recovered enough to go out that night and we had a good meal at Cajun Jimmy’s Seafood Seller.

The weather continued to be rough the next day and Carina tossed uncomfortably about even tied up on the dock.

But the following day was bright and sunny and we went to Three Sisters Springs, part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge.
The river is fed by springs and because it maintains a constant year-round temperature of 72F, in the winter it is home to manatees, when the waters of the Gulf are too cold for them. As recently as 2010, the land around the springs was scheduled for development and there was a plan to commercially bottle the spring water. But the land was purchased instead by the Florida Community Trust, the City of Crystal River, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and other non-profit groups and is now owned by the City and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Public access is limited to allow the manatees their winter refuge. The area has been rewilded with native plants, but there are mown paths and a boardwalk round the springs.

Crystal Lake, Three Sisters Springs
Three Sisters Springs Trail
Lonicera sempervirens
Pretty Sister Spring

Kayaks and canoes are only allowed in the spring and summer months.

Little Sister Spring
Spanish Moss overhanging the boardwalk

We had an early start the next morning for our next stop, Tarpon Springs.

Leaving Crystal River

Apalachicola to Carrabelle and Alligator Point

We left Apalachicola after lunch and it was a pleasant cruise between St George’s Island and the mainland up to Carrabelle.

Carrabelle is the starting point for the Gulf crossing. Even if you choose the short, 10-hour version to Steinhatchee, rather than the long, 26-hour, overnight version to Tarpon Springs, you still need perfect weather. Ian had emailed a local guru called Eddy for advice. Eddy’s advice was to stay at C-Quarters Marina in Carrabelle, and do as we were told by Captain Kim, who ran the marina and who knew her stuff.

Kim confirmed what we had suspected, that we would have to wait in Carrabelle for a week before it would be calm enough to cross. On the Friday of the week we were there, a severe storm was expected and it would be a few days before things settled down.

Apalachicola – Carrabelle -Alligator Point- Steinhatchee

Near Carrabelle

But Carrabelle was a good place to hang out, and there was plenty to do and see. We arrived there at about 5.30 and were immediately invited to a cook-out on the dock, by Nancy and John who lived on their boat there. On other nights, people gathered for drinks.

Carina at Carrabelle
View from the dock
Sunset at Carrabelle

We went to the Carrabelle History Museum, http://www.carrabellehistorymuseum.org
and Tamara showed us round. We had met her husband the previous day, and he had told us that his family had been in America since the 1600’s. Tamara told us the story of Tate’s Hell, a State Forest just north of Carrabelle, named after Cebe Tate, who had gone into the forest to kill a panther which had attacked his livestock. He became lost for seven days, before emerging near Carrabelle, and uttering his famous last words, ‘My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell’.

The museum had an old Dansette record player, with a record in place on the turntable, of someone singing a ballad about Cebe’s demise. Tamara judged that we were old enough to know how to use the Dansette, and we were allowed to put the record on.

Another story was that of the Steamship Tarpon.
http://www.museumsinthesea.com/tarpon/history.htm
Steamships used to ply the waters between Mobile, Panama City, Apalachicola and Carrabelle, providing both a passenger service and goods transport. In 1937, SS Tarpon tragically sank in a gale, which had not been forecast and which suddenly arose out of previously calm waters. Although it is not mentioned on the link above, Tamara told us that Adley Baker, the seaman who swam ashore and alerted the rescue, had been helped in his 25-hour, 10-mile swim by a school of dolphins which supported him and carried him along through the water.

Next door to the museum was Lulu’s cafe, which served breakfasts and lunches. We were interested to see that Lulu’s hours of operation were 5am – 3pm. The reason for her early starts was that her husband was a prison officer, and she got up early to cook breakfast for him and his colleagues. We didn’t make the 5am breakfast, but lunch was pretty good.

Evening entertainment was at Fathoms, a tiki bar and restaurant just down the road from the marina. Its speciality was oysters, but they aren’t our thing. However, the alternatives were very good. As we were sitting waiting for our food, an old man in baggy jeans, a check shirt, a stetson, and sporting long grey hair and an even longer straggly grey beard, ambled slowly in and sat down. A few minutes later, he ambled out again and could be seen in the corner of the bar, taking up his position as rhythm guitarist with the group which was tuning up. They started off with Tulsa Time and as soon as we’d finished our meal, we took ourselves into the bar. A very pleasant couple, who had a weekend condo in Carrabelle, had identified us as fellow visitors, and made room for us at their table. Apparently, the Eric Clapton look-alike on lead guitar owned not only the bar and restaurant, but possibly one of the marinas as well. He was pretty good on the guitar too.

We knew the storm was coming on Friday, and had been woken in the early hours by thunder and torrential rain battering the roof of the cabin.

It was still a bit of a shock when all three of our phones (two British, one American) went off loudly with the alarm signal just before 8.30. It was a tornado warning and it advised us to shelter in our basement, or evacuate to a place of safety. Neither of these suggestions seemed very practical. The marina building itself didn’t look particularly sturdy, and we hadn’t noticed anywhere obvious that would provide shelter. Not very logically, I threw passports, my camera and the few valuables we have on board into a rucksack, then looked at the warning again. It was due to expire in ten minutes’ time. Ian looked at a weather map on the computer and could see that the main part of the storm had just passed to the northeast of us. We relaxed.

The next day, it was still windy, but we got the bikes out and cycled the two miles to Carrabelle Beach. The storm had passed, but there were still dramatic skies.

Ian on Carrabelle Beach
Carrabelle Beach

We stopped at the Two Brothers Diner for lunch, and it exceeded expectations.

Two Brothers Diner, Carrabelle Beach

Fifteen miles east of Carrabelle there is a thin spit of land which curves out into the Gulf and which provides a convenient place to anchor before setting out on the crossing. Captain Kim had advised us that Monday’s conditions would be favourable, so on Sunday afternoon we left Carrabelle and watched the sun go down at Alligator Point, ready for a very early start for Steinhatchee the next morning.

Looking back towards C-Quarters Marina
Carrabelle Riverfront
Near Carrabelle
Near Carrabelle

We had company
Alligator Point
Alligator Point, 4.09pm

…..and early the next morning, before we set off.

Morning at Alligator Point