Whether you want to make waves with thrilling new experiences in the water or you’d rather chill out and go with the flow, Florida’s Sports Coast has the adventure for you.
My phone buzzed suddenly. It was a four-word text message from Amy:
“Road trip next week.”
“Where 2?” I texted back.
“Florida’s Sports Coast,” came the reply.
Now, Amy the Cruise Director is the queen of travel planning for our little found family. She’s always online researching the next great place for the four of us to explore. So, when she recommends something, the rest of us know it’s a guaranteed good time.
I did a quick bit of research myself on my phone: Diving? Awesome—we had all gotten certified on another of Amy’s trips last year. Wakeboarding? Cool. Waterfront bar with a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico? Sign me up.
A week later, we were all on the road with Sanjay driving, Caleb riding shotgun and Amy and me in the back seat working out the final details of the plan.
Forty-five minutes north of Tampa, we pulled into our hotel in New Port Richey, the one-time winter hangout for old-time movie stars from the 1920s and 30s. We explored the walkable downtown along the Pithlachascotee (Cotee for short) River before settling in for the night. We had an early start in the morning.
We were up with the sun and headed toward Hurly’s Scuba Outpost and Kayak Rental to start our adventure on Florida’s Sports Coast. It turns out Hurly’s offers diving instruction, which would have been great if we had needed it. We could have also gone snorkeling if we hadn’t been SCUBA-certified.
Hurly (he owns the place) fitted us out with tanks, fins and masks and, after a brief bit of instruction, we loaded into his boat and headed out into the gulf.
The gulf was like glass beneath a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. We zipped along the surface, watching the sun climb into the sky as the coast receded into the distance.
“This is already awesome, and we’ve just gotten started!” Caleb proclaimed over the sound of the rushing wind.
A few miles out, Hurly brought the boat to a stop and we tumbled out, eager to see what the crystal blue gulf had in store for us. It did not disappoint.
The sandy bottom was peppered with rocky outcroppings covered with all kinds of amazing sea life. Soft corals and sponges sat anchored to the rocks while crabs scuttled across the sand. Suddenly the bottom erupted in a cloud and something big flew past us. Amy had startled a stingray, which zipped away to find a quieter spot.
After a picnic lunch on the boat, Hurly took us to several other spots to explore the underwater world just along Florida’s Sports Coast. We spent hours diving and couldn’t believe all the amazing creatures we saw!
“Go home without me. I’m going to stay here,” said Sanjay, who’s always impossible to get out of the water.
Shortly after Hurly fired up the engines and pointed us back to shore, two dark shapes appeared in the water next to the boat. The next thing we knew, two fins broke the surface and dolphins were racing along in the boat’s wake! They were breathtaking!
“This is already awesome, and we’ve just gotten started!”
We arrived at the dive shop around mid-afternoon, which was the perfect time to run back to our hotel and recuperate.
A few hours later, we were all starving. Lucky for us, Hurly’s is attached to Gill Dawg Tiki Bar and Grill. A burger and a beer were just what we needed after our day on the gulf.
We drove back to the open-air, waterfront bar and found a table on the weather-worn deck overlooking Miller’s Bayou. The tide lapped at the roots of the mangrove trees across the channel as birds flitted across their tops.
The fish that hung out in the shallows nearby made Caleb wish out loud for his fishing rod.
Alongside signature burgers, Gill Dawg’s menu was loaded with great seafood, from scallops and shrimp to grouper fresh from the gulf. Amy, our resident vegetarian, ordered a portabello mushroom sandwich and we all shared a plate of onion rings. As usual, Caleb insisted we have dessert—in this case, a slice of triple chocolate cake.
Just past the main building, we could see Gill Dawg’s expansive outdoor stage and sand volleyball courts. About the time we finished eating, we heard a sound-check starting on the stage. So, we wandered over, ordered more drinks and settled in for the show.
The band kicked off just as the last rays of sun hung in the western sky. Soon, we were all dancing together under the glowing lights of the pavilion.
The next morning, after a late breakfast, Amy the Cruise Director announced we were ready for our next adventure: Wakeboarding!
We hustled into the car and drove a few minutes to Lift Adventure Park in Hudson. The Lift is part of the gigantic SunWest Park, a former phosphate mine that has been converted into an unbelievable water park.
The park offers kayaking, a huge floating obstacle course and a public beach. But we were there to tackle the Lift!
We rented helmets, vests and boards and bought four-hour passes for our first experience at cable wakeboarding.
Jackson, a member of the staff, gave us all a 20-minute tutorial and a few practice runs on the Beginner Cable before sending us over to take on System 2.0.
How do I describe cable wakeboarding? Imagine snowboarding on water, but instead of a boat to pull you, you have a cable pulling you along. Several towers connected by the form a circle around the wakeboarding area.
Once you’re strapped into your board, you grab a water skiing-type handle attached to the cable and—zoom—you’re on your way!
Sanjay, our water lover, had spent our winter trip snowboarding all day, so he was ready to go as soon as we arrived at The Lift. He strapped on his wake board, grabbed the handle and was gone.
The rest of us cheered as he skimmed across the water. He pulled some amazing stunts using the ramps and other obstacles built into the course. He even managed a 360-degree spin—something that surprised him as much as it did the rest of us!
Eventually we all took our turns on the cable wakeboard. When my time came, I was a little nervous, but the thrill of the ride quickly turned me into a fan. I couldn’t wait to go again.
After four hours of wakeboarding, we were all pretty tired, so we went back to our hotel to rest up and get ready for dinner. Sanjay drove us to Whiskey Joe’s Bar & Grill, a quintessentially Florida spot with Jimmy Buffett on the speakers, beach bar where you can sink your feet in the sand, and awesome water views at the mouth of the Cotee River.
We grabbed chairs around one of the fire pits, ordered awesome cocktails and spent a couple hours reliving the excitement of our Florida’s Sports Coast trip as the setting sun painted the sky vibrant reds and oranges.
Amy, queen of travel, summed it up for all of us: “This was our best trip ever!”
The weight of a gloomy Northeast winter was heavy on my mind as I scrolled through Instagram. A shot of Caribbean blue water caught my eye.
The sparkling water and cloudless sky of Epperson Lagoon filled me with the urge to hit the road. I knew exactly who to take with me.
“We’ve got to go here,” I texted Drew with a link to the website.
“That place looks amazing! When?” came the response.
After a few days of checking schedules, we had booked a long weekend in Florida. In the meantime, Drew brought Sam on board and I did more digging for other things to do.
We all love the outdoors and hanging out in the sun—something that’s hard to do in New York in the winter. This was going to be just the break we needed.
Soon after we touch down at Tampa International Airport, we pointed our rental car north toward our first destination: Epperson Lagoon.
About 30 minutes later we were pulling into the parking lot. The lagoon is in the Wesley Chapel community of Florida’s Sports Coast. While it’s part of a suburban neighborhood, it’s also open to the public.
We had booked our tickets ahead of time, so we breezed through the gate and surveyed the scene: crystal clear turquoise water filled the massive seven-acre lagoon ringed with bright white sand. We had our pick of paddleboarding, kayaking, swimming or just hanging out under the gorgeous Florida sun.
“I know where I’m going,” Drew proclaimed and headed for the enormous inflatable water slide. Pretty soon, all three of us were ripping down the slide and racing back up the stairs to go again like we were kids.
Sam rented a paddleboard as Drew and I watched from the lagoon’s island with our toes buried in the sand. Sam was a little wobbly at first but soon got the hang of it and spent the next hour paddling all over the place.
Lunch was burgers and beers from The Reef Café, then we were back in the water and basking in the sun while steel drums played over the speaker system. It was hard to believe we weren’t on an actual Caribbean island.
I had to drag the other two away from the fun. We had a big day ahead of us and needed to get ready for it.
We drove west across Florida’s Sports Coast to New Port Richey for the rest of our outdoor adventure. We found our hotel, got cleaned up and headed into downtown for dinner.
New Port Richey was once the winter getaway for movie stars and athletes. Babe Ruth stayed there. So did Gloria Swanson. New Port Richey is also where the sand wedge was invented, a fact I shared with Sam, our golfer.
For dinner, we chose The Social and climbed the stairs to the rooftop bar. We grabbed a table as the sky lit up with oranges and reds of sunset and spent the rest of the night reliving our day on the lagoon over blackened red fish and drinks.
“A round snout covered in long whiskers broke the surface: a manatee.”
The next morning, we loaded up our fishing gear and drove to Anclote River Park to meet Captain Curt of Florida Backwater Charters. We bought saltwater licenses online, and a few minutes later, we stepped off the boat onto the sugar sand of Anclote Key Preserve State Park.
Captain Curt waited for us as we hit the beach for surf fishing. The gulf was calm and glassy and while Drew kept an eye on the rods from the comfort of a beach chair, Sam and I explored the four-mile-long island.
I’m history buff, so I had to check out the island’s star attraction: the historic lighthouse built in 1887. It’s a simple affair—a central cylinder supported with a metal framework standing more than 100 feet above the gulf.
I managed to get a couple selfies with the tower, then Drew was shouting “Get over here, you’ve got something!”
Sam’s rod was bending with a fish fighting on the other end. A few cranks on the line, and a beautiful trout landed on the sand at our feet!
Drew and I got pictures of Sam holding the trout with a huge smile. Then I worked the hook out and we sent the fish back on its way.
After a few hours on the key, it was time to head back to shore. But we weren’t done with our day on the water.
A short drive north, we pulled into Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park and found Salty Dog Kayak Rentals. The staff there fitted us out with sit-on-top kayaks, gave us a map of the paddling trail through the park and off we went.
We’ve been kayaking up north plenty of times, but it was never like this. We threaded our way among acres of mangrove trees and bubbling salt springs. Every mangrove had loads of spindly roots that anchored it, and also sheltered fish, crabs and other sea life. Drew spotted snook and red fish hanging out among the roots.
“Check it out!” Sam shouted from the lead boat. A huge shadow moved just beneath the water. A moment later, a round snout covered in long whiskers broke the surface: a manatee.
We floated along with the gentle giant for a while as it grazed on sea grass. It was easily as long as Drew’s kayak and must have weighed a couple tons!
I remembered learning as a kid that in winter manatees move into Florida’ springs, which stay a steady 72 degrees, to escape the cold water. It looked like we all had the same idea that weekend.
We paddled back to the kayak launch shortly before closing and headed back to our hotel to freshen up and change.
The night before, as we were walking through downtown, Sam had seen a group pedaling a cycleboat along the Cotee River and declared: “We’ve got to try that.”
We managed to get seats on the last run of the day. Our boat of ten strangers quickly became a team. Perched atop bicycle seats, we pedaled together to power the paddlewheel that drove the boat along the scenic river.
The two-hour tour took us past gorgeous riverfront homes and toward the Gulf of Mexico. By the time we returned to Sims Park, we were hungry. Lucky for us, Sip on Grand was a short walk away.
We found the door tucked in a corner next to the Richey Suncoast Theater. It felt like a place the Babe might have hung out back in the day, though the menu is probably a little fancier than he was used to.
We aren’t what you’d call wine experts, but the staff was happy to help us find wines that worked for us. We found seats in the cozy confines and ordered two plates of charcuterie to eat.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing on the big screen along the back wall when I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. The large bench and coat rack (something like what my grandmother has in her front hall) swung forward. There was a secret room behind it!
Sip on Grand, it turned out, had a speakeasy! The Babe would be proud. We managed to score some time of our own in the secret room and raised a glass to our winter weekend under the sun along Florida’s Sports Coast.
“This was an excellent idea,” Sam said. “When are we coming back?”