Florida River-Cruising, Naturally!

Veness Column , River Cruises , Nature
Florida River-Cruising, Naturally!
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
Florida isn’t short of exceptional nature experiences, and we’re always excited to find a new one. We recently took a tour with St. John’s River Eco-Tours in DeBary, just north of Sanford, and were once again reminded of how luxurious it is to leave the make-believe behind for a day and get out and see the “real” Florida.

Captain Jeanne and deck-hand Doug (who says he also serves as “hut girl and phone person”!) served as our guides for a 2-hour pontoon boat tour of the St. John’s River, and those of you who follow our blogs may recall our kayak tour along the northern stretch of the same waters. Blending with the Wekiva River and leading into Blue Springs State Park, it’s one of the prettiest waterways in Florida, with plenty of wildlife.

What can you expect to see on your tour? Bird life is abundant (the river is part of the Florida Great Birding Trail) and includes blue herons, white ibis, purple gallinule, hawks, anhinga, wild turkeys, eagles, egrets and tricoloured heron. We also saw a mother wood duck and her ducklings, a rare sighting even for daily river-goers like Captain Jeanne and Doug.

Perhaps the most special part of the tour came when a Barred Owl flew alongside our boat, landing in the trees ahead of us. Captain Jeanne quietly pulled the boat up to the shore and we spent several minutes observing mama and daddy owl feeding their nearly-grown offspring on a branch nearby. Orlando is known for magic, but it doesn’t get much more magical than that.

Naturally, there were gator-spottings, including one indolent fellow who refused to move a muscle, other than closing his great, gaping jaws as we stopped for pictures. Because the wildlife hereabouts is never harassed, photo opportunities were plentiful, and it was easy to get relatively close to the object of interest.

The St. John’s River is also home to manatees, which can be seen there year-round. We didn’t spot any during our tour, but sightings are common. If you like to be the first to spot these gentle creatures (who doesn’t love shouting, “Manatee!” and pointing wildly at the water?) look for the manatees’ “footprint”, a big circle of bubbles that rise to the surface.

Deer, wild pigs, otters, the Florida Panther and even bear make their homes along the river, though you’re unlikely to see them (deer are easier to spot during the cooler hours of the day). Turtles come in several varieties, from the large, soft-shell turtles to mossbacks, red eared sliders, and more. We’re not sure why, but we find these delightful reptiles to be quite comical, and our good captain skillfully navigated the boat for some up-close viewing.

Captain Jeanne narrated the tour, telling us about the wildlife, the plants growing along the river, while Doug regaled us with stories, peppering his comments about the wildlife with a few groan-inducing jokes. Our fellow tourists quickly became new friends, and the whole trip had an atmosphere of relaxed, comfortable companionship. We do like our eco-tours, and this one proved to be a real winner, well worth the 40-mile drive from the Disney area.

Cold bottled water is provided; coolers with snacks, beer, and wine are welcome and can be purchased at the marina’s small store if you didn’t buy in advance. And you won’t want to forget your camera. Have binoculars with you? Bring them too.

An ideal day on the water would include a morning kayaking tour with Adventures in Florida, lunch at the [b]Swamp House Grill[/b] (your kayak tour’s ending point and boat tour’s starting point) and a leisurely afternoon eco-tour. This riverside restaurant is casual (wet shorts from kayaking? No problem!), with friendly service and a menu filled with items with amusing names (Nightmare at the Swamp House Burger, anyone?). Choose from fish, seafood, steaks, burgers, salads, tacos, chicken, sandwiches, and more. Adventurous? Try the Gator Tail or Catfish Nugget starters. Thirsty? There’s a full bar with a convivial bartender, ready to help ease the theme-park burn-out away.

After your eco-tour, consider stopping in Sanford on the way back to Orlando for dinner at the German restaurant, Willow Tree Café, or make a two-day adventure of it, visiting the Sanford Zoo (great for young children) or Sanford Zoo’s ZOOmAir adventure and zipline courses (older kids and adults).

Find St. John’s River Eco-Tours and the Swamp House Grill at 488 West Highbanks Road in DeBary, (take I-4 east to Exit 104, go north on State Road 600, turn left onto Highbanks, then right into the Highbanks Marina & Camp Resort). When you visit, don’t make the mistake we did by driving through the camping area (which has some sneaky one-way roads!). Simply pull into a parking space near the Swamp House Grill at the front of the park, and head down the pathway to the marina. Restrooms are available, both on land and on the boat.

Reservations for the eco-tours (which run Tuesday through Sunday) are not required, but are highly recommended (on 386 626 9004), as the tours do fill up, especially the All Day Cruise starting at 10am, and the sunset cruises (offered seasonally). Making a last-minute decision to visit? Go for the 1.30pm cruise, which tends to be slightly less busy (we still recommend reserving in advance, if possible).

If you prefer your boating to include magnificent waterside views of rich people’s houses, it’s hard to beat the Scenic Boat Tour in Winter Park. Combine it with boutique shopping and any of Park Avenue’s fantastic restaurants for a full or half-day break from the fun and excitement of the theme parks.

We also like the eco-tours of Island Boat Lines in Brevard County, Central Florida Nature Adventures and Premier Boat Tours in Mount Dora, and Clearwater’s Dolphin Landings intracoastal waterway tour, with a near guarantee of dolphin sightings. Want the ultimate Florida nature experience? Book Attraction Tickets Direct’s Swim with Manatees for an adventure you’ll never forget.

Veness Column , River Cruises , Nature