With a couple of rambunctious youngsters, I'm often struggling for ways to keep them entertained. Take them to Disney World? Go to another water park? Maybe ship them off to grandma like a box of oranges with a note that says: "Greetings from Florida. Enjoy!"
Nah…I'll just stick close to home and plan local adventures. We Gulf Coasters are a little spoiled when it comes to white, sugar-sand beaches and clear, blue water.
Tourists come from all over the United States to spend a few days in paradise, but as soon as many Tampa Bay residents get a few days off, they are ready to flee north, south, anywhere but here.
Not this transplant. I've lived on the Gulf of Mexico for more than 30 years, and I am still pleasantly surprised every time I "rediscover" one of the many barrier islands that run from Cape Romano to Anclote Key.
Like all barrier islands, tiny Shell Key, located just across the channel from Pass-a-Grille Beach, has been shaped by passing storms. For decades, this undeveloped island has been a popular destination for boaters and anglers.
The State of Florida managed the island for years, but the county took over in 2000, developing a management plan that strikes a delicate balance between protecting the fragile ecosystem and accommodating the thousands of humans who visit Shell Key each year.
About half of the 180-acre island is designated as a bird sanctuary. This area extends into the shallow water in some parts of the preserve. Thousands of protected migrating shorebirds - including the American oystercatcher, least tern, snowy plover and black skimmer - stop on Shell Key each winter.
Leave no trace
If you visit this island oasis, remember that all plants and animals are protected. No dogs, no open containers of alcohol are allowed.
Boaters may camp on the north or south ends, and campfires are permitted. There are no facilities. Circumnavigating Shell Key can be tricky, even for kayakers. Boaters will encounter shallow water cautions and no-wake and idle-speed zones.
Some areas are off limits to internal combustion engines. To see a map of the area, go to www.co.pinellas.fl.us and search for Shell Key. For information, call (727) 464-4761.
You can see more of Terry's adventures on ABCActionNews.com .
Terry Tomalin also published a book outlining many different adventures you can take in Florida. That can be purchased at www.seasidepublishing.com .