What happens when you gather southern Florida’s preeminent environmental scientists, land managers, and tourism officials together and ask them to identify the areas most awe-inspiring natural attractions? You get a treasure trove of the most diverse and interesting nature experiences in southern Florida. Newly formed tour operator, Ecko Tours, a collaboration of the non-profit Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, has crafted 5 exciting nature tours based on the recommendations of environmental experts. They have identified the coolest, most amazing and historically notable sites between Bradenton and Charlotte Harbor on the gulf coast. So step away from the lines at Florida’s amusements parks and experience the real magic of Florida’s unique environment. EckoTours promises, “Nature is going to knock you out!”
Ecko Tours’ adventures explore both natural and man-made wonders of the southwest coast. Five itineraries have been crafted including exploring: Urban Wildlife by Bike, Gulf Coast Birding, Wild Myakka River, Inspired Sarasota Bay, and Manatee River of Time. Each tour spans 4-days of exploration with accommodations at green-certified properties, meals with locally sourced ingredients, and tours led by some of Florida’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic naturalists. Participants will often travel by boat, kayak, foot, and bicycle leaving a minimal tourist footprint as they explore some wild and intriguing landscapes.
We were invited to sample a one day overview of the Manatee River of Time tour and had one unforgettable day! Our tour began at the Bishop Planetarium at the South Florida Museum, where Director, Jeff Rodgers, brought us to the edge of the universe and back again to set the stage for our exploration. The South Florida Museum is a must-see for anyone visiting the Bradenton/Sarasota area. In addition to the Planetarium, the museum houses collections of prehistoric dinosaur bones, shark skeletons and sea life from the area, archaeological excavations from early Indian civilizations and artifacts from Spanish explorers, as well as a manatee aquarium. Don’t miss saying hello to Snooty, the celebrity manatee who has reached the amazing age of 67 years, and weighs in at 1,000 lbs!
Next we were off by boat, skimming across the beautiful Manatee River to the Emerson Point Reserve with our tour guide, Jennifer Shafer, Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Council of Southwest Florida. Karen Willey, of Around the Bend Nature Tours, was there to greet us at the dock and take us on a fascinating exploration of the reserve. Karen introduced us to 1,000 years of history on the point from indigenous Indian tribes, building of the Temple Mound, settlers in the 1800’s, to present day protected reserve. A highlight was her demonstration of the use of primitive tools used by the Indians.
Soon we were all climbing back on the boat to crisscross the Manatee River to the DeSoto National Memorial Park, a living history museum. Here the lives of early Spanish explorers come to life. Meander down scenic walkways, explore traditional encampments, and learn about the life of conquistadors who landed in the Tampa Bay area in 1539. This is a fascinating park, perched right on the bay. Learn about the “four year, four thousand mile odyssey of intrigue, warfare, disease, and discovery that would form the history of the United States.”
Hopping on bicycles, we pedaled off to nearby Geraldson Community Farm for a delicious picnic lunch under the trees. Lunch was prepared with farm-picked organic ingredients by Derek’s Rustic Coastal Cuisine and it was fresh and delicious! We witnessed school children on their weekly visit to the farm, helping with picking, packaging and learning about sustainable organic farming. Geraldsons is a research farm with close ties to the Bradenton community, local farm markets, and opens a CSA from November through May to share its fresh organic produce.
Our final adventure was a bike ride tour through the fascinating Robinson Preserve with over 600 acres of coastal marshland and mangrove forest to explore. Well defined trails meander through the coastal preserve, with diverse plant and animal life, leading to an impressive 4-story observation tower. The view from the top is just reward for the climb, as views take in winding inlets, lush green mangroves, water foul in abundance, and stunning views directly out to open water in Tampa Bay.
The boat ride back from the bay to the Bradenton Riverwalk was an exhilarating ending to our day. As we reluctantly said farewell to our tour-mates, our heads are brimming with new-found knowledge of life in early Florida and we have a new appreciation for the vibrant parks located along the Manatee River.
Winter and Spring tours are now accepting reservations at EckoTours.com, where you can find full tour itineraries and meet the guides. Groups are limited to 8-12 participants and are suitable for ages 13 and older with a reasonable level of fitness, being able to walk, bike and kayak.
For everyone hungering to experience the best of Florida beyond amusement parks, beaches and resort properties, these tours are an exceptional opportunity you will remember for years to come.