“Anythin’ for a quiet life, as the man said when he took the situation at the lighthouse” -Charles Dickens
In 1757 the Spanish Royal Fleet, led by the explorer Don Francisco Maria Celi, stopped at a small island in Tampa Bay on their way up the Hillsborough River. Less than a century later, the British visited and named that island after the Earl of Egmont, and while the British flag never flew over the island (the Spanish kept hold of the island until ceding Florida to the US in 1821), the name remains.
Signaling the entrance to Tampa Bay, Egmont Key still welcomes ships. In 1848, the government built a lighthouse there, and 50 years later started building Fort Dade. When completed in 1910, the Fort had 70 buildings, artillery batteries, brick streets, and water, sewer and electricity. By 1920 the artillery was out-of date. Today, the remnants of Fort Dade lie in ruins around the island and in its waters.
Visitors to Egmont Key can choose their reason to visit: history or solitude. History buffs delight in exploring the overgrown ruins, crumbling batteries dotting disappearing brick roads, and the old Fresnell lens on display.
Locals craving peace and quiet fall in love with Egmont for another reason entirely: the quiet. With the advent of warm weather, sun-seeking snowbirds and spring breakers alike swarm public beaches. While as Floridians we accept and expect tourism, the deserted beaches on Egmont Key offer an escape from hotel-soaked beaches fringed with karaoke bars and T-shirt shops.
Egmont Key is a Florida state park, but harbor pilots (local boat captains who take the helm of freighters, cruise ships, and other large vessels as they enter Tampa Bay and safely bring those vessels into port) have a station there as well as certain educational programs. Visitors cannot access these parts of the island.
The park opens daily at 8 a.m. and closes at sunset.
Egmont Key lies southwest of the southern tip of Fort DeSoto. Set your GPS to 27° 35’ 10.5” N, 82° 45’ 41” W. Don’t have a boat? Take the Egmont Key Ferry from Fort DeSoto (867-6569) or book a half-day trip from St. Pete Beach at Dolphin Landings (360-7411).
Despite the tour boats, park rangers and boat captains, it’s still possible to find a secluded stretch of beach. Turtles, manatee, dolphin frequent the waters surrounding Egmont Key, and on land you’ll see one of the last remaining gopher tortoise colonies. Visitors can also find giant shells, sand dollars, and shark’s teeth along the sandy beaches.
You can’t bring any pets on the island and you can’t go in the lighthouse.
There are a couple of times a year where the park makes an exception on the lighthouse rule, and one’s coming up. From 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on April 24 the Egmont Key Alliance celebrates Florida Lighthouse Day by staffing the island with volunteers and showing off the base of the lighthouse, which will be open to the public. Expect to get a healthy dose of history, including a lighthouse keeper dressed in period garb. The event costs nothing, although fans of the island may opt to join the Egmont Key Alliance. Memberships start at $15.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.