The first time I visited Shell Key I canoed there from Fort DeSoto. From the moment I stepped on the island’s southern tip, I loved it. Not so far away from Shell Key lies the bustle of the rest of the world, but for the moments I’m there it’s just me and the island.
Sometimes I find sand dollars no bigger than a quarter; other times I’ll find ones as big as a dessert plate. One thing I always find, though, is plenty of solitude.
Shell Key isn’t far away, but there’s no way to get there except by boat, which means that it has a lot less people than neighboring Fort DeSoto, and compared to Pass-a-Grille you may as well be on Gilligan’s Island.
A barrier island thick with shorebirds, Shell Key attracts shell collectors and bird watchers alike. Over 100 different species of nesting and migrating birds frequent Shell Key, and Pinellas County manages it as a Wildlife Preserve. The island isn’t wide but it is long; you can cross it in 5 minutes but to travel its perimeter you need a few hours.
Shell Key lies almost directly due west of Billy’s Stone Crab on Tierra Verde, south of Pass-a-Grille and north of Fort DeSoto.
WHY: You can visit for a few hours, a day, or get a free permit from Pinellas County and camp there. Early in the morning you’ll find a bevy of shells and the fishing isn’t bad, either. Spend the night at Shell Key and you’ll see a breathtaking sunset (maybe even the green flash if the sky’s clear) and, later that night, a stunning array of stars not seen from your city backyard.
Even if shells and birds don’t excite you, consider this: Shell Key has one of the only beaches in the state where you have an excellent chance of being the only person on the sand at sunset.
It’s an island with no facilities, which means most people spend little or no time there. Unless you go on a holiday weekend, you can probably grab a good-sized stretch of beach for yourself.
It’s a toss-up whether the recent embargo on dogs or the aberration of the condo project going up twenty feet away from Shell Key’s eastern tip gets this dubious honor. If you, like me, don’t agree with the 2007 ban on dogs, you can probably forgive it when you realize how many birds hatch on the island.
There’s no getting around the eyesore of a seemingly stalled construction project on a scrap of land across the island’s east side. What used to have trees and teem with wildlife now has a rocky sea wall, a construction trailer, and a whole lot of dust.
If you have your own boat, kayak or canoe, it won’t cost you anything to get to the island. If you don’t-or if you want a full-service trip where you don’t have to worry about anything- several local companies offer ferry service to Shell Key. Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center goes out at least three days a week.
Their trips, which last almost four hours, cost $45 for adults and $35 for kids 12 and under. That includes water, soft drinks and snorkeling gear.
Put your kayak or canoe in at Fort DeSoto’s boat ramp. Need a ride? Find a scheduled trip at a place like Dolphin Landings (367-4488). For information about camping visit ShellKey.org.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.