Cruising the waterways

The Schooner Lily, a restored cargo ship
The Schooner Lily, a restored cargo ship that is a tour boat out of Stuart, is a beautiful sight against the setting sun. It was originally called the Lily of Tisbury and carried lumber, vehicles and other boats between Maine and Martha’s Vineyard. SCHOONER LILY

Excursions offer passengers memorable views of the Treasure Coast


Fred Newhart wasn’t planning to go into the boat tour business but Treasure Coast residents and visitors are lucky he did. He was restoring old boats in Maine in 1999 when he discovered the Lily of Tisbury, a long-neglected old cargo sailing boat used to transport lumber and other goods between Maine and Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.

It didn’t take long to recognize its potential. It could, he thought, become a beautiful double-masted touring boat. Returning with it to Florida, he and his wife, Jamie, launched Treasure Coast Adventures in Stuart with the newly named Schooner Lily.

Hundreds of people who longed to get out on the water but had no boat, or who wanted a chance to sail again, pounced on the lovely Lily as the gateway to their dreams.

For anyone wanting to get out on the water, a tour is ideal. The Treasure Coast has far more tours, both public and private, than most realize. Tours on a variety of boats in a variety of locations can last from an hour to nearly five hours. Many are narrated for some or all of the trip.

Phyllis and Steven Singler, veterans of the Treasure Coast Adventures tours, said they take family members for the beauty, companionship and informative narration.

“We wanted to get out in the water but we didn’t have a boat any more so the Schooner Lily was ideal,” Phyllis Singler said.

Jamie Newhart thought back to those early days. “What we said was, ‘Let’s start something with it where people can go out and see the shoreline.’” The Lily of Tisbury became Schooner Lily. It was different from other tour boats because of its history and because it was a picturesque sailboat with all the beauty of tall white sails against the Florida blue sky.

It didn’t take long for word to spread and soon it became a popular trip for locals and a way to give visitors an unforgettable chance to soak up the beauty of the area. The Lily is being rebuilt, but the Margot, a six-passenger sailboat, is taking her place and the 12-passenger sailing sloop Resolute will soon join the Margot.

The River Lilly II
The River Lilly II offers an evening cruise where one might see local wildlife. RIVER LILLY

an anhinga drying its wings
An anhinga drying its wings.

Boat tours around the Treasure Coast usually focus on nature and beauty. The area is teeming with wildlife and scenery in many places still equivalent to what it looked like in the jungle days of Old Florida. The rivers, islands and shorelines provide an unparalleled way to enjoy the beauty.

The wildlife is abundant with lots of different water birds, dark camouflaged alligators that often look like floating logs, turtles sunning, birds large and small feeding themselves or their young, dolphins, manatees and chances to watch a swooping bird diving and flying away with a fish. For home-schoolers it’s an ideal way to learn about nature from people who have become experts.

slider turtles on a log
Slider turtles catch some sun on a log.

The Environmental Learning Center in Wabasso lets guests climb aboard its pontoon boat to cruise up the jungle-like Sebastian River where they can experience the tangled vegetation and some sights and sounds they may not see elsewhere. But the center can also take passengers to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the first such in the nation, where they will learn about the birds that call it home and see the mangrove islands where birds, manatees and dolphins hang out. It has other tours, too.

The River Lilly, a 36-foot pontoon boat for about 32 passengers including space for one wheelchair, cruises the North Fork of the St. Lucie River. It departs from River Park Marina on the North Fork off Prima Vista Boulevard in Port St. Lucie. Stephanie, known as Steph, and husband, Eddie, Hamrick were new to Port St. Lucie in 2015 and he was on the hunt for work. He had been a boat captain in Miami.

They decided to take a relaxing cruise on the North Fork and noticed the boat didn’t run in August and September. They asked the captain if he would let them operate it for those two months. The answer was surprising — Dana and Deena Wade would be happy for them to buy the company. So they did in October 2015.

blue heron
A little blue heron watches the water for its next catch.

Trained by the Wades, they became experts in the flora and fauna of the North Fork. They often bring their 6 ½-year-old twins along. The children are home-schooled and the North Fork offers lots of lessons, Steph Hamrick said. As a result, they offer home-school trips and summer camps.

gator with a toothy wide-open mouth
Capt. Bob captured a view of this gator with a toothy wide-open mouth. BOB MONTUORO

Their 90-minute jungle eco-cruises and one-hour evening relaxation cruises traverse the North Fork of the St. Lucie River Aquatic Preserve. Guests see alligators, slider turtles, native birds and water birds and other wildlife on the peaceful North Fork. The day cruise is highly narrated, while the evening cruise is less so, Steph Hamrick said.

Airboat tours are quite popular on the Treasure Coast. Skimming across marshes, they offer a view that can’t be equaled in water that is just barely above ground level. Capt. Bob’s Airboat Adventures, a family-run business, takes visitors on a 50-minute sightseeing tour of Lake Garcia in the Blue Cypress Recreation Area, Vero Beach. If anyone is new to airboating, it is an experience most likely never forgotten.

Seated safely on riser-style benches, each person can see the wildlife among the lily pads and other marsh plants. Airboats are loud because they are propelled by a vehicle engine and large fan. So people wear helicopter-style headphones to cut the noise while letting them hear the narration. Each set has a microphone so anyone can ask questions.

Juvenile ospreys still in the nest
Juvenile ospreys still in the nest but getting ready to fly. BOB MONTUORO

Capt. Bob Montuoro and his wife, Lisa, are joined by daughter, Emily, and her husband, Capt. John Calhoun. They use a Custom Diamondback airboat which seats 14. A Chevy engine mounted vertically in the back pushes it through the water.

“The airboats are flat-bottom in the water about 2 to 4 inches; all the propellers and rudders are out of the water,” Emily Calhoun explained. “This allows it to glide over the weeds and get to areas where outboard boats can’t go.”

“My wife, Lisa, and I have been running airboat tours for 19 years and it’s fun to share the beauty and history of the local marshlands,” Montuoro said. The captains have captured wonderful wildlife pictures on their travels around the marsh, placing them in a gallery on their website.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute takes passengers on its pontoon boat
The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute takes passengers on its pontoon boat for a tour of the Indian River Lagoon where they learn about the lagoon and its wildlife as well as some of the research the institute is doing. HARBOR BRANCH

For anyone who travels to North or South Hutchinson Island, Dolphin Watch Tours offers a chance to see the shoreline sights from the water instead of the road. Aboard a tour boat about 20 feet in length, passengers enjoy a two-hour exploration of the Fort Pierce Inlet, the Indian River Lagoon and spoil islands on the way to the Atlantic Ocean where they can see the entire sandy shoreline of St. Lucie County. Manatees may be seen feeding on the sea grasses.

Returning to the inlet, the boat passes Fort Pierce Inlet State Park and Coon Island on its way back to the starting point, the Stan Blum Boat Ramp on North Hutchinson Island. The ramp was named after Blum, who was a marine biologist and local environmental activist.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute offers a research pontoon boat tour where travelers can learn about the Indian River Lagoon and about some of the research projects the scientists are doing.

For a big change of pace, the 82-foot Island Princess may be just the ticket. Leaving from the Manatee Pocket in Port Salerno it offers several tours including one that is nearly five hours long.

If anyone longs to get out on the water there are plenty more tours, public and private to choose from along the Treasure Coast. Just take a look online — you might be astonished.

See the original article in print publication

May 2023

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