Florida: coast by coast VIII – Gunkholing

Pass-A-Grille Florida dock on ICWThe many faces of Florida – Part VIII

Pass-A-Grille, Fort DeSoto, and Egmont Key

The dictionary tells us a gunkhole is “a shallow inlet or cove that is difficult or dangerous to navigate” and that is an apt description of the waters surrounding the entrance to Tampa Bay. But not to fear! Stay close to the shore and enjoy the small stuff.

There’s nothing quite like dragging your hand in the surf, digging in the sand, or slogging through the mud to feel at one with nature. The waters around the entrance to Tampa Bay encourage this intimate contact. Dotted with sand spits and beckoning coves, they are the perfect playground for kayaks, canoes and small sailboats; anything you can trail behind or carry on top of your car.

I sailed throughout the Bay’s small islands; bumped bottom on its finger-like sand bars; weaved a 36′ trawler through the serpentine channel of Terra Ceia Bay to the southeast; mucked through the swamps. Do this, and you’ll feel the heartbeat of the area.


Start by taking the road to St. Pete Beach. When you reach the end, turn left and continue down to Pass-A-Grille. Prepare yourself for a laid-back, refreshing dip into the past. The pace is slow.

Accommodations are modest, but clean and friendly. All are within a few steps from the beach with full views of the sunset. For those wishing more formal living, condos on Terra Verde are available for rent through the Sabal Palms Inn.

Settled in? Now it’s time to explore Pass-A-Grille’s Historic District. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and will give you a look at life as it was on the key for over 100 years. Quaint shops, cedar cottages and homes, colorful gardens, restaurants and snack bars; it’s all there.

Let’s leave the land behind

Just off the southern tip of Pass-A-Grille lies a stretch of barrier islands, one of which is Shell Key, a preserve that is home to native shore birds and turtles. Dolphins romp freely in the waters, The Shell Key Shuttle makes three trips a day to the island aboard a 49-passenger catamaran.  Free umbrellas, snorkel equipment and shell bags are provided.

Aerial view of Shell Key

Photo courtesy of Pinellas County

No pets allowed, except for special “Howl at the Moon” pet-friendly cruises: one pet per person. These are by reservation only, so call for dates and times.

The Shuttle also runs sunset cruises through the canals, giving an insight into a millionaire’s lifestyle, as well as humble cottages lucky enough to have been built years ago on the prize of prime properties.

Want to host a private party for 24 to 49 friends – maybe your wedding? No problemo! In Florida, a notary public can perform the deed, and Shell Key Shuttle provides one, as long as you have all the documents in order. This is no big deal in Florida. In 1997, we stopped by the Sarasota County Office Building to inquire about a license. In less than 20 minutes we were asked by the clerk if we wanted her to marry us…right then, right there! I had envisioned a little more pomp and ceremony, so the next weekend, we had a notary friend from “Mail Boxes, etc.” tie the knot at Mary’s Chapel, part of historic Spanish Point. We’ll get there after a few more stops along the Gulf coast.

Dubbed the most beautiful beach in America, Fort DeSoto County Park

Photos courtesy of Pinellas County

Fort DeSoto County Park

Before leaving this area and heading south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, give some serious thought to visiting Fort DeSoto County Park which consists of five connected islands ending in the Fort itself. Built during the Spanish American War, it was one of two protecting the entrance to Tampa Bay. Some artillery still remains, adding to its deserved listing on the “National Register of Historic Places.”

The park has been rated highly, not only for the Fort, but for its beach, nature trails, and information services provided by park attendants and volunteers.

Egmont Key, the lighthouse and Fort Dade

If your eyes yearn for still farther horizons, climb aboard Hubbard Marina’s Tampa Bay Ferry. Weather permitting, it runs across the channel to Egmont Key and Fort Dade – the other fort protecting the Bay. There is no place to stay overnight, but touring the Egmont Key Lighthouse, and Fort Dade is equally as entertaining as donning your bathing suit and snorkeling over and around the fort’s ruins. Bring your own gear, or Hubbard’s has some for you to rent.

Lighthouse on Egmont Key - operating

Credit: Florida State Parks

I had planned to take you further south on this jaunt, but got caught up in memories of this delightfully away-from-it-all corner of Florida. Hope you will do the same!

If you look at the satellite map, zoom in and you’ll be able to see the cuts between the shell islands. If you walk out from one to the other, keep an eye on the tide. Some of these cuts are small, but the currents can be swift.


Check the weather report and keep your eyes on the clouds to be sure one of Florida’s typical thunder storms isn’t in the offing. The skies here are usually so clear you can track a storm almost as if it were on TV.

Google Map of Pass-A-Grille and Fort DeSoto

Sabal Palms Inn - Pass-A-Grille Florida

Photo courtesy Sabal Palms Inn

Sabal Palms Inn (on right) and the Coconut Inn
Inn on the Beach
Island’s End

Shell Key Shuttle
Hubbard’s Marina
Fort DeSoto County Park – Map showing RV campground and launching area
Fort DeSoto – the Fort

Past Florida: coast by coast articles – scroll down, then hit “earlier posts”


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