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Natural playground

With the kids off from school, there is no better time to escape out your front door and enjoy the great outdoors.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 21, 2001

Growing up in the Northeast, the best part of the holidays wasn't Christmas Day but the week off we'd get from school. Winter meant toboggan races, ice forts and snowball fights that would last for days.

Parents didn't have to worry about keeping their kids occupied: Mother Nature did it for them.

Unfortunately, it hasn't snowed in Tampa Bay since 1977. And even then, the fine dusting was hardly enough to make a decent snowball.

What's a mom and dad to do? Rent a basketful of video games and chain the kids to the couch?

For heaven's sake, no! Appealing as that may seem, there are laws against such things.

Kick them outdoors. Take them to the beach, woods or local fishing pier. Make them burn off those candy canes and chocolate Santa Clauses. As a new parent, I am quickly learning that kids are a lot like dogs. Run them during the day, and they will sleep good at night.

So where do you go?

I'd start in North Pinellas at Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area. This little gem of the Florida Park system could keep a gang of kids busy for a week. The beaches are safe, the fishing great and the 3-mile-long Osprey Trail will get you as close as you want to get to the "fish hawks" for which it is named.

But don't forget Honeymoon's neighbor, Caladesi Island, which has one of the top-rated beaches in the United States. For years, the island was accessible only by boat. Since Hurricane Elena filled Dunedin Pass with sand in 1985, hardy souls now can make the long walk from Clearwater Beach, if so inclined.

The easiest access, however, still is by water. Private boats can use the 99-slip marina or anchor offshore. Landlubbers can take the ferry from nearby Honeymoon Island, (727) 734-5263. The ferry costs $7 a person. Entry to the state park costs $4 (for up to 8 people).

Once you have run out of things to do up there, work your way down the rest of the Pinellas beaches in search of seashells. Winter storms do a good job of churning up the ocean floor, so there always is something new to find.

While some communities (Manatee and Lee counties to name two) have passed laws regulating the collection of live shellfish, a good rule of thumb is to only collect what is dead. This practice is not only prudent, but practical. Many a parent has searched for weeks looking for an offending smell, only to find a dead starfish -- a discarded "treasure" -- in their child's sand pail.

To get started, all you need is a cheap, plastic pail. But if you really want to get fancy, buy a copy of Shells of the Atlantic & Gulf Coasts & The West Indies, the Peterson Field Guide Series, $16.95, available at most book stores.

If you get tired of the sand, hit a fishing pier. The Tampa Bay area has numerous good ones . . . Sunshine Skyway, Redington Long Pier and Fort De Soto, to name a few. Most provide rental equipment and bait at a price comparable to a couple of video rentals.

Use shrimp or frozen squid, stay away from artificial lures. Don't worry about what you catch; as long as it pulls back, the kids will be happy.

Once you have had enough of the saltwater, head inland to Hillsborough River State Park. Rent a canoe and you'll find it hard to believe this is the same river that flows through downtown Tampa.

The Hillsborough, which begins in the Green Swamp and twists and turns for about 55 miles before emptying into the northern end of Hillsborough Bay, has about everything the state has to offer, including cypress swamps and live oak hammocks.

If you get an early start, you may spot otters playing in the crystal-clear water, or alligators and bass moving along the sandy bottom. Look up and you may see an osprey or hawk watching you from the cypress trees that line this lazy river.

Just a 30-minute drive from downtown Tampa, Hillsborough River State Park is on U.S. 301 in Thonotosassa. The park also offers overnight camping, picnicking, swimming, fishing, boating, nature study and bicycling. Call (813) 987-6771.

Hope this is enough to get you started. But if you need more ideas, just look outside. Anyway you go this time of year, you can't go wrong, especially in the great outdoors.

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