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Ferry service will link downtown St. Pete with beach


Published:   |   Updated: June 21, 2013 at 09:21 AM

PASS-A-GRILLE - It's a 20-minute drive on a toll road from downtown St. Petersburg to Pass-A-Grille beach or a one-hour ride on the Central Avenue Trolley.

But those who prefer a more scenic route, or one without roads, will soon have another option as a new leisure ferry starts up between the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina and the Pass-A-Grille Marina.

For $25 roundtrip, Island Ferry will take small groups of travelers in pontoon boats across Tampa Bay, beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and drop them off a few blocks from the beach.

Owner Sebastian Font is preparing his first vessel for a U.S. Coast Guard inspection early next week, after which he'll start taking out his first customers.

The trip takes about 30 minutes, and boats will depart every hours and a half throughout the day.

The point isn't just getting there, though, Font says.

"We want to create a very nice, memorable boating experience," he said.

"It's not just about getting from Point A to Point B."

Font, a hospitality business consultant who got married at Pass-A-Grille Beach, says he's filling a niche in the local boat travel market.

While there are numerous ferries that take people on dolphin sighting tours, sunset cruises or voyages to uninhabited barrier islands, none of them link the natural beauty of the beaches with downtown St. Petersburg's thriving restaurant and arts scene.

The boat will drop people off at a courtesy dock next to Fresco's Waterfront Bistro in St. Petersburg, across the street from Beach Drive and a few blocks from the city center.

On the Pass-A-Grille side, travelers will get off next to the Wharf Seafood Restaurant, and it's only a short walk across the street to the beach. Font is coordinating with Free Beach Rides to transport people south to the town's business district or north to St. Pete Beach.

The new service should be an attraction both to tourists and locals, said Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce head Robin Sollie.

"It fills a need and a gap for not only connecting visitors but locals to have another way to get downtown and back to the beach to enjoy both destinations," she said.

Danielle Micklitsch, manager of the Keystone Motel in Pass-A-Grille, thinks it will be a hit.

"I think it's awesome," she said.

"Especially now with The Pier being gone, it's kind of an added point of attraction."

This isn't the first time people have traveled between the city and the beach by boat. In the early-1900s, steam ships shuttled passengers from the St. Petersburg Pier to Pass-A-Grille, though water travel was more of a necessity than a luxury back then as land travel was much more difficult.

There appears to be a growing interest in reviving ferry travel for both commuters and leisure travelers in the Tampa Bay area. Another ferry company is considering starting larger scale service between South Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base and downtown St. Petersburg.

Font's plan is to begin with two boats over the next month and add another by the end of the summer, expanding his service to Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

727-215-1277

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