Miami Boat Rides

 

From sunset cruises to celebrity spotting, spend time on South Florida’s waters

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By Marjie Lambert and Fred Gonzalez

We’ve got boat rides.

We’ve got paddlewheelers and pirate ships, air boats and catamarans. Speedboats, glass-bottom boats, schooners, yachts and purpose-built tour boats.

We’ve got fast rides, slow rides and hop-on, hop-off boat tours that you can ride all day. Ones that serve cocktails, others that don’t, and some that encourage you to bring your own drinks aboard.

Most of the rides go year-round, although some cut the number of trips or the boats in their fleets during their slow season - whenever that is. The Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi, which is operated by a Massachusetts company, sent its biggest boats up to Boston for the summer right after Easter. But the Miami speedboat Thriller adds on extra runs in the summer, when there’s a surge in demand from Europeans.

Many share a common soundtrack: tales of the celebrities, heirs and wealthy business people who own the region’s waterfront homes and the mega-yachts. Expect some corny jokes too. But others, especially those on glass-bottom boats or along the Everglades, provide a glimpse of the region’s original wildlife.

Here is a sampling of South Florida’s favorite rides.

MIAMI

We’ve been going slowly as the captain of the Thriller Speedboat ride makes his way through the manatee zone from Bayside Marketplace, where we boarded, past freighters at the Port of Miami. Then as the water opens up, he gives us fair warning and punches it. Passengers squeal with delight as spray hits us from the side, and a fat rooster tail rises behind us, all to the tune of — predictably —Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Most of the 38 seats in the speedboat are filled as it speeds and weaves in Biscayne Bay, passing Virginia Key and Fisher Island, then turning under the MacArthur Causeway toward the islands crowded with mansions.

As we pass Hibiscus Island, here comes the familiar soundtrack: “What Puerto Rican lives la vida loca?” asks our tour guide. “Rick-ee” chorus the young women at the back of the boat. And sure enough, the tour guide plays an excerpt of Ricky Martin singing Livin’ la Vida Loca as we pass his house. Carmen Electra owns the house next door, he says.

The list goes on as we loop around the celebrity islands: Don Johnson, Rosie O’Donnell, Emerson Fitipaldi, the house from Scarface, the house that Shaquille O’Neal sold to A-Rod — or was it Naomi Campbell? We hear different accounts on different boats. We’re heading out into the ocean, past South Pointe on Miami Beach, speeding and swerving again, spray rising up. The talking part of the ride is over.

“We offer the same tour as everybody else,” says Jorge Moreno, at the Thriller dock, “but the difference is we go fast on the ocean. Nobody else does that.” And there’s blessedly less talk. Having covered the same route twice as fast, the Thriller tour comes in at 45 minutes, half the length of the typical boat tour.

When you arrive at Bayside, it feels like a buffet of sailing options to spend your day on the water. From a sailboat that feels like a pirate ship, to the Thriller speed boat and a double-decker cruiser that tours celebrity island homes, there seem to be plenty of options.

If checking out the sights at a slower pace is more your thing, with plenty of photo opportunities, board the Island Queen. The tour takes you past the Miami port, crosses past Fisher Island and Miami Beach marina, then tours celebrity homes on Star Island. A bar offers snacks and drinks — beer is $5 and a pina colada is $7.

There is ample seating for 130 people, but make sure to board early in order to get a seat on the covered, open-air upper deck. (Those go quick.) Lots of tourists and cruise ship visitors are on the boat, and the tour guide does her best to give plenty of information and history on the area, with a touch of humor. Among the homes talked about on Star Island are those owned by Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and those formerly owned by Sylvester Stallone and Elizabeth Taylor.

On this trip, a sudden rain storm passed through the area, leaving many scrambling for the indoor area of the boat below. The open-air upper deck was left half full with most people standing under cover as the tour finished. (Oh yes, the show did go on.) So if you think storms are coming, or see a forecast alert on your smartphone before boarding, you may want to start your trip with a seat down below.

FLORIDA KEYS

The Florida Keys features numerous boat rides to view the marine life and beauty surrounding the island chain. But perhaps none brings out the romance of the turquoise and deep blue seas more than a sunset cruise on the “Grand Old Lady.”

As longtime captain Lenn Verreau prepares the 130-foot wooden Schooner Western Union for departure on a glorious April evening, his crew informs the passengers that help from some of them will be needed to hoist the majestic sails.

“You get great benefits, like priority on the life boats,” one crew member announces. The schooner has a storied history dating to 1939, when it was launched in Key West to lay the first of more than 30,000 miles of underseas telegraph cable in the Caribbean, including to Cuba.

For 35 years it served Western Union. Its next mission was to help troubled adolescents in a program called Vision Quest.

Now, it’s owned by the nonprofit Schooner Western Union Preservation Society, which raised $1 million for a stem-to-stern makeover. In April, it was back in its slip next to the Schooner Wharf Bar in the Historic Seaport of Key West.

The two-hour sunset cruises leave the dock at 7 p.m. and once out of the busy marina, despite light winds of less than 10 mph, the crew and volunteer passengers hoist the sails. The motor is turned off.

As the boat sails past Mallory Square and Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, a musician plays traditional music, sometimes on a harp or hammered dulcimer. Cindy the bartender serves complimentary beer, wine, soda, water and champagne and dishes out conch chowder and crackers.

On this evening, the sun cooperates and displays a colorful orange and red show before disappearing beyond the horizon, seemingly into the sea.

If booze cruises are more your thing, there are plenty of options to get your groove on. But realize that sunsets are the thing in Key West - where else can you see the sun sink into the ocean? - so the majority of cruises will take place at the end of the day.

Whether it’s a catamaran or a schooner sailboat, the biggest difference between the sunset cruises will be your drink options. Some are all-inclusive with a selection of wine, beer, cocktails and champagne. Most of the time the choices are on the lower end - we’re not talking top shelf here. The other option is BYOB - bring your own bottle, or drink, or cooler full of drinks. This option is great for families with various levels of imbibers to consider. Or creative groups of friends who get into Jell-o shots, high-end spirits or even some liquor-infused fruit (think peaches with vodka).

Some cruises may feature music, while others feature a spread of food. Otherwise most cruises are the same - and with great photo opportunities. Buy tickets early, even reserving online several days in advance, to get a discount and ensure a seat. These cruises fill up fast, because the sunsets are among the best things going for Key West, and how you experience it is important.

The schooner Jolly II Rover, an 80-foot Caribbean coastal sailing ship, is one of the more popular sunset cruises in Key West that allows you to bring your own food and drink. The crew takes the pirate theme seriously, with staff dressed the part. Guests have a chance to steer the schooner, raise and lower the sails, and even fire a cannon at other sunset boats.

Fury Water Adventures offers a daily sunset sail on a 360-foot catamaran. There are two versions of this sunset sail, and both are equally fun. The first features complimentary beer, wine and champagne. The second, called Commotion on the Ocean, provides complimentary beer, wine, margaritas and a spread of appetizers along with live music.

Both sails are great for large groups, with plenty of standing areas for views of the sunset from the upper deck. Seating is limited, so get aboard early if you prefer not to stand.

Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada has a sunset sail that leaves from the dock behind the hotel. There are complimentary beer and wine, as well as nonalcoholic beverages, or you can bring aboard a small cooler of your favorites.

The sunset sail is very intimate with a limited number of spots available. Bring a light jacket or a blanket as the trip will get breezy.

FORT LAUDERDALE

“And this is the house that Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett had built. It took 3½ years. Unfortunately, the marriage lasted only three years. So they put it on the market and when it didn’t sell quickly, they asked why. The real estate agent said that no one wants to buy a house with major faucet problems.”

Yuk, yuk, yuk.

The comedian/tour guide was the pilot of the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi, but it could have been any number of South Florida’s dozens of boat rides, most of which feature tour guides telling stories about the rich and famous who live - or have lived - along the waterways. The official line of the Water Taxi is that it’s not a tour, it’s transportation.

But the captains still like to tell the tales.

The Water Taxi is a hop-on, hop-off ride. For $20 ($10 after 7 p.m.), you can ride all day, getting off for food, drink and bathroom breaks at more than a dozen stops. If you like, you can bring your drinks back on board.

Stay on, and you’ll get a guided tour that takes about three hours along the New River and the Intracoastal Waterway between the 17th Street Causeway and Oakland Park Boulevard. We don’t recommend doing the whole loop without a break, though. The seats are hard and you’ll hear the same Lee Majors-Farrah Fawcett joke more than once, a fate definitely to be avoided.

A new addition is the Hollywood Water Taxi. Passengers can transfer from the Fort Lauderdale to the Hollywood water taxi at a stop under the 17th Street Causeway. The Hollywood boat picks up passengers there once every two hours, then makes three stops along the Intracoastal in Hollywood before making the return trip.

The Water Taxi also operates a day trip to South Beach that runs only December to April. Two other companies give tours of Fort Lauderdale’s waterways.

The Jungle Queen, a replica paddlewheeler that docks next to the Bahia Mar on A1A, heads west along the New River to an “Indian Village” with exotic birds and monkeys in cages and a snack bar. There’s a daytime sightseeing cruise that takes three hours and stops at the Indian village for an alligator show, and a longer evening cruise that includes a BBQ dinner and variety show at the village. No food or drink available on the boat itself.

The Carrie B, also a replica paddlewheeler, does a 90-minute tour of sections of the New River and Intracoastal, but goes into Port Everglades, which the others do not. The ship has a full bar and snacks available for purchase.

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