If you want to get away from it all for a moment during your St Petersburg vacation, you can always head down to Shell Key. Only reachable by boat, this small barrier island offers a relaxed environment, especially on the weekdays. Weekends see an increase in boat traffic, and more people come to enjoy the beaches on Shell Key. If you don't have your own boat, you can get to Shell Key near St Petersburg by hopping on the Shell Key Shuttle. Passengers board the Shell Key Shuttle, which is a mid-size pontoon boat, at Pass A Grille in St Pete Beach. If you don't want to drive to the Merry Pier departure point in Pass A Grille, you can hop on the Suncoast trolley to get there from such beach communities as Redington Beach, St Pete Beach, and Madeira Beach, among others.
Shell Key is only about 2.5 miles long, and it offers about 180 acres of dry land. The larger Shell Key Preserve includes the key itself, some other smaller islands, and acres of mangroves and grassy flats. Parts of Shell Key can not be accessed, as they are protected, and other parts are restricted public use areas. The southern side of Shell Key is where you will find the largest public use area, and there are also public use areas on the northern end and on the east-central coast. Pass A Grille starts just across the pass to the north of the island, while Fort De Soto Park begins just across the southern Bounces Pass. Cabbage Key and Egmont Key are two other small islands in the general area that you might also look to visit when exploring the western coast of Pinellas County.
When you get to the Shell Key Preserve, you can relax on an uncrowded beach, hike through the small pine forests, go bird watching, kayak along the coastline, and even try some snorkeling. Passengers who take the Shell Key Shuttle over will be able to borrow some beach equipment at no extra charge. This includes beach umbrellas, a mask, a snorkel, and shell bags. Shell Key is aptly named, as it is an excellent place to hunt for seashells. You are welcome to bring your own cooler and beach chairs with you on the Shell Key Shuttle, but you'll want to remember that no alcoholic beverages are allowed within the Shell Key Preserve boundaries. The Shell Key Shuttle departs three times daily and makes three return trips to Pass A Grille as well. Special sunset cruises and private boating charters can be booked through the Shell Key Shuttle.
If you are planning on visiting the beaches on Shell Key, and perhaps enjoying some other activities on the side, there are some things that you will want to keep in mind. Shell Key is an uninhabited island, and there are no facilities to take advantage of. In other words, there are no food concessions, restrooms, or other common beach amenities here. Late spring, summer, and early fall are the best times to visit the beaches on Shell Key, as it can be quite cool during the winter. If you don't plan on swimming, then a wintertime visit can be ideal, especially if you want to share the island with as few people as possible.
Camping is possible on the southern side of Shell Key if you get a proper permit, though it's important to note that you will be required to bring a portable toilet with you. The leave nothing behind philosophy here applies to everything. Most visitors to the Shell Key Preserve come for a few hours during the day, returning to other area destinations to spend the night. If you opt to go camping on Shell Key, you're bound to find yourself gazing at the nighttime stars when they're out. The skies here are among the darkest in the region, and many astronomy enthusiasts come to savor them.
Image: Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater