Tampa’s Super Bowl antidote

The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

The Weedon Island Preserve in Pinellas County sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa

While Clearwater and St. Petersburg beaches grab most of tourists’ attention in Pinellas County, one of the area’s environmental and cultural jewels sits just off a busy highway on the way to Tampa. So if you’re Super-Bowl bound next month, make sure to add Weedon Island Preserve to your agenda. Because you have to do something other than watch football and drink beer, right? (Don’t answer that.)

The Weedon Island Preserve offers two paddling trails

The kayak and canoe launch from where two paddling trails start

Situated along the shore of Tampa Bay, the park covers 3,700 acres of protected land set among mangrove stands and sabal palm. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks and 3 miles of hiking trails with picnic areas lead walkers throughout the preserve while two water trails take paddlers around mangroves and over open shallow waters and seagrass and oyster beds. Kayak and canoe rentals are available, so you have no excuse.

The fishing pier is popular with locals, while visitors won’t want to miss the 45-foot observation tower. The last time we were there, with Wessel’s parents, they spotted an armadillo. Big excitement for them! The preserve also is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, and you’ll see birders wandering about with their life lists or whatever they call those things.

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

The Cultural and Natural History Center opened in the fall of 2002 and has an observation deck

History and culture get their due here as well, at the beautifully designed information and exhibition center. Try to go when the center is open (hours below) because the exhibits are great. So are the restrooms and water fountains, though maybe those are outside of the center. Oops. I can’t remember. A permanent exhibit installed last year explores the watershed ecology and the island’s history, which included ancient Indian cultures and even Prohibition speakeasies, of all things. In May 2008, a 45-foot canoe buried for about 10 centuries was found buried in mud on the preserve. Archeologists are still trying to determine how best to excavate it. Of course they’re not telling us where it is.

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

The Preserve has mangrove swamps with tidal creeks

Weedon Island rangers and volunteers run a lot of programs — hiking, bird watching, photography, canoeing, and more, and you don’t have to be a resident to partake. So get out from the behind the big-screen TV and stretch your legs in natural Florida.

Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center, 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg, 727-453-6500, www.weedonislandcenter.org. The preserve is open dawn to dusk daily, while the center is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except holidays.

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