Food, fun and manatees on St. Johns River

Barbara Tyson

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Photos by Dave Fuller

After first being blown out by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and then stopped by COVID-19 in February 2020, 20 America’s Boating Club Atlanta members finally made landfall at Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina on the St. Johns River near Deland, Florida, on Nov. 6, 2020.

America’s Boating Club Atlanta/17 members on the Hontoon Landing trip

A brief history lesson

The marina sits just across from Hontoon Island State Park. Established by the Florida Park Service in the 1970s, the island park got its name from William Hunton, the land’s original owner in the 1860s. Over time the island’s name changed to Hontoon. Before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the late 16th century, the Mayaca Native Americans were the island’s first-known inhabitants.

Manatees frequent the St. Johns River and nearby springs. As air temperatures dip, they stay close to the springs, seeking warmer water. November is Manatee Awareness Month, and we were thrilled to be visiting the manatees then.

Our club members have a lot in common with manatees. Much like the gentle giants, we can be found having fun on or in the water and eating (when not working or sleeping). During our trip, we did both.

The fun

We spent Friday and Saturday getting to Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina. It’s about a seven-hour drive from Atlanta if you eat in the car and plan bathroom stops during gas stops. Commander Dave and Nan Ellen Fuller trailered the Lees’ pontoon boat (plus the couple’s own dinghy) from Lake Lanier. Denny and Nancy Warren trailered their Cutwater to a point north on the river and cruised south to Hontoon Landing.

In beautiful weather on Saturday, we spent the day enjoying the sunshine and the river. The Fullers took a dinghy ride. Douglas Townes, a club member who now lives in St. Petersburg, brought his Jet Ski and took other brave members for rides.

On Sunday, we took our first trip downriver a few miles to Blue Spring State Park, known as the home of the manatees. With Hurricane Eta moving in from the Gulf, the weather was warm but cloudy. Visitors to Blue Spring State Park can view manatees in the crystal-clear spring water from the boardwalk, which stretches a third of a mile from the St. Johns River to the headspring.

We only saw one manatee (two if you count the statue). But the beautiful state park was worth the trip, and we did see one heck of an alligator! If you go there by boat, have a small craft you can take ashore. Motorboats must stay away from shore. Thank goodness we had the Fullers’ dinghy and a rowboat T.J. Convery had obtained.

Our “tour director” Pam Keene arranged our second excursion of the day. Familiar with the area, Pam knew the owner of St. Johns River Eco Tours, Doug Little, who wowed our group with an amazing boating excursion to find wildlife in some hidden places along the river. With the St. Johns running 2 feet higher than normal, most of the wildlife had moved inland. We saw a profusion of birds and vegetation, some of which are only found in this part of the country.

With Hurricane Eta moving closer and bringing lots of rain, Monday was a washout. Some members headed to an oyster joint in Orlando, some went to Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe to buy pies to take home, and others went to Barberville Yard Art Emporium, which has more than 2 acres of brightly painted yard art, statuary and furniture.

The eating

On Friday night, we enjoyed dining at The DeLand Stockyard, and on Saturday morning, Rich Fulgham and his wife, Pam Keene, treated everyone to a four-star breakfast. On Saturday night, we ate dinner at the resort in a great two-bedroom suite with a screened-in porch and a family room. Later, we enjoyed some cool jazz by club members and guitarists John Holland and T.J. Convery.

On Sunday night, we ate at Astor’s Blackwater Inn wearing our neon yellow St. Johns River Trip shirts, bright enough to direct traffic. Afterward, we went back to the family room for more music and fun. Some of us decided to see how many members we could squeeze into the suite’s indoor hot tub. (The answer is 11— and one guitar!)

Monday evening was the last night at Hontoon for many of us, so we ate dinner at Pitmaster’s BBQ. Although Pitmaster’s big sign was not lit, we found the place by spotting Commander Dave’s yellow Humvee.

Most of us said goodbye on Tuesday as Hurricane Eta blowing across Florida made us concerned about the weather driving home.

This trip provided many wonderful experiences, but one stands out above the rest: It was so good to see our friends for the first time in eight to 10 months that we couldn’t get enough of each other! 

Barbara Tyson

Barbara Tyson and her husband, Tim, enjoy boating with fellow club members on Georgia’s Lake Lanier, Lake Allatoona and Lake Hartwell; the Intracoastal Waterway; Alabama’s Lake Eufaula (the Walter F. George Reservoir); and the Tennessee River. Both work for Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities and are members of America’s Boating Club Atlanta/17. The couple has also set up club programs to support Calvary Children’s Home in Power Springs, Georgia, and are planning a day at the lake for the children at Lake Lanier.

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