The Barbara Lee, a 110-foot paddleboat, eases away from the dock at the marina in Sanford so softly you almost have to be watching the shore to know you are moving. It’s a solid boat powered only by the two big diesel engine-run paddlewheels at the stern. Each moves independently and the captain easily maneuvers the big boat out into the main channel of Lake Monroe and heads north.
Although the boat was only built in 1975, it carries a feeling of the past and Old Florida and reminds you of the glorious years when steam-powered paddleboats ran up and down the St. Johns and the Suwannee and the Ocklawaha rivers of central and north Florida carrying cargo and awestruck visitors that often took every opportunity to shoot at anything that moved on the bank.
Long before roads, much less the streamlined interstates made travel all over Florida easy and convenient, people depended on the rivers as their highways and naturally towns sprang up all along the shores, especially on the St. Johns as it makes its sluggish way north to Jacksonville where it runs into the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Monroe is shallow, less than 7 feet in most places but the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a 12-foot channel all the way up to Jacksonville. There is a lot of recreation on the lake (and upwards of 2000 resident gators, too) with fishing boats hugging the shallows and trying their luck alongside the water hyacynths that line large areas of the shore.
Cypress trees line the lakes and river, often growing well into the water and birds ranging from eagles and egrets to herons and ospreys do their own fishing. Birdwatchers find plenty to see and gators are a common sight. Certain times of the year manatees can be found seeking the relative warm water of the river.
As you head north out of the lake, the boat may have to stop on either side of the low railroad bridge that runs alongside the elevated 17/92 highway to wait for the auto train or a passenger train to zip through before the big counterweight lifts that bridge back up so river traffic can resume again.
It’s 160 miles from the harbor in Sanford to Mayport in Jacksonville and along the way the river often spreads out into shallow lakes before reverting back into a single flow that gathers water from creeks and swamps and springs and eventually widens out to over 3 miles before joining the ocean.
But the Barbara Lee is not making that long journey. It is not carrying a big cargo of celery north as it might have done 100 years ago or bringing tourists down to see the tropical wonders. It is carrying folks on a three-hour jaunt north or south (depending on the time of year and water levels) and offering them a chance to see the river at the pace those earlier visitors would have enjoyed. And today’s travelers are treated to quite tasty sit-down lunches or dinners behind panoramic glass windows as the riverbank glides by. The schedule and events changes throughout the year but lunch cruises are usually on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and there is a dinner cruise on Saturdays from 7 to 11 pm.
Meals include a trip to the buffet starter table with salads and their trademark sticky buns that are really good, a choice of several entrees served tableside, dessert and soft drinks, tea or coffee. There is a full cash bar on the main level.
In addition to a host who gives some river history and local color stories as you cruise, there is live music and dancing. Once the dancing starts anything goes as kids and adults take to the floor to show their moves or just share a sweet cheek to cheek moment in a slow dance.
The time passes fast but even with lunch and music there is ample opportunity to wander the boat’s three decks and watch the river life around you.
The St. Johns Rivership Co. is a family run business and has been for over three decades. It is friendly and a lot of fun for everyone.
Out on the river it is very easy to lose track of what year it is and at times, as the Barbara Lee swings around a big curve with nothing but birds and trees and trailing Spanish moss in sight, to even lose track of the century.
Everyone from the babies to very senior citizens can be found on most of the trips and the boat can be booked for special events as well. It’s a nice slow down day in a busy world.
Check the website for up to date schedules, menus and fares at www.stjohnsrivershipco.com or call 321-441-3030.
From the upper deck of the Barbara Lee you can see the filagreed ironwork railings and the gangway used to get on and off the boat. It is hard to resist unclipping the rope blocking the gangway while the boat is underway and going to the end to strike that classic king of the world pose from Titanic.
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