MANATEE -- Want to see what makes a healthy scallop, try some exotic fruit and view wildlife up close, all while supporting the environment? It seems like an impossible goal in Florida as millions of tourists flock to the seashore, clogging the roads and crowding restaurants.
But a coalition of representatives from parks, museums, gardens, universities and government offices along the Gulf Coast, from Venice to St. Petersburg, have created a tourism opportunity designed to preserve and highlight what makes the area attractive.
The tours are largely people-powered -- focused on walking, biking and some boating -- and highlight locally produced food and green accommodations. Forget driving to the mall. Instead, wear your sunscreen and don a fun hat to set off on these adventures born out of the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida.
Ecko, a new Sarasota-based nonprofit, offers four-day excursions focused on teaching travelers about sustainability, the importance of eating local food and reducing ecological footprints.
The nonprofit offers five tours highlighting the natural wonders and rich history found in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Each tour combines adventure, education and relaxation for an adult summer camp-like experience guaranteed to make participants fall into bed at their Florida Department of Environmental Protection-certified green hotels at the end of the day.
A combination of biking, walking and travel by boat reduces the emissions and footprint of tour groups, typically made up of eight to 12 people. Jennifer Shafer, executive director of the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, said the tours can accommodate smaller groups or classes with an adjustment in pricing.
"Part of our mission is to demonstrate sustainable ecotourism, provide consumers with a better choice for responsible travel, and motivate more vendors to adopt more sustainable business practices, thereby strengthening environmental stewardship through market demand," Shafer said.
Ecko's mission and excursions also help smaller, local merchants reach a larger audience.
"Because they're packaging them and including so many things, it's helping everyone," said Karen Willey, naturalist and owner of Around the Bend Nature Tours. She established the company in 1999 and has provided history- and culture-focused tours ever since.
"As a small provider I don't have marketing dollars, but they're marketing and I'm still able to provide my portion of the bigger picture," Willey said. Her Native American Technology walking tour, featured on Ecko's Manatee River of Time tour, provides a glimpse of what Native Americans made from the materials they found around them.
"We bring replica tools so people will be actually using tools and seeing how native people made tools with local materials and thinking about how that was the technology of the time," Willey said.
The five tours range from $875 to $1,250 each, including double-occupancy or single supplement hotel reservations at Green Lodging facilities such as the Lido Beach Resort in Sarasota and the Hampton Inn in downtown Bradenton. Breakfast and lunch featuring local Florida produce and seafood for all four days also come with the tours.
Community restaurants and vendors such as Morton's Gourmet Market, Mar Vista, Star Fish Company, Geraldson Community Farm and the Sandbar restaurant on Anna Maria Island will provide guests a glimpse of what a locally sourced Florida Gulf Coast diet looks like.
The tours have itineraries available for preview on the Ecko website, and though travelers will know which organizations or attractions they'll visit, the activities at each stop will be a surprise.
"The specific experiences that guests might encounter while on those itineraries will vary, as these are real conservation organizations doing real work," Shafer said. "For example, if the itinerary says guests will be visiting Save Our Seabirds, they will. But while they're there they may be able to visit with a special visiting expert, or follow as a rescued bird comes in, or participate in a bird release or something else."
During a recent Inspired Sarasota Bay tour, a private water taxi steered by Dr. James "Buddy" Powell, executive director of the Sea to Shore Alliance, made a stop next to a Sarasota Bay Watch boat. Three members of the Sarasota Bay Watch team provided education about the organization's effort with Mote Marine Laboratory to restore scallop populations.
Sarasota Bay Watch also works with local branches of companies like Home Depot to educate its customers.
"Home Depot sells fertilizer but tells people when they really shouldn't be fertilizing," said Pepper Dietz, volunteer and member of Sarasota Bay Watch's board of directors. Runoff containing chemicals and excessive nutrients from garden fertilization can trickle into the bay waters and negatively affect scallops. This is one example of the knowledge nuggets Ecko travelers will gather on the tours.
Powell continued the easy cruise across Sarasota Bay while local historian John McCarthy told stories of settlers and pioneers who came to fish the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay hundreds of years ago.
"The first fishermen really set the stage for the development of Sarasota Bay," McCarthy said as he explained the birth of Sarasota's commercial fishing industry. The lessons of how Sarasota Bay became what it is today continued on the way to Save Our Seabirds, the next stop on the preview tour.
The group visited Save Our Seabirds' permanent home bird sanctuary, where disabled birds live because they can no longer survive in the wild. The group also learned how to properly rescue birds tangled in fishing line and saw a rehabilitated Pelican get released to its natural habitat.
After a picnic lunch on the pontoon boat and manatee sightings on Sarasota Bay, the group docked at O'Leary's where the tour began. A short walk to Sarasota's Marie Selby Botanical Gardens came next, where guides and horticultural experts provided a history of Selby's collection of native Florida plants. Trying exotic fruits, such as the Jaboticaba from the Myrciaria cauliflora tree, was one highlight of the Selby visit.
The Ecko website provides all of the information about supplies travelers need for the four-day trips, along with solid advice: Stay covered in SPF 30 or higher; bring plenty of bug spray and use it; drink as much water as you can; and wear breathable, fast-dry clothing. If you're prone to seasickness, bring Bonine, Dramamine or other sea sickness remedies. Charge your phone and perhaps use power-save mode; the tour contains plenty of photo- and video-worthy moments.
The Ecko tours are good for active couples or singles with a hunger for learning, or area residents seeking an eye-opening "staycation."
Though most activities on the tour are accessible for those with physical disabilities, the tours themselves require getting in and out of kayaks and boats, bicycling at 10 mph for an hour and walking on sometimes uneven trails. Shafer said the council has discussed developing an accessible itinerary in the future for those with physical disabilities.
For booking options and details on the tour options, visit eckotours.com.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.