Experience Eco Minded Sarasota Adventures with Ecko Tours

Authentic adventure, valuable education and environmental stewardship are the pillars of ((ecko)) travel, a new nonprofit ecotourism project by the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida.

Any trip can make for a handful of stories and photographs. But what distinguishes an extraordinary adventure from a merely pleasant outing? What elevates a typical trip photo album to an unforgettable experience? In other words—what does it take to craft the trip of a lifetime?

Authentic adventure, valuable education and environmental stewardship are the pillars of ((ecko)) travel, a new nonprofit ecotourism project by the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida. ((ecko)) has consulted a wide range of experts from premier environmental research institutions and government member organizations of the Science and Environment Council to curate sustainable, all-inclusive "trip of a lifetime" excursions into the heart of native Florida's wild ecology, fascinating history, and rich cultural heritage.

These four-night tours combine an environmentally sustainable philosophy with world-class travel experiences, including eco-conscious fine dining, relaxing accommodations and exciting itineraries curated and led by local experts to showcase the stunning array of natural diversity, culinary arts and leisure, and wild adventure that abounds on Florida's Gulf Coast.

((ecko)) kicks off its first season with the "Inspired Sarasota Bay" debut tour this fall, with additional upcoming trips planned along the Myakka River and the Manatee River banks, an urban wildlife biking expedition, and a Gulf Coast birding trek.

Are you up for the adventure of a lifetime? Read on to explore your ((ecko)) travel options.

Inspired Sarasota Bay

Sarasota Bay has captivated and inspired the local lifestyle since prehistory, when Florida's earliest natives settled along the shoreline to fish its bountiful waters and explore mangrove tunnels that to this day remain untouched. The modern coastline is a vibrant setting for environmental and cultural institutions, as well as architecturally-elaborate homes that add to its lustre and reflect more than a century of Sarasota's development. Experience the ecological and cultural history of the region in a four-day, four-night tour led by local historians, marine scientists, and botanists.

Local historian John McCarthy leads private water taxi tours of Sarasota's most Gatsby-esque bayside attractions, including the Ringling Museum and Ca d'Zan Mansion—the 1920s home of circus mogul, John Ringling. The water taxi also travels to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, where visitors can experience the Gardens' world-renowned living collection of rare tropical plants that thrive in the Florida bayside climate—as well as the Selby greenhouses, to which "Inspired Sarasota Bay" explorers have exclusive behind-the-scenes access.

You'll also spend your days kayaking the Sister Keys, the largest collection of undeveloped islands between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, with ample opportunity to experience up-close encounters with natural marine life, including dolphins, manatees, stingrays, herons and pelicans on field excursions with scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory and a visit to Save Our Seabirds. The "Inspired Sarasota Bay" itinerary also includes eco-minded guided beach walks along South Lido Key, and bike tours of St. Armand's Circle—Sarasota's own "Rodeo Drive."

But who says adventure has to be exhausting? Experience the best of organic farm-to-table dining and sustainable seafood at Mar Vista and Shore Diner, indulge in relaxing sunsets from the Hyatt Regency—and return home brimming with adventure and feeling refreshed.

Manatee River of Time

Centuries before concepts like "ecotourism" and "sustainability" became buzzwords for the environmentally-conscientious traveler, they were the way of life for the Native Americans who called the Manatee River their home. Keep your carbon footprint at a minimum as you walk in the footsteps of the region's original inhabitants in this heritage-oriented journey through the "Manatee River of Time," exploring the rich natural and cultural history of the region—both by paddlecraft, and on foot.

Meet naturalist, Melissa Nell, for a guided bike tour through the Robinson Preserve protected coastal wetland habitat, where you’ll encounter natural wildlife as well as breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico and famous Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Near the mouth of the Manatee River at Emerson Point Preserve, join naturalist Kris Felberg on a guided kayak tour through placid river mangroves, engaging with the diverse flora and fauna that share the land of our ancestors.

At the South Florida Museum, meet local manatees rehabilitating from injuries or other distresses in the wild—and catch a private astronomy show at the Bishop Planetarium, before you delve into the museum’s rich collection of regional archaeological artifacts and learn about Native American societies. Visit the site where Spanish conquistador, Hernando De Soto, first set foot in Florida in 1539 at the De Soto National Memorial, and then immerse yourself in local heritage dating back to the 19th and 20th century at Cortez, one of the oldest and last remaining fishing villages in Florida.

And of course there’s the food: Farm-to-fork organic lunch at Geraldson Community Farm, sustainable, open-air dockside dining at the Sandbar Restaurant and Star Fish Company, and dinners in historic downtown Bradenton will delight your appetite while your mind reels in the bounty of Manatee River history and heritage.

Urban Wildlife by Bike

Whereas ((ecko))’s “Manatee River of Time” expedition pays homage to the eco-sensibilities of the region’s ancestral natives, the “Urban Wildlife by Bike” tour looks toward the future of green travel and tourism in Sarasota County’s modern urbanized landscape with a unique biking and camping experience.

The Legacy Trail, a converted rail line, is a recreational trail system that connects the cities of Sarasota, Nokomis, Osprey and Venice along approximately ten miles of nature parks and trailheads. Though surrounding areas are highly urbanized, the Legacy Trail represents the best of green urban travel, with miles of captivating nature pathways to explore along the trek into the heart of Old Florida.

Start your camping trip with a bike ride along the Legacy Trail to Oscar Scherer Park, where a behind-the-scenes hiking tour with the park ranger provides intimate familiarity with distinctive natural flora and fauna of the area, and details the challenges of maintaining a nature habitat in an urbanized area. At night, enjoy a prepared meal, and settle in to camp beneath the stars. You’ll want to be rested for the following day’s canoe paddle along the park’s South Creek , followed by a seven-mile bike ride to Venice Beach, the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World.”

Spend a relaxing evening in Venice, enjoying the local cuisine and entertainment of a charming arts town. Start the final day of the trip with a guided historical tour of Venice, followed by a bike ride to Caspersen Beach to hunt for shells and sharks’ teeth along the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. Finish out your adventure with a picnic lunch on the beach, and return to the Legacy Trail to pedal to the historic Venice Train Depot to learn how the 1927 rail station played a vital role in the development of the region.

Wild Myakka River

Orchids and egrets and alligators—oh my! Immerse yourself in the wildest Florida wilderness in an action-packed camping, paddling, hiking and biking ecotour de force, the “Wild Myakka River” excursion.

Park rangers and Florida naturalists guide this exploration of the approximately 60 square-mile Myakka State Park, one of the most ecologically-diverse parks in the southeastern United States, featuring a variety of natural habitats including wetlands, pinelands, hammocks, and prairies.

Early morning hikes along the birdwalk and up the 74 foot-high observation deck provide stunning views of Myakka Park’s diversity of natural fauna and flora. Take a paddle expedition through Lower Myakka Lake and past Deep Hole, where on any given day a collection of alligators may be found basking in the sun. Hike the Carlton Memorial Reserve, home to bobcats, wild hogs and white-tailed deer, as well as colorful fields of wildflowers such as the purple iris, tickseed, and the pine lily.

While ((ecko)) adventure travelers trek through the park on foot, by paddlecraft, and on bike trails throughout the four-day excursion, an ((ecko)) camp concierge will prepare campsites along the Myakka riverside and at Rocky Ford. Expect prepared picnic lunches to keep you fueled-up for wilderness exploration, as well as campfire dinners and comfortable evenings spent sleeping under the stars. Close out your trip with a paddle to Snook Haven, an Old Florida fishing camp that boasts a colorful, legendary history and unforgettable true-Florida cuisine.

Gulf Coast Birding

With more than 300 species of birds in southwest Florida, Sarasota County is recognized nationally as a prime spot for birders of all ornithological interest levels—from amateur to expert. Armed with with a keen eye, a set of binoculars, and a little insider knowledge about the preferred hangouts of Sarasota’s wild avian residents, it’s not unusual for birders to spot up to 100 species a day.

From the salty-shored rookeries of the Gulf of Mexico to the tranquil mangrove and wetland habitats and the pine flatwoods and prairies, experiencing the diversity of birds in Sarasota is an awesome undertaking.

The “Gulf Coast Birding” expedition starts along the shoreline of Emerson Point, where wading birds and shorebirds such as pelicans, ibises and egrets are abundant. A hike inland brings birders to tropical hammocks of gumbo limbo and live oak trees, where songbirds and majestic hawks rule the roost. Explore the Felts Audubon Preserve, where more than 160 species of birds have been observed to date.

At Save Our Seabirds rescue and rehabilitation center, you’ll have the opportunity to get up close and personal with recovered resident hawks, owls and cormorants who have found a home at the center because their injuries prevent them from returning to the wild. You’ll also have the chance to visit with the seabirds, shorebirds and raptors who are undergoing temporary stays at the rehab center to heal before being released back to their natural habitats. Hear stories of dramatic rescues from facility staff and volunteers, and get tips on capturing great wildlife photography in a private, expert-led photo workshop.

Trips to the Myakka State Park, Oscar Scherer Park, and Celery Fields close out the trip, allowing exciting opportunities to spot 200 or more species of birds, including the purple gallinule and the imperiled Florida Scrub-Jay, one of the only species of birds endemic to Florida.

Explore with ((ecko))

The five ecotours currently on the menu at ((ecko)) draw from the collected knowledge and expertise of more than 20 member organizations from the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida. All ((ecko)) tour guides are professional scientists and educators.

Typical tour groups accommodate 8-12 people, and are geared toward adults and mature children, age 13 and older. Each four-day ((ecko)) trip excursion is priced between $875 and $1200. These curated trips include hotel accommodations, activities, and most meals.

To learn more about ((ecko)) tours or to book the adventure of a lifetime, visit the ((ecko)) website today.