• Image about Pine Island Marina
Sean McCormick

Paddle the Great Calusa Blueway, and you'll not only stumble across a slew of hidden wonders - you'll also discover the moments in life that truly count.

From the helm of the Cayo Costa Star, Vince Tapager gazes out at the sun-bright waters and the mangrove islands of Pine Island Sound. He considers the sky, a dome of pale blue, and the wind, a soft exhalation from the west. He turns back to us, four soon-to-be kayakers. The plan is simple. Vince will ferry us out from Pine Island and drop us off at Cayo Costa, a lovely slice of barrier island and a state park off the coast of southwest Florida. Then we will paddle back to Pine Island Marina.

Vince operates Tropic Star Cruises, one of dozens of local outfitters offering myriad ways to enjoy these lovely waters. In the manner of all watermen, Vince is dry.

"With the wind at your back, you can make it back to the dock in a couple of hours," he says. "Assuming you don't get lost."

Since we left the dock, Vince has kept up an easy patter of history, ecology, and meteorology. He has talked about the Calusa Indians - the fierce, thriving, mound-building tribe of giants who paddled these waters from about 300 AD to the 1700s, when the Spanish saw them to their end. He has pointed out various flora and fauna, and he's addressed the wrath of Hurricane Charley, whose August 2004 landing created new passes between the islands overnight and sent kayaks where they were never meant to go.

"I found one kayak stuck 20 feet up in a tree," says Vince.

It's all very fascinating, and I'm listening - but not too closely, because in absorbing my surroundings, I have observed another important fact. Debby, one-fourth of our merry band of paddlers, voices my thoughts:

"All these islands," she says. "They all look the same."

Vince nods appreciatively.

"Big place," he says. "So much nature and open space."

I HAVE COME HERE to southwest Florida to paddle the Great Calusa Blueway and to get a firsthand look at the water trails that continue to spread their blue-veined arteries across America. There are already water trails in almost every state, and, even as you read this, more are in the making. On them, with a map and some minor navigational skills, you can traverse lovely swaths of wilderness, whether it be for an hour, a day, or a month. Paddle sports - kayaking, rafting, and canoeing - are booming, and as they boom, more and more folks are grasping an elemental, and wondrous, truth: Water is an alchemic portal to places and rarities that would otherwise remain unseen. After all, when was the last time you saw a manatee as you drove down the interstate?

It's not just about the water, though. Most of the water trails offer access to camping, of course, but for those who tire of dealing with freeze-dried stroganoff and grit in their teeth, many trails are laid out to deposit you at the landing ramp of civilization so that you may haul your vessel ashore, shower at a fine B&B, and then, surrounded by the boisterous buzz of locals, tear into half a pound of fat, fresh shrimp. Why are the locals so happy? Because the shrimp are as sweet as candy and the people live on an island accessed only by boat.

The Calusa Blueway trail currently stretches about 100 miles, meandering through Estero Bay - tucked roughly behind the barrier islands of Lovers Key and Fort Myers Beach - and snaking northward into Pine Island Sound, Charlotte Harbor, and the sable-palmed, white-sand islands of Sanibel, Captiva, and Cayo Costa. Soon the trail will officially continue up the Caloosahatchee River and its tributaries, too, though frankly there's nothing to stop you from paddling there now. There is ample opportunity to ply waters fraught with great blue herons and mischievous manatees. But the Blueway also leads to places where you can immerse yourself in the simple joys that make life worthwhile, like desolate beach hikes, the sand soft beneath your feet; cold beverages served up at dockside juke joints; and watching sunsets from a veranda, with rustling palms applauding the purpling demise of day.

Better still, Florida's Gulf Coast moves with a soft, egalitarian sibilance. In Miami, you are judged by who you are and what you wear. On Matlacha, a thin sliver of water's-edge restaurants and shops along the causeway that enters Pine Island, you can walk into Moretti's Waterfront Seafood Restaurant wearing a kayaking skirt and neoprene aqua socks and receive the same attentive service and mouthwatering grouper as Paris Hilton would.

"We're still a little undiscovered," says one Pine Island resident, "and a lot of good things come with that."