Kayak Tours and Rentals

A Guide to Booking the Best Kayaking Adventures in Sarasota Bay

Two young women paddling blue kayak in Anna Maria Island

What’s the best way to spend a day in the Sarasota Bay area? On the water of course! Kayak tours and rentals around the gorgeous blue waters of Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, and Lido Key, will give you an up close and unforgettable experience that is consistently touted as one of the best ways to experience Sarasota’s salty side. But what do you need to know to get out on the water and find out for yourself? Let this article be your guide for choosing the who, what, when, and where of paddling the iconic Gulf Coast waters of Sarasota Bay.


What are the best companies to book kayak tours and rentals with?

Not all paddling companies have access to the best launch locations in the area and you will have to choose from a handful of rental and tour operators. Read reviews on traveler forums (Google, TripAdvisor, etc.) to get a good idea of which companies are the most reputable. You will also want to go with a company like ours that has had the same awesome guides for many years. This is a testament to passion and incredible knowledge that a company’s team has for paddling these waters and sharing their beauty with others.

Finally, look for a company with nice equipment! Comfort is key when kayaking and it is worth checking what kind of kayaks the company uses for kayak tours and rentals. Sit-on-top kayaks are the standard type of kayak used in our warm and calm waters. But the size, shape, and weight of the kayak, as well as the quality of seat cushions, back rests, and paddles all make an incredible difference in how you feel during (and after!) your paddling adventure. At Happy Paddler, we use high quality kayaks, SUPs, seatbacks, paddles, and life vests and purchase new equipment on a regular basis to keep our paddlers safe and smiling.


Kayak tour or kayak rental?

Renting a kayak versus going on a guided tour is one of the most frequent questions we’ve heard over the past 10 years. Both are great ways to experiencing an amazing time on the water and both offer unique opportunities for your adventure. In general, renting kayaks allows you to create your own adventure, whereas joining a guided tour will give you a better chance of seeing the amazing details that only a skilled guide knows to look for. Read on for a more in-depth comparison…


Kayak rentals are perfect for anyone wishing to set their own pace 

At Happy Paddler, we typically provide half-day rentals for kayaks and paddle boards and all rentals include a paddle, life vest, and a brief lesson prior to launch. The company you rent kayaks from should be able to tell you about every nook and cranny there is to explore on the water and any places you should check out or avoid. When booking kayak rentals, you will have the option to rent either single or tandem kayaks. Single kayaks offer more independence, allowing each person to learn how to move their own kayak around. Tandem kayaks offer more of a team adventure, where two people must work together to move their vessel along (a bonding experience!). If someone is prone to getting tired more easily (such as a child), they could buddy up with a stronger paddler in a tandem kayak.

People can expect to spend a half-day on their paddling adventure, usually with about three hours on the water. There are several excellent restaurants and cafes near our launch locations where you can stop to enjoy an island bite. These places are usually casual, which makes it perfect for an apres paddle stop to fill your belly after a morning on the water! A few of our favorites are Mar Vista Restaurant, the Cortez Kitchen, and the Longbeach Cafe.


Guided kayak tours are absolutely worth the extra cost

In addition to the stories, history, and friendships they provide, guides are they key to finding all the amazing things on the water! In this beautiful corner of the world, we may see Bottlenose Dolphins and Florida Manatees. Nothing compares to seeing these friendly creatures in their natural habitat and being in kayaks right on the water with them is an experience of a lifetime. As always, our guides are very respectful of the wildlife. In turn, manatees and dolphins are usually very relaxed around our small group of paddlers, letting us watch and learn from them as they go about their busy day. The fun doesn’t stop with the manatees and dolphins though… we’re always on the lookout for smaller, but sometimes even more fascinating creatures like fishes, sea horses, sea stars, conchs, and crabs, along with an enormous diversity of birds.

Regardless of what interesting new friends you make on your tour, your guide will make sure you are safe and comfortable and will answer any questions you may have throughout your tour. At Happy Paddler, our tours usually have a mixed group of paddlers, and this is usually one of the highlights of the tour. With a maximum group size of 10, everyone is sure to get plenty of attention from their guide. If requested, larger groups are easily accommodated for families, special events, and company groups. Private tours are also an option if a more intimate excursion is what you’re after. The options for kayak tours and rentals with Happy Paddler can be found here.

Kayak guide leading a tour through the mangrove tunnels at Ted Sperling Park in Lido Key Florida


Best time to go kayaking around Sarasota Bay?

The morning is often the best time to go for a paddle- this is when many of the animals are waking up and coming out to say hello to the new day. Sunset is another fantastic time to be on the water, with so much wildlife coming out for their last hoorah before nightfall. Seasonally, every time of year is a great time to paddle… but for different reasons.

Spring months in our sub-tropical region are the most popular time to paddle:  the weather is usually as perfect as any human on planet Earth could hope for. There is typically very little rain and the water clarity is postcard perfect. Occasionally, springtime winds can make paddling challenging in some areas of the Bay but there is usually an equally awesome alternate paddling location that can be enjoyed out of the wind.

Summer and fall months can be toasty hot! However, summertime is often the best time to see our friendly manatees in action. The heat, along with afternoon thunderstorms keep our tours and rentals in the early half of the day.

Winter months in Sarasota Bay are much cooler, of course, with highs in the mid-50s and there is much lower chance of encountering winds and storms. While manatees are usually tucked into warmer areas of the coastline, birding during the Florida winter is amazing because we have a lot of winter migrants from the colder northern latitudes.

Whatever time you choose to book your kayak tour or rental on the fabulous Sarasota seas, come prepared with sun protection, water, snacks, layered clothing, and smiles!

Longboat Pass Anna Maria Island kayak tour


Where are the best paddling locations in Sarasota Bay?

The best places to paddle are where crowds are typically not an issue, allowing for incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. Public launches for non-motorized watercraft, like kayaks and paddle boards, are actually not very common in our area. And of these launch locations, only a handful of paddling companies are allowed to provide tour and rental services. Lido Key has some popular mangrove tunnels, but this place can get extremely crowded, which can make a huge difference in a paddler’s experience, so it’s best to time a visit to this location carefully.

On Longboat Key, the well-maintained Bayfront Park has an excellent launch located near a cluster of beautiful mangrove islands and sees plenty of dolphin, manatee, and bird activity. This is a non-motorized launch (no motor boats) which makes it great for anyone seeking an authentic paddling adventure. Kayaks can be reserved ahead of time here. The private Happy Paddler launch at the north end of Longboat Key is perfectly located due to its proximity to mangrove islands and Longboat Pass, a major thoroughfare for wildlife moving between Gulf and the Bay. Reservations are required and the kayak rental and tour options for launching at this private launch can be found here.

Besides all the paddling tips noted above, we would advise you to go into your paddling adventure with respect for the animals and plants that live there… instead of rushing onto a scene of manatees, hang back and enjoy the show! This is what brings out the very best experiences with any wildlife we see on the water. Let your adventure begin- go find out for yourself what all the smiles are about!