By Suzy Kridner
The weather was bright and sunny on a recent Saturday as the Water Taxi Express was making the second of five round trips between Ponce Inlet and New Smyrna Beach.
At its first stop at Inlet Harbor Restaurant in Ponce Inlet, Capt. Bob Wheeler eased the "H2O" up to the dock and Director of Operations Paige Stuart jumped out to tie up the boat.
It was a perfect day for cruising along the river and avoiding the traffic on U.S. 1.
Passengers Rich and Ginger Van Rensselaer of Ponce Inlet boarded at Inlet Harbor for a day of shopping on Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach.
"We used it (the water taxi) all the time when it ran before and did pub crawls," Ms. Van Rensselaer said.
"We used to take groups with us and we talked about it at Thanksgiving this year," she said.
This is the first time they've been on the water taxi since it started up this fall.
Right away Capt. Bob pointed out dolphins cavorting in front of the boat. There's always a lot of wildlife on the river, especially egrets and storks.
Capt. Bob is very familiar with the Intracoastal Waterway as he also was captain when the water taxi was operated by the city and the Marine Discovery Center a few years ago.
The state Department of Transportation issued a $750,000 grant for New Smyrna Beach to buy the boats and operate them, but the venture wasn't sustainable and the grant ran out.
Matt Dvorak, owner of the new Water Taxi Express and other ventures, such as Daytona Beach Aqua Safari, said he wanted to restart the water taxi because "we've had a lot of people who said they missed the water taxi."
Mr. Dvorak, who also owns Ponce Inlet Watersports and Daytona Beach Parasail, said in an e-mail, "We are always looking for more activities for the tourists to do when they come here."
"It's a good effective way to connect people in New Smyrna Beach, Ponce Inlet and up to Daytona Beach."
"Visitors have a great opportunity to visit the Lighthouse and Marine Science Center here in Ponce Inlet," he said.
For those going to New Smyrna Beach, it's a great opportunity to explore the shops, dining and historic districts of Canal Street and Flagler Avenue, he said.
That's exactly what the Van Rensselaers did.
"There was a wine walk and art walk on Flagler Avenue," Ms. Van Rensselaer said after their trip.
"I bought all my Christmas presents for my employees from one artist," she said.
The couple ate at Gnarley Surf Bar and Grill where they had grilled blackened fish tacos, then later a snack at Clancy's Cantina before cruising back to Inlet Harbor, where they enjoyed dinner.
"It was a great day," she said.
The 38-foot water taxi holds 32 passengers, and there's room for surfboards and bicycles.
The two-hour roundtrip voyage goes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, weather permitting and stops at the new floating dock at Riverside Park at the end of Canal Street in addition to the dock at the Riverview Hotel & Spa and the Grille at Riverview at the end of Flagler Avenue.
In Ponce Inlet, the water taxi stops at Inlet Harbor, Down the Hatch, and Lighthouse Boatyard and Marina.
Mr. Dvorak and city officials in New Smyrna Beach have worked out a plan to trade advertising space on the water taxi in lieu of city fees.
Mr. Dvorak said he's been working with Holly Smith, New Smyrna Beach LOOP and CRA marketing director, to put advertising for the city and the Loop on his boats and vehicles.
He said he is pleased with the response to the water taxi so far.
"We planned to have a soft opening during the slow season to work out all the kinks. The response we've been receiving from the public has been extremely supportive," he said.
For more information, call (386) 589-1768 or visit www.watertaxiexpress.com.