Seaside Harmony

January 30, 2004
Filed under Destinations

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We walked barefoot down the beach, dangling our Teva sandals by their straps. As we kicked
through the warm, clear water, the sand melted between our toes. A jogger approached us,
fit and tan. We sucked in our white stomachs. It made us feel more, well, you know. We
should have been jogging too, but now, at 6:30 in the morning, the sun was already peeping
over the tree tops, and we preferred to just stroll and look for shells. Setting our
sandals at the high-tide mark, we waded out into the crystal-clear aqua-blue water. There
were no waves to speak of. The water temperature was about 83 F – almost too warm. Little
schools of mullet scurried by. About 30 yards from shore, we were up to our waist, just
deep enough to sink to our knees for a refreshing dip before breakfast. This was the
community of Pass-A-Grille, and we could smell the coffee somewhere up the deserted street.
It was spring on Florida’s west coast, and the days had been unseasonably hot and humid.
Maybe it was that we had just come from the high, dry deserts of Chihuahua, Mexico, but by
11 a.m. to move was to sweat. We wanted to be near or in water, and between the northern
tip of Honeymoon Island and the southern mangroves of Fort De Soto County Park, there was
no lack of it. This region spans the Gulf of Mexico for maybe 35 miles as the pelican
flies, just west of the metropolises of Tampa and St. Petersburg, but each of at least 15
beach communities has its own personality. Left to our own wanderings, with a copy of
Lonely Planet’s Florida on the dash and two Prijon kayaks strapped on top of our Tortuga
Expedition Camper, we had turned southwest off U.S. Highway 19 onto Alternate 19 to reach
the Dunedin Causeway connecting the mainland with Honeymoon Island State Park. The park has
good opportunities for bird-watching and shell-gathering, but we found the beach a bit
rocky. There is a little ferry that takes day-trippers over to Caladesi Island. Actually,
Caladesi is not really an island at all, but more like an extension of the Clearwater beach
to the south. Essentially it’s only accessible by boat. Backtracking to the Dunedin
Causeway, where bikes, kayaks and catamarans are rented, parking is free in the shade right
at the water’s edge. We slipped into our kayaks and paddled over to the sugar-sand shores
of Caladesi. By 10:30, families had already started to arrive in private boats. Jet Skis
and Wave Runners played behind the wakes of big fishing yachts headed out into the gulf. We
paddled down the deserted, palm-lined southwestern shore a mile or so and beached our
kayaks where the passengers coming over from the park’s ferry disembark for the day. It was
time to smear on some sun screen. These white-sand beaches, in combination with the
reflection off the water, can act like a parabolic mirror and burn you to a lobster red.
Caladesi Island State Park has modern restrooms and showers, and an inviting picnic area
with tables and barbecue pits under the trees. We pulled out our lunch from the waterproof
storage compartments and took advantage of the amenities. Paddling back in the afternoon,
we passed fishermen wading waist-deep a hundred yards from shore. This is a great place to
learn windsurfing. If you fall off, you just stand up. Crossing the Memorial Causeway, we
dead-ended into Clearwater Beach at State Route 699, which runs the length of the coast.
Clearwater is one of the larger beach communities, with tall condominiums and fancy hotels
lining the shore. There is parking for campers of up to 24 feet at the public-beach lot for
$10 a day, and limited street parking for larger RVs close-by – or you can park for free on
the nearby causeway and just walk three blocks. The Clearwater strand is by far the most
popular beach we visited and one of the nicest, with the usual coveys of brown-skinned
bikini-clad beach bunnies and bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic. The public pier is an
attractive option for those who want to watch the crowds without getting sand in their
shoes. Just across the Clearwater Pass Bridge, Sand Key County Park has very limited RV
parking. Indian Rocks Beach, farther south, is wide and inviting, and there are more cute
eateries than you could sample in a year. The crowds, traffic and wall-to-wall condos were
wearing on us, so we hurried south to St. Pete Beach, where 699 turns into Gulf Boulevard.
The jewel of St. Pete’s manicured strands is the grand Don CeSar Beach Resort. You can’t
miss its pink towers. Built in 1928, it was the hot spot for high-society players like F.
Scott Fitzgerald, Clarence Darrow, Lou Gehrig and Al Capone. During World War II, it was
used as a convalescent center for battle-fatigued airmen. Abandoned in 1969 and restored in
1973, its Mediterranean Moorish architecture has somehow withstood the test of time.
Absolute luxury, with rooms topping $400 per night in the high season, it is not exactly
our style, but surely worth a quick walkabout through its stately halls and across the
polished oak and marble floors. Jogging east on Pinellas Bayway, we turned south on State
Highway 679, stopping in Tierra Verde, where Wave Runners, motorboat rentals and full
chartered fishing trips into the gulf can be arranged. Crossing yet another causeway, we
came to Fort De Soto Park, a huge playground with boat launches, beaches, bike and canoe
trails (and rentals) and an absolutely fabulous campground. Many of the 233 junglelike
full-hookup sites are right on the water, with swaying palm trees begging for a hammock and
moss-draped oaks adding an air of mystery. Reservations are strongly suggested for weekends
and holidays. As you read this, it may be possible to register online with a credit card.
The county park is also the site of historic Fort De Soto. The site’s history dates back to
1528, when Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez came ashore. Construction of the fort began
in 1898, to protect the shipping channel into Tampa Bay. By 1903, there were eight 12-inch
mortars and two 3-inch Driggs-Seabury rapid-fire guns. Self-guided tours of the fort and
Quartermaster Storehouse Museum are free, and two of the big mortar guns are still in
place. There are several picnic areas throughout the park where a pleasant day can be spent
on, in or near the water under the shade of moss-draped trees. Returning to St. Pete Beach,
we wondered where the road south ended. It changes from State Highway 699 to Gulf Boulevard
and then to Pass-A-Grille Boulevard to bump through an older residential area, ending in
the historic community of Pass-A-Grille. This really is the end. You generally get to
Pass-A-Grille because you’re lost, or because you know where you’re going, and perhaps
that’s what gives it its charm. Local legend has it the community’s name may come from the
Cuban fisherman who stopped here to smoke and salt fish on the beach before returning to
Cuba back in the 1830s. Parking in metered spaces on the beach is only $5 a day. A fishing
jetty pokes into the bay for those who wish to wet a line. Locals park around the point
from the Pass-A-Grille Channel to fish at night. We ended up at the Hurricane Restaurant on
the gulf side to wait for the sunset from the rooftop bar. There are a few good casual
restaurants in town. We especially liked The Wharf Seafood Restaurant, but the fresh
grouper is tasty anywhere. Unfortunately, we didn’t find an RV park in town, but there are
some unposted parking areas down near the Island’s End Cottages, where cute little
bungalows are rented. Whether you stay the night or return the next day, this is the beach
of all beaches. The water is more like a big swimming pool. The white sand is clean, not
crowded – even on weekends – and travelers in small RVs will appreciate the outside showers
and public restrooms. Whatever you do in Pass-A-Grille, take time to visit the Evander
Preston gallery on Eighth Avenue. The sign on the door will read Open for Awhile or Closed
for Awhile. If it’s open, knock, and a distinguished gentleman will invite you in and offer
you a complementary chilled glass of white sangria or some other refreshment of your
choosing. The jewelry creations of Evander Preston and his collaborators are nothing less
than amazing and spectacular, and the eclectic museum of treasures from around the world
will surprise and delight you for an hour or more, as your personal guide walks you around
the exhibits. There is no entry fee and no pressure to buy anything. Back at the beach
where the showers and sundry shops are located, just across the street from the Hurricane
Restaurant, there is a post with an old school bell. On most nights, a local will be there
to ask visitors to sign the Pass-A-Grille guest book and ring the bell, just as the orange
sun slips into the Gulf of Mexico. In the morning, we’ll take another walk on the beach.
Maybe we’ll even jog a little before we wander up to one of the cafés for breakfast.

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