Gorgeous coastlines are just one reason to visit St. Pete Beach, Pensacola Beach and New Smyrna Beach, where funky vibes and friendly locals are par for the course; gathering spots for fresh sea- food and cool cocktails sit on the edge of the sand, while shopping and pool- side lounging await just blocks from the water.
ST. PETE BEACH
Driving over the Howard Frankland Bridge, with a view of Tampa’s crowded skyline in my rearview mirror, a sense of calm comes over me. I’m getting close to miles of pristine beach. Passing Tropicana Field and downtown St. Petersburg, I’m on my way to an off-the-beaten-path gem — St. Pete Beach and its surrounding islands. Gulfport Boulevard, where I get off, is a stretch I know well. My husband, Jason, went to Stetson University College of Law just down the road. As the modest beach town emerges, I think about it within the area at large, with its historic law school, the Dalí museum and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team (always at the top of the league).
I roll my window down and take in the view of sailboats from the Corey Causeway. People (myself included) have a tendency to lump all of St. Pete Beach together, and continuing along Gulf Boulevard through Treasure Island, Madeira Beach and Redington Beach — each amounting to about two square miles — I can see why. The only delineation happens to be bridges and subtle road signs. Blink and you’ll miss ’em. This, I think, is a great thing. An Old Florida vibe thrives here — there are flamingopink condos, hole-in-the-wall beach bars, an old soft-serve ice cream joint shaped as, well, a giant swirl ice cream cone, but there are also new beachfront homes around John’s Pass, newly opened restaurants and modern drawbridges.
The one thing that keeps me from running straight out to the water and curling my toes in the warm sand is Salt Rock Grill. For boaters, the restaurant is a quick trip up the Intracoastal, just north of Mile Marker 17. Locals head to the bustling tiki deck for fresh mojitos. What a life. Seated outside on the patio, Jason and I indulge in fresh hogfish, which we learn was caught just a few miles away by St. Pete fishermen. Chef Barry Spaulding tells me that about 60 percent of the fish on the menu are caught locally.
“We have about six or seven boats, each with crews of two or three, that use our docks,” he says. “In return, we get first choice on whatever seafood they bring in once or twice a week. Right now it’s stone crab season, so they’ll go out close to shore and check all the traps. Spaulding knows his way around his kitchen. He’s been here since it opened 16 years ago. More importantly, he knows his way around St. Pete. “I’ve lived here more than 50 years. I love the weather,” he says.
We watch the sky fade into sunset while eating a piece of Key lime pie and then head south to check in to the Postcard Inn. Completely reinvented about two years ago from its previous incarnation as a Travelodge, it fits in perfectly with St. Pete. It’s overflowing with character in a beach-house-kitsch-meets-vintage-Florida way, starting with its rough sawn wood exterior. No cookie-cutter rooms here — but a motif is constant: surfoards and large-scale surf photos by local artists. No matter what time of day, it appears to be a favorite beachy-chic hangout, with a packed pool and beach bar. It’s the ideal spot for us this weekend.
The next morning, I overhear a couple talking about how the waves are perfect. Waves? On the Gulf coast? The water is notoriously flatter than its Atlantic counterpart. When we finally throw our suits on and roll out of our first-floor room onto the beach, it dawns on me. The waves are perfect in that they are nonexistent — great for stand-up paddle boarding. Using rental boards, couples glide up and down the coast for hours, catching rays and getting a great workout.
Meanwhile, at the bar, a couple from Ohio is celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary with frozen cocktails. “We’ve been coming here for 20 years,” the woman tells me. “We would have never known about this beach if our Florida relatives hadn’t let us in on the secret.” On our last morning, we go to Beverly’s La Croisette, a tiny place in the Historic Corey Shopping District. Beverly’s serves 3,100 plates each week, and the wait is 45 minutes, but ohso- worth-it. We browse the nearby Corey Fresh Market until our table is ready. The breakfast wraps our weekend, and after one last dip in the Gulf, we merge onto northbound Interstate-275, homeward bound. — Ashley Fraxedas
- Where — St. Pete Beach is a group of barrier islands just 10 miles from the city of St. Petersburg.
- Stay — Postcard Inn
- Do — SUPpaddleboard.com
- Drink — PCI Beach Bar
- Eat — Salt Rock Grill, Beverly’s La Croisette, Beachwood BBQ & Burger
- Shop — Corey Fresh Market, John’s Pass Village
- Resources — visitstpeteclearwater.com