When I was a blissfully unaware student at the University of South Florida, I constantly made the trip over the bridge to the Gulf Beaches (it was cheaper than the theme parks, or the Tampa bars) and it was $5 to park in the parking lot across from the Treasure Island Caddy’s. I went last weekend, less blissfully unaware, and it was $35 on a Sunday.
This week, I brought a friend to John’s Pass and circled the parking strip for 25 minutes and met a nice family from Ohio who were on the hunt for a souvenir shop and had never seen the Gulf of Mexico before.
It’s no secret that tourists long ago discovered our beaches.
It’s understandable; our shores are a sandy oasis for out-of-towners and locals alike.
St. Pete Beach
You don’t have to be a fisherman to enjoy the salty lifestyle for a day on St. Pete Beach. Merry Pier [801 Pass-a-Grille Way] reopened this February after six months of renovations. This historic piece of Pass-a-Grille dates to 1902. The modern-day location is the perfect place for a day trip.
There’s guided fishing charters (no experience needed) such as the deep sea Offshore Hustler and a drinking cruise for those less hook handy, Miss Pass-A-Grille. The Shell Key Shuttle takes passengers to Shell Key Preserve, where there’s always bird watching opportunities, dolphin watching, and manatee sighting if you’re lucky.
If nothing else, the Merry Pier Fish Market sells some of the best scallops by the pound I’ve ever tried.
Looking for an air-conditioned experience in the height of summer?
The Gulf Beaches Historical Museum is the pinnacle of historical knowledge on St. Pete Beach. Located at 115 10th Ave., the museum is home to a wealth of local history and contemporary information on all the Tampa Bay beaches.
To my surprise, there’s even a virtual walking tour that highlights the best places to hit the road (by foot or bike) on St. Pete Beach.
As a connoisseur of dive bars, I assure you that Treasure Island’s R Bar, 245 108th Ave., is a low-key joint with actually good crab legs.
It’s not as flashy as Caddy’s or Ricky T’s, but there’s shorter wait times and the seafood prices are dirt cheap. There’s even a classic and ancient Tiki bar bar lit with a neon beer sign. Order the peel-and-eat shrimp and thank me later.
This next one is reserved for a lazy Sunday, and please hold your eye rolls. The Treasure Island Drum Circle meets every Sunday at 3 p.m. behind Bilmar Beach Resort, 10650 Gulf Blvd. It’s a group of drummers, dancers, drinkers, and beach fanatics who wiggle and make sounds until sunset. Honestly, it’s a good time for locals and travelers, and you’re bound to hear a good story or two. I’m not much of a drum circle Floridian myself, but everyone should try it once.
I know I swore off John’s Pass earlier, but it really is a great resource close to the water.
If you avoid the ice cream and t-shirt shops, there’s a zoo of Florida critters and invasive species living on the second floor of the John’s Pass strip. The Alligator & Wildlife Discovery, 12973 Village Blvd., is a hands-on wildlife rescue on Madeira Beach.
There’s mini coral reefs, grown for conservation, skunks, alligators (you can kiss them for a donation) and even a group of oinking pot-bellied pigs thought to be “minis” but abandoned when they reached their full size. If you’re like me and plan to skip planting a wet one on a gator, visitors are still welcome to donate. Donations benefit center’s residents, which are mainly unreleasable wildlife and returned fad pets.
Side note: Weedon Island Preserve isn’t technically beach territory, but it’s worth a mention. I worked at Sweetwater Kayak Rental for a brief spell (turns out the constant heat and bugs weren’t for me), but I learned about the winding old Florida mangrove tunnels that make up the preserve.
Rent a kayak (single or double) at the loading dock, 1800 Weedon Dr. NE in St. Petersburg, and you’re equipped with a map and shoved into the murky water. I’ve seen manatee, alligator gar, otters, and birds there during foggy mornings, so go early in the day.
And please, wherever you go, remember to bring reusable water bottles and totes. Nothing worse than a beach full of Publix bags and solo cups, especially during sea turtle season.