Along a seam of white sugar-sand beaches, a string of Florida beach towns offers a version of vacation bliss, replete with seafood and midcentury ambience.
Not far from downtown St. Petersburg lies a string of barrier islands edged with a perfect seam of white sugar sand beaches. The main town of what is often referred to as the “Gulf beaches” is bustling St. Pete Beach. Neighboring communities like Indian Shores, Madeira Beach and Treasure Island are more “Mad Men” than “Miami Vice” — charming specimens of an older era, studded with midcentury gems like the Bon-Aire Resort Motel, the Algiers Beach Motel and the Postcard Inn. The pace is much calmer than, say, Miami Beach, or Fort Lauderdale. Early morning walks along the water can be blessedly solitary. The nights, however, are hopping. Each community has its own coterie of tiki and beach bars, often within a stroll of one another along the sand. The Gulf supplies an abundance of grouper, snapper and other fish, and the area is known for its “Gulf to grill” restaurants; it’s not uncommon to see sunburned bodies wander into even the best restaurants with their fresh catch to be prepared in the kitchen. The beaches have more than enough activity to fill a few days; if possible, head inland to visit St. Petersburg, with its seven arts districts; the splendid Salvador Dalí Museum, which attracts visitors from around the globe; or Haslam’s Book Store, a mecca for book lovers and writers.
1) 6:30 P.M. COCKTAILS IN THE AIR
Watch the sun go down in spectacular fashion at Level 11 Rooftop Artisan Bistro Bar. This circular bar offers views not only of the Gulf but also of Boca Ciega Bay and glittering St. Petersburg. The crowd is diverse and friendly, as is the staff. A “light fare” menu won’t wipe out your appetite for dinner. Craft cocktails include the Strawberry Blonde (prosecco, strawberry vodka, pineapple juice and strawberry purée, $11). Patrons wander about, awaiting a perfect view of the sun as it bids adieu, often resulting in applause.
2) 8:30 P.M. REPAST AT THE PINK PALACE
Head a few blocks south to the Don CeSar for dinner Gatsby style. The enormous “pink palace” opened in 1928, the architecture a blend of Mediterranean and Moorish styles. It immediately pulled in some of the era’s most celebrated, and most notorious, figures; both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone stayed here. Nearly closed some decades ago, the hotel was saved in 1973. For dinner there is the luxe Maritana Grille, but the Sea Porch Café won’t disappoint either palate or wallet. For starters, fried calamari with key lime rémoulade or goat cheese fritters with açaí poached pear salsa, pecans and honey are excellent choices for under $12. Entrees include pecan-crusted snapper with roasted root vegetables, cranberry and ginger-orange beurre blanc. Key lime pie is a tangy mousse surrounded by pillows of whipped cream ($9). Then head upstairs to the hotel’s plush Lobby Bar for live jazz. The mixologists put new twists on old standards; their version of a Boulevardier ($16) is made by blending the ingredients and then storing the concoction in oak barrels for six to eight weeks.
3) 8 A.M. GET UP … NO SO FAST
Sweet Brewnette in nearby Madeira Beach is a retro coffee shop/restaurant that serves nitro cold-brewed coffee. The eclectic cafe (chandeliers and local art coexist nicely) offers smoothies, waffles and veggie scrambles for breakfast lovers. Expect to pay about $8 for breakfast. (Consider returning for lunch fare like the Amalfi Love salad, with arugula, Parmesan, grapes, basil, pine nuts and lemon vinaigrette, or the $7 Caprese grilled cheese, with tomato, garlic and basil pesto with a three-cheese blend on grilled Cuban bread.)
4) 10 A.M. A BIT OF EVERYTHING
Grab the kids and set your GPS to nearby John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk, a Rubik’s Cube of restaurants, bars, confectioneries and trinket merchants. In between the T-shirt/flip-flop shops are real gems like the Spice and Tea Exchange and Treehouse Puppets & Treasures. Book a trip to watch dolphins or throw out a line to fish. If time allows, grab some fresh-as-it-gets seafood at Walt’z Fish Shak (open at noon Saturdays); Walt’z sells fresh catch of the season. Expect to pay from $15 to $35.
5) 1:30 P.M. TIME TRAVEL
The Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, in the heart of Pass-A-Grille at the very tip of the main barrier island, is one of those finds that thrill history buffs. Here, in what was the first church in this small coastal hamlet — the property was saved in the late 1950s by the social editor and preservationist Joan Haley, who left the church to Pinellas County to be used as an island museum — are exhibits highlighting life in the early development of the area’s beach communities. Read about Silas Dent, the hermit of Cabbage Key, or peruse old postcards, World War II exhibits and photos from the early 1900s. The museum’s store offers books on local lore as well as a collection of sea-themed children’s books, jewelry and free brochures on local sea life and attractions. Grab one for the walking tour, up next.
6) 4 P.M. WALKING TOUR
The community of Pass-A-Grille is recognized as a National Register Historic District and is thought to be named for the 18th-century “grilleurs” who dried fish on the beach. The self-guided walking tour includes some of the town’s earliest buildings, many still functioning in this community, including a home once used for U.S.O. dances during World War II. If biking is more your style, head over to nearby Merry Pier to rent bikes ($8 per hour, $25 for the day); be sure to cruise Eighth Avenue, believed to be one of the tiniest Main Streets in America and seriously charming. Or stay and fish: The pier rents fishing tackle.
7) 6 P.M. EAT LIKE A LOCAL
Sea Critters Cafe is a rustic, relaxed, fun-but-no-nonsense seafood restaurant on the water that local residents love not only because the food is fantastic but also because those who can prove they live here pay less. Follow your cocktail (say, a tiramisù martini) with blackened grouper, sweet potato fries and French green beans ($23.99). Or opt for the mother lode called the seafood broil: lobster tail, snow crab legs, clams, mussels and shrimp ($27.99).
8) 9 P.M. BOOGIE NIGHTS
Consistently topping the area’s list of “best beach bars” is Jimmy B’s Beach Bar at the Beachcomber Beach Resort Hotel in St. Pete Beach. The sprawling outdoor space with scattered bars and a dance floor overlooks the Gulf. You can dance, snack on crowd favorites like blackened shrimp tacos ($13) or coconut shrimp with sweet chile sauce ($13). If tropical drinks are on the itinerary, go in for the two-fisted Rum Runner with light and dark rum, blackberry brandy, banana liqueur, pineapple juice and grenadine ($8.95). Make no mistake, this is a party bar — but one with style, and not just of the thatched kind. Music is bouncy enough to get the crowd on its feet without causing tinnitus. Strike out on the sand for a pub crawl to neighboring bars, the Sand Bar Beach Bar at the Guy Harvey Outpost or the Toasted Monkey. Take note of the long boardwalk jutting out from Jimmy B’s; it will be a much-needed landmark heading back. Then let the savory smoked fish spread ($10) from Jimmy B’s get you home full and happy.
9) 9 A.M. HISTORY, BIRDS AND BEACH
Head to Tierra Verde to visit Fort De Soto Park, more than 1,000 acres over five interconnected isles. Named for Hernando De Soto, the fort was used as a stronghold by the Union Army during the Civil War and was further constructed as a defense in the Spanish-American War. The park is a rest stop for more than 300 species of birds and has something for everyone: history, self-guided interpretive trails, fishing or simply lazing on a pristine beach. You can kayak to two island preserves, Shell Key and Egmont Key, or walk to the end of the Fort De Soto fishing pier for a wide view of the Gulf. Or, again, fish!
10) NOON; LAST RESORT
If you’ve snagged something edible, take it to the Island Grille and Raw Bar — the chef knows what to do. If you didn’t catch anything, don’t despair: This pretty, sprawling restaurant and bar has something for everyone: seafood, oysters, or pork and chicken dishes. The lobster bisque ($7.50) is heavenly, and the key lime pie ($6) has a deeply sweet graham cracker crust that balances the citrus. If happy hour appears close (quite subjective here) take a look at the Island Grille’s list of draft beers and wine. For the really road weary, the Grille has a full bar.