Just a few miles can make the most amazing difference when it comes to having a laid back slice of life, American style.
If you’re heading through Florida, using Interstate 75 or some of the other main arteries on the Gulf side of the state, you can often miss out without realising.
It took a few trips for the penny (or nickel) to drop when I was cruising south down Highway 19 through Clearwater, Largo and St Petersburg on my way to Sarasota, having been a bit sniffy in the past, maybe, by paying only fleeting visits to the beach resorts over to my right.
Great fun, yes, but a bit too brash and ‘seasidey’ when I didn’t have much time to spare. I’d been more interested in reaching my destination further down the Cultural Coast.
But I discovered a whole new dimension when I decided to take a detour and a proper look round, with an ideal base in a city I’d already fallen for in a big way and written about St Petersburg.
I again tucked myself up in the Hollander Hotel, where, with true Southern hospitality, I was made to feel like one of the family almost as soon as I walked through the door. And even before I’d walked out to the pool bar and ordered one of the regular cocktail specials or a craft beer!
Craft beer runs through the veins of the whole Tampa Bay region and is helping the heart of St Pete to beat as vibrantly as ever, with micro-breweries springing up and boosting its rapidly-developing go-ahead profile.
Once seen as a bit staid, the Downtown district is flourishing as never before and is a great draw for foodies, with trendy new cafes and restaurants catering for an increasingly cosmopolitan crowd. Heading inland from the bustling Waterfront Arts District and its astonishing Dali Museum, clutching a handy Downtown map, take in the Central Arts District and then enjoy the Edge District, where you get tastes to set your senses reeling, from fast or leisurely American to quirky Cuban and the novelty of just-opening Hawkers Asian Street Fare.
Asian fusion barely hints at what they do, with a menu I couldn’t even begin to spell out, featuring street food from Malaysia, China, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand in what they like to call a ‘hip, sharing-encouraged environment’.
It turned out to be great fun, duly sharing a good few tapas-style small plates in the delightful company of Lorin and Tara from the local tourism HQ, with dishes arriving in gleefully random order because of the different cooking times required. What a great way to enjoy a long lunch!
Meal over, keep heading out of town and stay on Central Avenue to take you under Highway 19 and on towards the coast, but save the undoubted delights of St Pete’s Beach for another day and head over to Treasure Island and it’s huge, arched drawbridge over John’s Pass, carved out by a hurricane in 1848, to Madeira Beach.
Again, forget the sand, just park up over the bridge and head for John’s Pass Boardwalk, a raised, two-storey, balcony-style structure with shops, bars and restaurants on the landward side, and busy jetties and outside bar seating on the other, jutting out into the waters of the Pass itself.
The undoubted hub and main attraction of the village here is Hubbard’s Marina and the cupboard here is anything but bare, offering dolphin watch trips, sightseeing tours, sunset cruises and ferry journeys, as well as fishing trips ranging from 3-hour near-shore excursions to full-on deep-sea expeditions lasting all day, all night or even for 34 hours.
A bonus has to be that you can have your catch cooked in the Friendly Fisherman Restaurant when you get back, after maybe a quick thirst-quencher in the handy Hooters bar. And a great catch almost goes without saying. Just take a look at the Hubbard’s website or Facebook page any day to see delighted anglers with fish I’d be hard pressed to even lift off the deck.
I’m saving fishing for my next visit. I promised jovial company vice president Dylan Hubbard I would grab a rod and join in but on this trip we just had time for a dolphin watch on the marina’s ‘Big Blue Boat’, an ultra-stable pontoon vessel with comfy seats, snack bar and (of course) restrooms, along with ramped access to either jetty or beach so that no-one feels left out.
We set out on a rare day with little sunshine, as a fine sea fog rolled in a blanketed the area like a 1950s B-movie, but it was a bit deceptive and I still got burned by neglecting the 50-factor as we toured upper Boca Ciega Bay, seeing plenty of dolphins along the way, as well as egrets, herons and always-amazing pelicans.
The dolphins seemed quite at ease with the boat and came close enough to almost touch as experienced skipper Captain Jack Steeves steered us past fishing villages and mangrove islands, while guide Jeannie Matheny pointed out the house where Cacoon was filmed and homes costing from a measly million or so to a rather pleasant waterfront mansion with an asking price of $5.9million. Mind you, it did have a ten-car garage.
Back to base after a generous 1½ hours on the water, with a pledge to be back and enjoy more than the fishing and take in maybe a sunset cruise (weather permitting!) or Hubbard’s three-hour shelling trip, consisting of a one-hour cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway to the uninhabited barrier island preserve of Shell Key, an hour shell-hunting, and a hour back to port via the Gulf of Mexico. The drawback, sadly, is your miserly luggage weight allowance for the flight home after you’ve collected all the shells you can carry.
Mind you, get enough chums together and you can also charter a boat to Shell Key or Egmont Key for a day-long BBQ beach party. Now that could be scorching fun, foggy or not!
David Graham travelled to John’s Pass during an extended stay in Florida, flying from Manchester to Tampa with Virgin Atlantic/Delta; spending time in the Tampa Bay area before heading south via Bradenton and Sarasota; staying in various hotels, notably the Hollander and Best Western Plus Siesta Key Gateway.