As far as we’re concerned, there are two great joys that are unique to Florida. One of them is its roadside attractions that predate the Mouse and the interstate, hearkening back to an older and weirder Florida. Florida’s been a tourism mecca since the 19th century but back in the day, the advent of the automobile changed the game by bringing in all kinds of people from all over. Many of these little mom-and-pop attractions sprung up along the routes to the bigger and more popular destinations. Lots of enterprising folks saw their opportunity to make a buck off of selling the whole Florida experience via these outlandish sideshows. They’d often incorporate Florida’s exotic plants and animals into their schtick, and sometimes the odd mythological creature or two. Some were whimsical and some were just totally whack-a-doodle, but all are a part of Florida’s special sauce.
Although their numbers have dwindled, there are still well over 100 roadsides left out there and we did get to hit up a few before we left the state. Luckily, one of these attractions is right in St Pete’s. We spent an afternoon at the Sunken Gardens, the city’s oldest living museum. George Turner, a plumber with a passion for gardening, purchased the land in 1903. There was a lake that filled an ancient sinkhole that fell 25 feet below street level, which George drained. This revealed soil that was rich enough to grow exotic plants from all over the world, and by 1924 he was charging visitors for tours of his beautiful gardens that were filled with exotic wonders. The city of St. Pete purchased the gardens in 1999 and designated the site a historic landmark while restoring the gardens to their former glory. It was a lovely way to spend a free afternoon and well worth the price of admission. (They also often offer Groupons for 50% off if you’re on a budget.)
Joy number two is the Florida causeways. Coastal Florida is brimming with them, and they just make the best spots to park and unwind from sun-up to sundown. Whether it’s for the whole day or for a few hours before work, there’s nothing like backing up onto the beach (usually a secluded stop shared with maybe one or two other travelers at most or the odd fisherman wading by), throwing open our back door and enjoying the view and fresh air. And it makes our cat super happy as well, to the point where we make a point of giving Xiaozhang his beach time at least every other day.
We’d often hit up the Pinellas Bayway near my work. Shane would sometimes go park for the day while I worked and do some truck maintenance (another perk to causeways, no one will bat an eye if you want to lift up the hood and tinker). One time one of the locals who was fishing nearby knocked on our door and gifted us three of the sheepshead fish he’d caught.
One of our favorite things to do when traveling is to cook using the local catch or foraged ingredients we’ve found. We did this all across Atlantic Canada, so it was a real treat to get to experience it for the first time here in Florida. We pulled over in Passe-a-Grille Beach at one of those little stations they have set up for people to use to gut and clean their fish and got the job done. We then prepped the fish by making a rub out of butter, garlic and seasoning. We also added some of this amazing lemon balsamic vinegar we’d picked up in downtown St. Petersburg at the Kalamazoo Olive Co. The fish tasted fantastic, and it made for a really special experience to add to our Florida adventures.
Pinellas Bayway is also the route to Fort De Soto Park, which is comprised of five interconnecting keys that sprawl over 1,100 acres. It draws more visitors than the Everglades and offers beautiful white sand beaches plus boating, fishing, kayaking, hiking, plenty of birds and flora and fauna, and the historic fort. The five keys were used for fortification to protect Tampa Bay during the Civil War. Then they were once again used as a strategic defense when the US got involved with the Spanish American War in the late 19th century. A permanent fort was erected in 1900 to defend the bay and was named after Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto. But the fort was abandoned by 1923 and remained so until Pinellas County purchased it from the War Department after WWII, finally making it an official state park by 1963.
We spent a beautiful day there. $5 gets you parking privileges for the day but you do have to hit the road by a half hour after sunset, the beach patrol will round you up otherwise! First we rented a kayak from Topwater Outpost and paddled through the mangroves. The best part was that a mom and baby dolphin accompanied us for about half of the journey, pure magic. You can also pull into these little openings in the mangroves when it gets too hot and enjoy the view.
We explored the fort for a bit before moving on to the beach for a dip. Afterwards we made dinner in the parking lot before returning to the beach for sunset, where we spotted this really cool sand castle on the beach that made quite the sunset mise-en-scene. Ok, well until a couple of drunk girls showed up and stomped all over the castles while shouting “sandcastles are bad!!” lol, but that was part of the perfection of it all. Overall, the day couldn’t have been more magical.
Another causeway we made a regular part of our rotation was Gandy Beach, aka the Redneck Riviera (yes, people far and wide actually refer to it as that). It actually didn’t end up being as redneck as we’d expected (although we also avoided Saturdays), and we more often than not met really cool people from all walks to chat with. Plus, the water was always so nice and warm for swimming.
As Shane pointed out, the Redneck Riviera even comes with its own redneck Eiffel Tower lmao:
We even spent our Valentine’s Day on a causeway:
We kept the Valentine’s vibes going that week and explored Honeymoon Island. It’s a state park that lies on the other end of the 2.5 mile-long Dunedin causeway, and it’s filled with white sand beaches, palm trees and mangroves. Originally named Hog Island, the property was bought by Clinton M Washburn in 1939. He clearly had a penchant for PR because he swapped out the name Hog for Honeymoon and started marketing the island as the honeymoon capital. He cooked up a contest in collaboration with Life magazine and invited newlywed couples to apply for free vacays in the cottages (with names like Love Birds and Love Nest) he built on the beach (they would have to pay their own travel expenses, though). As you’d expect, he received a tidal wave of entries, including from Ronald Reagan (he was rejected, he’d been married too long).
Honeymoon Island became a state park in the seventies and remains a stunningly beautiful, unspoiled span of beaches and wildlife. It’s also a primo spot for getting your mermaid on and scavenging for amazing shells to add to your collection. We heard that this is where the locals go when Clearwater Beach gets too hectic, and we can see why. We very much got Robinson Crusoe vibes while we were there. We highly recommend making the stop if you’re in the Tampa Bay area, all you pay is an $8 entry fee for your ticket to paradise.
Of course we pit-stopped at the Dunedin causeway before we headed back to the bay area:
There was one more experience to be had back in St Pete’s, which seemed like a fitting wrap-up of all of this lovely beach time. And that was to finally try some of the kava. Bula Kafe, whose colors had always caught our eye on the commute back from the Hurricane to Cracker Barrel, was where we chose to be initiated. It’s apparently St Pete’s first kava bar and boasts “the finest Kava from Vanuatu & Solomon Island”, so we figured that would do. They also offered 2 for 1 since we were first time customers, which was cherry on top. We hoisted our cups and toasted with a “bula bula” before putting it down the ole hatch. I’ve got to say, kava has a very nice little buzz to it. Over the course of the next half hour or so, we felt energized and really, really happy. We can now call ourselves fully Floridified, and it put us in the just the right mindset for our plans to get back to exploring some local culture. More on that later…