Old Florida is mostly alive and well in the little historic district of St. Petersburg known as Pass-a-Grille. Pass-a-Grille begins in grandiose fashion with the 1928 Mediterranean/Moorish hotel Don CeSar rising above the sands and the hot white sky of St. Pete Beach. The “Pink Lady” is too big for its lot and it threatens to engulf the thin ribbon of Gulf Boulevard that passes in front of it. The hotel signals the end (or the beginning) of the great flotilla of waterside motels and condos that are beached like ships all the way up to Belleair Beach. I counted one vacant and for sale lot where something had obviously been torn down; the rest of Blind Pass Road (SR 699)was one unexciting condo after another, some painted in tones of mustard and ketchup. Architecture “style” ranged from the thin, four-story bunker u-shaped wedge to classic two-story Bon-Aire motel to a pie-shaped behemoth that had on its top a revolving restaurant shaped like a frying pan.
As a historic district, Pass-a-Grille has some protection from commercial development, if not from the stylistic vagaries of individual homeowners. Here and there a classic Florida beach home exists in suitably weathered shape; otherwise builders have been at the tiny lots with three-story houses that look like boxes stacked atop one another. The newer homes do not detract from the district’s charm, tucked back as they mostly are behind palms and flowering bushes.
Pass-a-Grille is a peninsula at the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach bordered on one side by the Gulf of Mexico and on the other by the neck of Boca Ciega Bay. Dune walkovers lead to the beach that was still blazingly hot in September although as vacant as if a storm were on the approach. On the bay side, which I prefer, a multitude of cracked and sharp-edged shells suggests that shoes are a smart accessory.
I waded out into the bay and was surprised at the current despite a sign warning as much. I meant to photograph some of the ubiquitous pelicans, but the current made me wobble and the light was uncooperative. I had better luck up the road a block or two, where an assortment of pilings might as well be known as “Pelicans’ Roost.”
This is an utterly different Florida than you find in Gainesville. It’s tourist Florida from the days before Miami was developed and thanks to that glorious beach it has retained its draw. Flowers and shrubs no longer need to be frost hardy, so you encounter cartoon-like blooms in that special Florida color palette of orange, pink, yellow, and blue. Walking along Pass-a-Grille Way, I came across a tunnel of greenery that had formed over the sidewalk. A complete leaf cover provided an immediate and welcome drop in temperature. I peeked through tree limbs to discover a small swimming pool on the other side, surrounded by large pots of flowering tropical plants. It made me want to…do something with my life that would enable me to be able to sit by that pool in an old clamshell chair drinking mimosas and contemplating the addition of plastic flamingos to an otherwise sedate and attractive theme.
Instead, I pushed northwards and interrupted a small snowy egret that had been up until that moment the faithful and wary companion of a sidewalk fisherman. The bird disliked my camera and it flew up into a tree across the road from which it felt safe enough to pay me no mind while the fisherman looked at me as if I were the first-born idiot to have scared off the bird with the grinding motor of my camera.
A couple of blocks later and I was back at the Don CeSar. Normally, I’d have an eleven-dollar cocktail in a grand old dame like this, but I decided to push northwards with the understanding that Gainesville was almost a three-hour drive away, more if you took the beach road and made random stops along the way.
I usually try to visit Fort DeSoto Park when I’m in St. Pete. This is an urban beach that surprises with its beauty. It is, hands down, the best county park I’ve ever visited; you don’t expect such natural beauty in a county parks system. It reminds me of what North Carolina’s Outer Banks used to look like in the 1960s. You access the park by driving through Tierra Verde, which is a condo city that ends as soon as park territory begins. Once on park land, the park is made up of five keys, with nature trails, piers, and a designated dog beach as well as the historic fort. Three miles of beach provide plenty of room for baking oneself the color of a coffee bean, as was the case with a young man I spied on a surf kayak whose race was indeterminate until he came closer and I noticed his light blonde hair.
The drive back to Gainesville crosses an imaginary boundary that separates tourist Florida from non-tourist Florida. This occurs shortly after leaving the Tampa area and then you have left sun-and-fun Florida behind as you hurtle northward in the dark with the massive big rigs speeding out of Florida in search of another lucrative load.