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Lost in Florida: So close, yet so far away

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image The family-owned Plaza Beach Hotel in St. Pete Beach typically books up on the weekends ... with locals. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Vacationing close to home: The final installment of a series. Photo gallery below article.


In my travels, people often ask where I’m from. I tell them that I live in a small town (of sorts) south of Tampa.

“Oh, you live in Tampa Bay?” they ask with a trace of recognition but almost certainly no firm idea of where it actually is in the state that dangles off the end of America.

“No, I don’t. But fish do.”

Tampa Bay is a body of water, of course, not a city. But few people have even heard of St. Petersburg, let alone Ruskin. Or so it seems.

Spring break is now a foggy memory and as singer Jimmy Buffett might say, the circus has left town, taking with it the traditional notion of tourist season as the snowbirds flock back to the “New” states of New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and so on. Not that many years ago the end of tourist season also meant the freeways were less jammed and the beaches and restaurants were less crowded — not so much today.

The clerk at the family-owned Plaza Beach Hotel in St. Pete Beach said they typically book up on the weekends. Perhaps even in May, some people are jetting in for a quick respite to the beach, but according to the clerk, most of the people packing into the quaint, funky, beachfront motel are locals.

And why not? With an estimated metropolitan population of just over four million, more than double that number flew in to Tampa International Airport in a single year. That number, of course, doesn’t include the millions more who drive from states as close as Georgia and as far away as Maine. Millions of people come to this area to vacation, why shouldn’t the locals vacation here as well? There are no rules, after all, that dictate boarding an aircraft or driving hundreds of miles is a pre-requisite for vacationing. The reality is, that sort of thing actually does much to detract from what should be a relaxing time, a time to recover physically and mentally from day to day pressures.

On the surface, the Tampa Bay Area doesn’t get much respect. To most of the world, it is far less well known than Miami or Disney World. The metro area isn’t a titan of industry or commerce, and there would seem to be little cohesiveness in the urban sprawl, where officials from the two largest cities find passive-aggressive ways to snipe over a baseball team and cruise ships. On Yelp, an internet site designed to help travelers find restaurants and things to do in cities around the world, number 12 of the top things to do in Tampa is a review of an MRI machine and radiology center in Carrollwood.

But political bickering, MRI machines and city limits matter little to those who visit, it generally doesn’t even much matter to those who live here. There are 70 miles of barrier island beaches from Pinellas County southward, and right here in South Hillsborough is arguably the best place to view a sunset outside of those beaches.

Sheri Nadelman worked her way through the crowd at the Sunset Grill at Little Harbor in Ruskin, belting out a cover of Lou Reed’s Ride Sally Ride with a gravelly rock and roll voice that rivaled the best of the famous female rockers. As she walked from table to table, more and more people crowded the dance floor directly in front of her Sarasota-based band, SoulRCoaster. Before long, the tables were empty and the floor was filled with tipsy twenty-somethings and sixty-somethings, all coming together over some great music on the beach. A moment later, her voice turned silky-smooth for a Carole King tune, giving some of the dancers a chance to wrap their arms around each other and others an opportunity to refresh their drinks at the tiki bar. Meanwhile, the last vestiges of a sun that set over Tampa Bay and behind the St. Petersburg skyline turned the western sky pink.

“We’ve made a lot of changes over the past six months,” said Jurgen Wochnik of Little Harbor. “People used to come just for the view but now they are coming for the entertainment.”

They are also coming for the drinks and the food, as evidenced by the waiting lists for available tables. Locals chat with out of town visitors as they cluster around the tiki bar, while others set up chairs on the beach, where the music could be heard along with the words of companions. It was packed on Saturday night, just as it is on most weekend nights.

The pier and the beach at the resort are on the way to becoming a quieter, smaller version of Key West’s Mallory Square as crowds gather to toast the end of the day with the sun sinking behind the skyscrapers across the bay and the sky turning into a muted riot of pink, orange and purple.

According to Wochnik, people come from everywhere to visit the resort, and at this time of year a lot of the visitors are local. On this weekend, it was an eclectic crowd of young families with pre-school children, young couples, groups of friends for whom children were not yet in the plans, and older couples whose children have long since left the nest. SoulRCoaster warmed up to all of them with an equally eclectic mix of great music.

“I’ve been involved in the music business most of my life,” Wochnik said, in explanation for how he managed to bring such talented acts to the last real beach resort in Hillsborough County. He continued by saying that local people can come here, have a relaxing time at the beach and a great time at night and then just walk back to their hotel room at night’s end. For most people in South Hillsborough, it is a short drive for a vacation but it’s a world away from the concerns of everyday life. The world is increasingly crazy and anxious and a little dancing on the beach at sunset can go a long ways in helping to put things right again.

North Beach at Fort Desoto Park in Pinellas County was surprisingly crowded for a cool, breezy Sunday in May. With just a casual glance, it was easy to separate the locals from the tourists, the latter of which tended to have painful-looking sunburns, perhaps in an attempt to cram in the most possible rays before having to return to a cloudier place somewhere else.

This weekend, the park will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Although entry is no longer free, for $5 a carload the financial burden is low for a day spent at one of the world’s most beautiful places.

Given the mad rush over the decades to develop and pave over the entire state, the fact that the expansive park exists at all is a near miracle.

The park is named for the long-abandoned fort, the ruins of which still exist and are free to visit, but the real draw are the beaches and fishing from two large piers. Even the snack bars, with less than stellar food, are a draw because they add to the vibe of the place — a vibe that is a throwback to a time when things were much more simple than today.

For even the most jaded residents, the gift shops with hokey tourist trinkets somehow make a day trip feel like a vacation. No, you probably won’t wear that pooka shell necklace to work or anywhere else but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it. In it is the magic to let you be a kid again — a kid on vacation, even if for just a few hours.

Gas is expensive and air travel is a dehumanizing madness that is often outrageously expensive. More than 14 million people visited Hillsborough County in 2011 to find a temporary paradise. For those of us who live here, that paradise is just down the road at the Gulf beaches, in historic Ybor City, and at Little Harbor. All offer a few hours or a weekend away from the pressures of day-to-day life. That sounds like paradise to me — and no one has to take off their shoes, except to feel some warm, soft sand between their toes.

Writer’s note: More information on the places mentioned in this article may be found on the web: Little Harbor is at www.staylittleharbor.com; the family-owned Plaza Beach Hotel is at www.plazabeachresorts.com and Fort Desoto Park is at www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm

Information about the band SoulRCoaster may be found at www.soulrcoaster.com.

Clearwater Beach is arguably the most famous of the Tampa Bay Area destinations and I purposely left it out of this article for one good reason. The last time I drove there, I sat in a traffic jam for so long, I would gladly have submitted to the worst, dehumanizing techniques the TSA could dish out in exchange for just getting out of there. That said, the beach is beautiful, much of the waterfront is walkable, but getting there can be a challenge, particularly on a weekend, but that is a challenge that can be overcome with a little planning.

As for me, I’ll take the beach just down the road. Maybe I’ll see you there this Saturday night.

050913 Florida Part 5 - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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