The perfect way to explore Pinellas County’s barrier islands is by bike, and recently we set out to explore the southern barrier community of St. Pete Beach. The journey started on Pass-a-Grille Way near Merry Pier where we found tourists, residents and regulars wetting their lines in one of the area’s best shore fishing spots. The historic pier provides more than a tie-up for boaters returning from the Gulf of Mexico or nearby Shell Island, it also hosts a small, friendly store and fresh off-the-boat seafood market. A longtime fisherman from nearby St. Petersburg says he prefers to catch his own meal and regularly lands snook, redfish, snapper, and flounder along the seawall adjacent to the pier.
We continued north and a short distance away found our ride taking us across the short and rather steep bridge to Vina Del Mar Island. Translated from its Spanish origins the island’s name means “Vineyard of the Sea.” The blue green waters under the bridge were crystal clear and from the bridge’s peak fish schooled around pilings of an adjacent dockside café’. A young man passed on foot and told us the bridge is a long-time rite of passage for teens through the years – taking the risky jump to the gleaming waters below. As we rode through the island the mix of quaint restored homes and newer multi-story residences was impressive. The fingers of land had windows where boats small and large could be seen tied to docks or raised on lifts, reminding us of another of the many reasons people find Florida’s coastal life so satisfying.
Back on Pass-a-Grille Way we pedaled north by the spacious vacation home once owned by August Busch, heir to the Anheuser-Busch beer empire, and onto the transition to Gulf Boulevard at the historic Don Cesar Resort Hotel. The grand pink lady stands as St. Pete Beach’s most distinguishable landmark since 1928 and regularly hosts the rich and famous seeking relaxation on Florida’s coast. But the “Don” as locals call it, also served as a military convalescent center during World War II and remained in VA control until its sale in 1972. Massive renovations and subsequent modernizations through the years make the Don Cesar a go-to resort destination, preserved by designation in the National Registry of Historic Places.
A dedicated bicycle lane on Gulf Boulevard kept a safe distance between us and the bustling traffic lanes as we rode past a plethora of food choices. One of our best discoveries on the journey was an authentic bakery called La Casa Del Pane. In addition to fresh breads and pastry offerings, we enjoyed Cappuccino and Espresso along with breakfast sandwiches and mini Sfogliatella. Apparent regulars and obvious tourists crowded La Casa Del Pane and filled the room with laughter and playful banter, the kind you expect of an authentic Italian bakery.
Full and refueled on caffeine we saddled back up for the continuation of our ride. We saw Dolphin Village Shopping Center – a longtime destination for locals anchored by a Florida based chain super-market and several smaller stores and businesses. Just past Dolphin Village attention was drawn to an apparent jungle of exotic wildlife that surrounded an exotic giant tiki. Polynesian Putter is the longtime survivor of the many putt-putt golf courses that once dotted the tourist cities along Pinellas County’s coast. Golfers navigate giant snakes, tigers and obstacles to enjoy great family fun time. We made note to return in the evening when this beach “must” regularly host the Masters of sibling-parent showdowns!
Farther along on Corey Avenue another row of cool shoppes and restaurants sits, and we formulated a plan for a Sunday return to enjoy the year-round Corey Avenue Sunday Market. Enticed by photos of the fresh vegetable vendors and local craftsmen and artisans, we yearned to join the crowds that gather each week for market offerings and live entertainment. According to a shop keeper Corey Avenue and its weekly market are what St. Pete Beach is all about – good times.
The bicycle venture left Gulf Boulevard and Corey Avenue and set us north on Blind Pass Road. We approached beautiful St. John Vianney Catholic Church and stopped to admire the gold domed pinnacle and take a closer look inside at the church’s magnificent stained glass. A quick history lesson of the parish that began as a mission in the late 1930’s was the story of St. Pete Beach’s growth through the years. During winter months the congregation surged as an influx of snowbirds flocked to the community while each year the number of permanent parishioners rose as the island was developed. In 1949 so many people filled St. John that the pastor purchased a large tent from Ringling Brothers Circus to accommodate winter visitors and parishioners pushed its small. St. John’s opened the county’s second Catholic school in the 1950’s and in 1963 the present church was constructed and continues to serve a congregation from several beach communities. On the ride away the St. John bell carillon chimed a symphonic melody as if to bid us adieu as we moved towards the end of our ride.
We finally crossed the Blind Pass Bridge to Treasure Island and declared an end to our amazing outing and parked ourselves at Sea Dog Brewing Company. Ice cold microbrews provided the perfect cap for a day of discovery, and we lifted our glasses to toast the adventure. The gleaming midday sun sparkled through the frosted glass of golden pilsner, and we sat beside the waterway and took it all in. It was a perfect beach day and another reminder of why we love Florida and the Pinellas Gulf Beaches so much.