John's Pass, Florida
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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
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
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
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
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.
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