US 19: A Million People and One Long Beach

This is the seventh (and final) leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
And nary a SpongeBob was seen that day…
In stark contrast to the spacious green country hills surrounding Monticello, the most crowded place in the state waits at the end of the tour. Pinellas County, the most densely populated but second smallest of Florida’s 67 counties (Union County has 40 square miles less than Pinellas County’s 280), greets you at with sponge docks and Greek food. After divers picked over the Key West sponge fields, they headed north to Tarpon Springs. Eventually, synthetic sponges replaced the mass need for natural sponges, but today locals still refer to Tarpon’s downtown as “the sponge docks.” The city boasts Greek food, sponge and Greek-oriented gift shops (think lots of olive oil-based products), and an annual Epiphany celebration. The Greek community celebrates the Epiphany, or Cross Day, with a blessing of the fleet. As part of the Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the baptism of their Christ in the Jordan River, a processional (complete with doves) to the water ends with a priest from the local Greek Orthodox church throwing a cross in the water. Young men dive for the cross; the one who retrieves it receives a blessing from the priest and, legend holds, divine beneficence for the coming year.
In homage to its beginnings as the Seaboard Rail Line, these  artsy city signs mark passage from city to city on the Pinellas Trail.

US 19 runs the eastern length of the county, but Alternate 19 and the Pinellas Trail parallel and twist over each other on the western edge. The Pinellas Trail, a former railway line converted to paved trail, runs the length of the county with spurs into local communities. The trail has rest stops, water fountains, and a host of bike shops and restaurants along its 33-mile trek through the county.⁠ Like the trail, US 19 travels the length of the county, and it is here that the road is at its most crowded. Between Wall Springs Park – a historic spring once marketed as a health spa – and St. Petersburg, the route devolves into a glut of supermarkets, gas stations, and car dealerships. In St. Petersburg, a detour off the road over to Fourth Street takes you to Sunken Gardens⁠, where you can descend into the pit of a sinkhole covered in flowers and greenery. At one time, the flowered sinkhole boasted a plastic Jesus – I’m not sure why, and no one at Sunken Gardens can tell me why when I ask, but, hey, it’s Florida, so I roll with it – but it’s long gone.

Calypso, in her bike basket.  She’s used to bike rides along the Trail and at Fort DeSoto.
At the county’s south end, Fort DeSoto takes over. The fort and park are on five islands interconnected by a chain of bridges and lagoons; the 1100-plus acres of the park are prime beachfront real estate, fronting Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The park offers a 13-mile bike trail, fishing piers, camping, beaches, paddling, a boat ramp, hiking paths, and a beachfront fog park.⁠ The merits of the park alone could merit a book in and of itself. This park, expanses of sand and pines and pockets of nature, offers an oasis from the quick marts, Dollar General stores, and homogenized shopping experiences dotting the tour.

Shell Key. The name kind of says it all…

Off the tip of Pinellas County, two islands offer shelling, snorkeling and less crowded beach going. Shell Key, a nature preserve easily kayaked over tidal flats, has no facilities but plenty of birds. Oystercatcher, skimmers, and other beach birds nest here. Shell collectors often find sand dollars here as large as dessert plates, and the waters between the southern Pinellas mainland and the Key are rife with dolphin and manatee.⁠

Wade out a few feet into the Gulf, skim your hands just under the sand, and odds are you’ll find sand dollars. Get there early in the morning at low tide, and you’ll find a haul of shells. The island – too long to circumnavigate on foot – alternates between grassy beachfront, white sand, and scratchy sea oats. In the center at its widest part (not at all that wide) you will find the odd tree or two.

Baby starfish

If you intend to kayak to Shell Key, beware Pass-a-Grille channel: between the shallow waters off Shell Key and Pass-a-Grille, the channel is swift and deep and well-traveled by boats far larger than kayaks or paddleboards. A more serene (and admittedly longer) paddle is from the southern end of Tierra Verde. Do not attempt this paddle at a low tide; you will find yourself walking over mud flats. Stop by the oyster-ringed spoil islands on the way out to Shell Key, though, and odds are you will stumble upon a starfish nursery or two.

Further offshore and not suggested for kayakers is Egmont Key, an island in the main shipping channel for Tampa Bay. Most of the island is open to the public, although harbor pilots have housing on a private piece of the island. Egmont Key attracts snorkelers who want to look for sea life in the sea grass or explore the sunken ruins of the crumbling Fort. Charter boats offer trips to both these islands.

 

In Pinellas County Gulf Boulevard offers a beachy alternative to US 19. It starts at the west end of the county, in Clearwater, and runs south along the Gulf to Pass-a-Grille. The bulk of this stretch is a two-lane road. Traffic exits a roundabout onto Gulf Boulevard south, passing first through the sandy carnival of Clearwater Beach. The beach has a marina offering every conceivable boat trip, from a yellow oversized speedboat that tempts Atlantic bottlenose dolphin to surf their gargantuan wake, to sailboats that let the wind pull them through Clearwater Harbor and into the Gulf. Pier 60, the pier at the western terminus of state road 60, has a nightly sunset celebration complete with buskers and artists.

Over the Sand Key Bridge, condominium canyons line either side of the road, the only exception the county’s Sand Key Park. Sand Key Park is a beachfront park across Clearwater Pass from the hotels on Clearwater Beach. Beach sunflowers, sea oats, and low lying beach scrub dot the park, a stark contrast to the next town south, Belleair Beach. This quiet community has mostly traditional Florida ranch homes and a handful of two-story hotels on the beach. Belleair Shores is yet another type of city, with walled-off beach mansions, gated beach accesses, and a reputation as the spoiled rich child of the county. Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Shores, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach are the next four towns along Gulf Boulevard. They are chiefly residential, with many vacation homes available by the week or month, but fewer nightly motels. The beaches here are accessible largely by walkover access with limited parking, but they are not as populated as Clearwater beach to the north and every beach to the south.

Madeira Beach is a wider city, owing largely to the dredged residential fingers on the east side. At the south point, a collection of tourist-centric shops offer everything from tacky t-shirts to exotic spices at John’s Pass Village.  John’s Pass is the waterway dividing Madeira Beach from Treasure Island, another larger beach community with a mix of condominiums, hotels, and homes. The city’s main shopping thoroughfare, 107th Avenue, runs east over the Treasure Island Causeway, becomes Central Avenue, and runs through St. Petersburg’s downtown, ending at Tampa Bay.

The county’s final beach town, St. Pete Beach, is in no way associated with St. Petersburg; calling it “St. Petersburg’s Beach” tends to produce an unfavorable response from the town’s 9,000 residents, many of whom are seasonal. The city consumes the entirety of Long Key, not to be confused with Long Key in the Florida Keys (See Tour 1). St. Pete Beach bookends Clearwater Beach (which truly belongs to the City of Clearwater, a sandy extension of the mainland city) in size, amenities, and beach. It boasts a a plethora of hotels, motels, and resorts. Visitors can spend anywhere from $100 a night at a retro-styled hotel to $600 per night at the 1920s-era Don CeSar.

Pass-a-Grille, a separate city in 1939, is now part of St. Pete Beach. You will not find a single large resort here; most buildings have only two or three stories. Pass-a-Grille still retains a sense of individuality from St. Pete Beach, with special zoning rules and guidelines, houses with more foliage than grass, and the distinction of the southernmost point on the southernmost beach in the southernmost city in Pinellas County. From here you have nowhere to go – as the last motel on the point advertises, visitors have arrived at Island’s End.

US 19: The Stilt Houses

This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away. 
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn’t realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.
You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist. 
 
Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
The view from Durney Key
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.
 
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps. 

On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the ni
ghtly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.⁠
The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.

US 19: When Dinosaurs Roamed US 19

This is the fifth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
South on US 19 a giant dinosaur waits. I first found it as a kid, when my dad had a construction job at nearby Timber Pines. He worked for Scarborough Construction, the company that installed most of the water and sewer lines in central west Florida. The parent company, Weyerhauser, sent me through college on a scholarship, and I try not to focus too much on the fact that the company that had an active part in resurfacing much of Florida’s landscape paid for the bulk of the studies that led me to fall in love with the parts of the state they were actively destroying.
Nevertheless, I was going into sixth grade and Scarborough paid for the guys on the construction crew to stay the week in Weeki Wachee, so my mom and I spent a few days hanging out on the the-then deserted stretch of US 19. We visited the brand-new Kmart, went to the pool, and visited the mermaids.  She also took me into a taxidermists’ – I guess you’d call it a shop, right? – and I stood, transfixed by all the animals rooted forever in death.
My favorite thing (after the mermaids, of course) was the great brown and green, plaster dinosaur. The hulking giant used to signal a Sinclair gas station but those, too, died out. Today an auto service station, Harold’s, changes water pumps and rotates tires beneath the belly of the beast. It’s not a traditional tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean people don’t stop and take pictures. I have a painting of Dino in my study, and if the brute ever topples, to storm or sprawl, US 19’s metamorphosis from sleepy two-lane road to clotted arterial highway will be sadly complete.

Florida road trips.