With cooler temperatures wooing us outdoors (and most of the snowbirds still up north), now is the perfect time to pack a picnic and hit the beach.
For most people in Hillsborough County, that involves piling into a car and driving 30 minutes or more to the Gulf Coast.
But it doesn't have to. The Tampa area has plenty of places to dip your toes in the sand and sea. Granted, none of them will make Dr. Beach's top 10 list, but they're close and convenient and good cures for a beach fix.
This month the city of Tampa expanded the options with the re-dedication of Cypress Point Park in the West Shore business district. Tucked in an office park, it's not a beach you'd stumble upon. Actually, it seems out of place on the extreme west end of Cypress Street behind several low-rise office buildings.
But once you find it, you'll be glad you did. The small, 50-acre park has beautiful views of Old Tampa Bay and large picnic shelters overlooking the water. The city, which acquired the land in 1996, recently spent about $641,000 restoring the natural shoreline and adding restrooms, showers and trails. For years, it had been an illegal dumping ground.
On any given weekday, Cypress Point attracts West Shore workers enjoying a sandwich and salty breeze. But a word to anyone seeking peace and quiet: Planes from nearby Tampa International Airport roar loudly overhead.
Here are some other places in and around Tampa where you can hit the beach without making a whole day of it.
Picnic Island Park
The mack daddy of city of Tampa waterfront parks, Picnic Island has it all, if you don't mind driving past gypsum plants, gasoline silos and other gritty industrial buildings. In addition to a long swimming beach, the park has a boat ramp, fishing pier, canoe launch, dog beach, restrooms, children's playgrounds and picnic shelters galore. The city recently added an observation deck and other improvements to boost the park's reputation as a poor cousin to Pinellas's pristine beaches. You can find it at the south end of Commerce Street in Port Tampa.
Davis Islands Seaplane Basin
This isn't an official park, although many beach lovers come here to throw a blanket on the sand and read a book waterside, with downtown Tampa as the backdrop. Think twice about swimming, though — locals say the cove is polluted with waste from boats whose owners live on board. Other than a few picnic tables and shower spigots, there are no amenities. A popular dog beach is across the street. It's located at the southernmost tip of Davis Islands, along Severn Avenue.
E.G. Simmons Park
If an afternoon at the beach isn't enough, grab a tent and head to this park near Ruskin, which offers camping. The large, 469-acre park along Tampa Bay has picnic areas, a boat launch, fishing piers and a public beach with great views of St. Petersburg. A longtime favorite of outdoor enthusiasts, E.G. Simmons is good for bird watching in the shallow waters of the surrounding mangroves. It hosts a variety of community events, including this weekend's 20th annual Ruskin Seafood Festival. Located at 2401 19th. Ave. NW, just west of U.S. Highway 41.
Ben T. Davis Beach
Headed west to Clearwater? You might want to take a detour. Located on the Tampa side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, Ben T. Davis offer 12-hour metered parking along the beach. The sand isn't the softest or the whitest, but it's easily accessible. A few years ago, hurricanes ruined the restroom and concessions building, but plans to rebuild are under way. Swimmers beware: Officials have had to close the beach occasionally because of high bacteria levels caused by waste.
They call this the Redneck Riviera, and for good reason. Here, you just drive your pickup to any spot along the beach, plunk your cooler on the tailgate and enjoy the view, which happens to be of smokestacks at the Bartow Power Plant. The beach, which has a small boat ramp, is popular among the jet-ski crowd and attracts partiers at night, presumably those racing along Gandy Bridge, which of course isn't allowed. Don't be surprised to see vendors selling artwork and other wares on the weekends. Located on the south side of Gandy Boulevard on the Pinellas side of the Gandy Bridge.