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Be a tourist for a day at John's Pass

Chances are spending the day at John's Pass Village isn't something that has crossed your mind since the in-laws from Ohio visited a couple of years ago.

That's okay, because with Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. set to open a huge restaurant at the tourist-friendly Madeira Beach retail area, now's a good time to rediscover a sometimes-forgotten center of Florida culture and kitsch.

Before you head out, some quick tips: Bring a ton of change for parking meters, pick up a map of the center when you arrive, and budget extra time to navigate through all the road work and bridge traffic at the beach.

Here are some highlights we found on a recent visit:

Watch the clock

One quarter buys just 15 minutes of time, and there's a 4-hour limit on loading up the meter. There's a parking garage, though, so you might be better off with their rates if you plan on staying for the day.

The Wal-mart of beach stores

Welcome to Beach Zone, a huge stand-alone building where everything seemingly is on sale. Want a Hawaiian shirt for $10. No problem. Two tank tops for $14? Deal. Still searching for that "The South Will Rise Again" beach towel? It's here, along with 120 other towel designs, hats, inflatable rafts, bathing suits and more.

Just bead it

On the ground floor of the new addition to John's Pass is Celestial Beading, where custom necklaces and earrings await do-it-yourself hobbyists and beading fans. There are classes for beginners or walls of supplies for those ready to jump in.

Gimme some water

John's Pass is on the water, so boating options are everywhere. Along the boardwalk, boats will gladly take you shelling, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, dolphin-watching and even pirating. The Pirate Ship departs for three cruises daily. During the two-hour journeys, kids (for $23) can get their faces painted, search for treasure and engage in water-gun battles while adults (for $33) swill free drinks.

Bean there, done that

In the new part of John's Pass, Addicted to the Bean offers iced coffee and smoothies — a welcome treat during the hot summer months.

Play dress-up

Ever dream of being Capt. Jack Sparrow? You can at Pirates of the Pass, an old-time photo studio where — starting at $23 — visitors can dress up and pose in either pirate or old west sets.

Best place to find a giant squid

Stick with the furry, plush variety, which sells for $18.89 at The Shipwreck Store, along with both real and replica coins and religious artifacts from shipwrecks.

Time to ruin the diet

On the top floor of the new wing awaits Kilwin's, the Willy Wonka of John's Pass. No need to ask directions. Your nose will find it. The Michigan-based purveyor of chocolate and ice cream intoxicates visitors with the scent from more than 60 types of chocolate treats, 40 types of super-premium ice cream and a dozen variety of caramel apples.

Get fried

Looking for small bites? Sea Side Sandwich tempts tourists with deep-fried bites of alligator, crab cakes, shrimp and clams. It's a menu that visitors assume Floridians live on daily. (We don't, but we like to keep our relatives in the dark.)

The big meal

Until Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. opens its doors, Sculley's Boardwalk Restaurant and The Hut remain the big dogs at John's Pass. The giant fish house and neighboring tiki hut serve up bowls of she-crab soup, plates of raw oysters, giant half-pound burgers and platters of fried and blackened seafood.

Smoke on the water

Casa Havana Cigar sits seemingly quiet across from Sculley's, selling hand-rolled cigars and Cuban coffee. But on weekends, the place fills with fans of salsa music as live bands and dance classes spice up the nights.

Where the locals munch

Sculley's and The Hut might be the star attractions for now, but locals will quietly confess that it's the fresh fish and daily menu specials from Waltz Fish Shack that keeps the small restaurant filled.

Need a plastic alligator?

You can find a dozen or more kinds of rubber gators, sharks and other water creatures at Merry Mouse, the super-store for kitschy Florida souvenirs. Looking for a salt-and-pepper set made up as palm trees, shells, crabs or starfish? It's all here, along with more shot glasses than a frat house uses on homecoming weekend.

Just getting started

You think that's it? It's only the beginning. John's Pass has more than 100 businesses selling items from T-shirts and sharks' teeth to frozen custard and Florida wine. For a full list of businesses, check out the official Web site at

Yum, Forrest, yum

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. opens its first Tampa Bay location in Madeira Beach at John's Pass Village on Friday. In preparation, brush up on your trivia of the 1994 classic Forrest Gump (waiters already have a massive corporately mandated head start).

The California-based restaurant chain has almost 30 locations worldwide, including Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Daytona Beach.

The menu focuses on shrimp and fish — often prepared with a Southern or Cajun touch — but landlubbers can find salads, ribs, burgers and pork sandwiches.

One tip: To call your waiter, turn your tabletop sign to "Run Forrest Run. Turn it to "Stop Forrest Stop" when your needs are fully met.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. is at 185 Boardwalk Place, Madeira Beach; (727) 392-1500.

Be a tourist for a day at John's Pass 07/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2008 5:28pm]
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