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Cruise Gulf Boulevard and discover old and new Florida at its best

Gulf Boulevard.

Did you just have an involuntary shudder?

Did you just get a vision of endless condominiums blocking the beach view? Of taillights and stoplights and bridge construction and darting pasty-white tourists? And box stores selling cheap T-shirts and cheaper souvenirs?

It's okay, a lot of us who don't live out at the gulf beaches have had that reaction. We just want to get over a causeway, find a decent parking spot and plop on the beach for our own little Florida vacation. The thought of actually having to spend some time on any of those 22 miles of asphalt makes us cranky. Especially since the speed limit is a barely moving 25 mph in many spots and a lumbering 35 in others.

But we want to change that view. You already know about the Don Cesar, the Undertow bar and the tourista mecca of John's Pass, but we went exploring and found some surprisingly long-lived, fun and beloved destinations. And we documented them with an iPhone, just to give you a traveler's view of the sights along the way.

Now we're encouraging you to discover some of the road's quirkiness, embrace its history and revel in its Florida-ness. C'mon and cruise with us up and down Gulf Boulevard. Convertible optional, but bring some good tunes.

Yum, Florida: From the road's southern point and heading north, these casual restaurant/bars display old-time Florida decor and beach charm.

1. Sea Horse: Open only for breakfast and lunch, this long-time Pass-a-Grille favorite has been around for more than 50 years. Expect a short wait on a Sunday morning, especially in the winter. Inside's nice and woody, but we love sitting out back al fresco for an eggs-and-toast breakfast. 800 Pass-a-Grille Way, Pass-a-Grille

2. Silas’ Steakhouse and Bayside Bar: Named for a real-life Florida hermit who lived on Cabbage Key south of Pass-a-Grille (where Tierra Verde is now), this St. Pete Beach mainstay has been around since 1979, serving up steaks and seafood in a comfy nautical setting. A faux Silas overlooks the action (the real one likely would not have deigned to dine there, preferring his hog jowls and hoppin' John). A great seat in the house is in the back dining room, where you can gaze out over the Intracoastal Waterway. 5501 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

3 and 4. Ocean Breeze Lounge & Tapas Grille and Sea Hags: These seafood places aren't related, but they both sit on opposite sides of Gulf Boulevard right before you head over the pass into Treasure Island. That means waterfront seating and a great place to end your day coming off the beach, or a good place to grab a bite if you're heading for a sunset. Ocean Breeze occupies the old Mulligan's, and you can still pull your boat up for a bite. 9524 Blind Pass Road and 9555 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach

5. Conch Republic: You can't miss this complex in Redington Beach, with its orange, red and purplish colors (yep, it reminds us of a Key West sunset, too). This large restaurant/bar screams tourist spot, complete with T-shirt shop up front (not a bad selection). But we say head outside to the bar fronting Gulf Boulevard and you'll swear you're somewhere on Duval Street. 16699 Gulf Blvd., North Redington Beach

Sweet and funky: Since going to the beach often makes you feel like a kid again, indulge in childhood delights by paying these a visit.

6. Twistee Treat: You've probably done a double-take if you've passed by this St. Pete Beach landmark because it looks like a giant ice cream cone. It features quintessential summertime treats like hot dogs and, of course, ice cream. 6902 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

7. Candy Kitchen: Like a kid's fantasy come true, this 600-square-foot space is packed with delicious relics from our candy past: Mary Janes, Slo Pokes, candy necklaces and B-B Bats, just to name a few. But there are also Mexican jumping beans, Gumby, Pokey, Slinkies, a Drinking Bird and every childhood cheap thrill you could ever want. And did we mention homemade fudge? We're feeling a sugar rush just writing about this place. 13711 Gulf Blvd., Madeira Beach

Wastin' away again: There's just something about being near the beach to make you thirsty for a cold one. These spots hit the spot for us.

8. The Wharf: This bar/restaurant is an edgy outpost on the water. In fact, it looks like it could have come out of a novel set in New Orleans or Memphis because the outside seating is contained in narrow spaces that make you feel as if you're on a dilapidated riverfront dive that could collapse any moment. Just be careful if you have small kids with you (or accident-prone friends). The two sets of steps leading to the boat docks have no railing and no gates. 2001 Pass-a-Grille Way, Pass-a-Grille

9. Sea Critters: This fun Caribbean cafe, with the requisite yellow, green and blue colors, is a good place to grab a bite with a brew on the water. The back deck is mostly covered and it has an outdoor bar that features plenty of seating and fans for cooling. There are also a few tables nestled under the Vina Del Mar bridge that are right along the boat docks. Prime seating in our books. 2007 Pass-a-Grille Way, Pass-a-Grille

10. Sloppy Joe’s: The venerable Key West joint has spawned this newer offspring that sits in the Bilmar Beach Resort right on the beach. The bar/restaurant is cool and sleek, with the requisite T-shirt/gift shop for tourists. But locals should head straight for the 150-seat double decks outdoors. 10650 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island

11. Mahuffer’s: You can't miss it, with a junked car out front that proudly proclaims "We don't sell Budweiser." Inside, it looks like a cross between fish camp gone to seed (complete with a firebox in the middle of the place surrounded by car seats) and a seriously well-used beach bar (buoys and shells and bras and bric-a-brac). Don't bring the kids to this one (but judging from our visit, well-behaved dogs are welcome). 19201 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores

12. Red Lion Pub: Is that a red British phone booth on the side of the road? Yep, and the theme continues when you go inside and find darts and a long selection of British Isle beers on tap at its long and sturdy bar (which separates the darts/pool space from a restaurant on the other side). Like many gulf spots, it has a small area out front with tables. 1407 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach

13. Cuso’s Beach Club: One side's an open-air bar with a bright mural outside and a nifty neon bikini sign on the wall inside. The other's a well-chilled, dark, woodsy bar that rocks with live music most weekends. On our visit, we chatted up an iguana named Boogie. 2405 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach

Surfin' turf: We interior dwellers sometimes forget we live near the beach, so exploring the surf shops gets you stoked about hitting the water — even if it's just in a swimsuit and not on a surfboard.

14. Surf Shack: Walk inside this unassuming building and you'll find a friendly golden retriever named Roscoe who is about to sport his own T-shirt line. But it's the camaraderie inside the shop that will make you linger. This is a hangout, and all are welcome. 5210 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

15. Lenny’s Surf Shop and Beach Cycle Sports Center: You've seen this spot since 1981 with its colorful outdoor paint job right as you turn on to Blind Pass Road, but you've never stopped in (guilty as charged!). It's a scooter shop/surf shop/bicycle shop in one big showroom-a-ganza. If you want to get into a laid-back state of mind, cruise in and look over the large selection of tchotchkes (Woody station wagon keychains!), flip-flops and beach clothes. 7512 Blind Pass Road, St. Pete Beach

16. Suncoast Surf Shop: As you round the curve into Treasure Island from St. Pete Beach, a neon sign beckons on the right, in front of a two-story blue house. Established in 1966, it's devoted to the surfing and skating lifestyle, with clothing and accessories downstairs and surfboards and skate decks in its large upstairs loft. 9841 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island

17. Nekton Surf Shop: Locals know this shop as the home base for world-class surfer Cory Lopez, who along with his brother, Shea, grew up here. You'll love it for its trendy T-shirt collection. Forget Ed Hardy; these will turn heads on your next club night. 1313 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach

Shop talk: There are many souvenir shops that cater to tourists who need to bring home a piece of Florida. But we singled out two proprietors at opposite ends of the spectrum.

18. Nancy Markoe Gallery: It's not often a sitting president pops in to buy some gifts at your small artisan art shop. But Bill Clinton did in 1993 during a visit to Pinellas. And no wonder. For more than 26 years, Markoe's has offered a wide-ranging selection of jewelry, journals and unique pieces of art that keep locals and tourists coming back to see what's new. 3112 Pass-a-Grille Way, Pass-a-Grille

19. Florida Shell Shop: Its founding goes back to 1955 and reportedly predates the incorporation on Treasure Island, where it's located. Anyone who ever visited Florida during their youth will recognize the bins and bins of shells, shark's teeth and sand dollars that captivate land-locked kids. It's old-school all the way and still has all of those groovy shell lamps, necklaces, curtains and anything else you can glue a shell on. The current owner, Patrick Elias, says the shop has been in his family since 1990. 9901 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island

Goofy golf on Gulf: That nighttime mainstay of beach life, the miniature golf course, has seen its numbers dwindle, but you can still find a game or two.

20. Polynesian Putter: It looks a little rundown now, but the tiki god head that resembles an Easter Island monolith still commands attention. As does the serpentine sculpture. (Anaconda? Maybe; it's hard to tell.) 4999 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

21. Smuggler’s Cove: One of the new breed of putt-putt golf courses (no zany windmills or dinosaurs that you putt through . . . sigh), this one has a large pirate ship as its central theme and features live baby alligators that you can feed. There are two locations — one in Madeira Beach (15395 Gulf Blvd.) and the other in Indian Shores (19463 Gulf Blvd.)

Destination dining: Could there possibly be stellar restaurants at the water's edge that can deal with fickle, buffet-loving tourists that also keep the locals driving out? Yes.

22. Maritana Grille: The Don CeSar's premier dining option is pricey (a dinner for two can run $200), but the menu balances the familiar with the cutting-edge. You'll find veal, duck and chops accompanied by micro greens, truffle oil and gnocchi, risotto and polenta. But it's not stuffy, featuring saltwater aquariums and a casual vibe (although not too casual; no shorts or jeans, please). 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach

23. Fetishes: Want a small, intimate meal with an award-winning wine selection? This eight-table restaurant is almost blink-and-you'll-miss-it tiny. But the food (surf 'n' turf, crab cakes, Chateaubriand) consistently gets great reviews, and the service is personal and top-notch. 6690 Gulf Blvd., St Pete Beach

24. Salt Rock Grill: Gorgeously designed and renowned for its straight-ahead cooking (an early-bird dinner features mile-high meat loaf), fresh seafood, raw bar and deep wine list, the restaurant also has a fantastic patio bar that overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway. It's a perfect place to reward yourself for finishing your tour of Gulf. 19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores

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Oddities and ends: You'll see some things that might need further explanation. Allow us to elaborate.

• It's not always Gulf. In Pass-a-Grille, the road starts out as Pass-a-Grille Way until you reach the Don CeSar, then it becomes Gulf Boulevard, or State Road 699. But if you try to follow Gulf through all of St. Pete Beach into Treasure Island, it takes you through a residential area. So most people take the jog over to Blind Pass Road to make the trip a little quicker.

Tiki Gardens has neither. Once a bustling tourist attraction back in the mid 1960s, it featured 8-foot high tiki gods at its gates, a tropical trail along Boca Ciega Bay, a 450-seat restaurant and macaws and monkeys. After it fell into disrepair, the county bought it and turned it into a parking area and county park. But gone are any vestiges of its former life as a Polynesian fishing village.

• Dubai Pier has Long history. Once known as the Redington Long Pier, the popular 1,021-foot fishing pier was buffeted one too many times by tropical storms and was deemed unsafe by the city of Redington Shores in 2006. That set off a series of disputes, and in late 2008 pier owner Tony Antonious renamed it for the Middle Eastern city because, he explained, he had been there several times and that city was much more compassionate than its former namesake.

• The fish are your friends. Some of the numbering along Gulf can be confusing, since the municipalities can pretty much have their own numbering system. That's why you see a four-digit address in Indian Rocks Beach but five-digit numbers right before that in Indian Shores. To help solve the problem, colorful fish markers designed by local artist Silas Beach were installed in 2003 at each mile along the drive.

A short history

• Most visitors to the three barrier islands that make up Pinellas County's beaches — Long Key, Treasure Island and Sand Key — had to get to the islands by steamboat until 1919.

• One of the first bridges was built in 1915 from the mainland into what is now Indian Rocks Beach.

• In 1916, Pinellas County agreed to pave a road that stretched from Blind Pass to Pass-a-Grille, even though there were no connections from the mainland. A bridge that was to connect the island to the mainland never got built, and so for a short time, the only cars that used it were those that arrived by ferry from Cabbage Key.

• Then along came a developer with grand plans, and McAdoo's Toll Bridge, a long-ago precursor to the Pinellas Bayway, was built in 1919.

• Gulf dead-ended at Little Pass until 1962, when the Clearwater Pass (now Sand Key) Bridge was built.

Source: Surf, Sand & Post Card Sunsets by Frank T. Hurley Jr.

View more photos

We have a gallery of Gulf Boulevard iPhone photos at entertainment.tampabay.com.

Explore the beaches

Our special beach report page features descriptions of all of the beach communities we've passed through, plus the latest news, links to photo galleries and restaurant recommendations. Oh, and there's a nifty little photo gallery with music to get you in a laid-back mood. Find it at beaches.tampabay.com.

Backstory

The iTour photos

For these photos, Melissa Lyttle used the Camerabag iPhone app that has a "helga" feature, named after a cheap plastic toy camera called the Holga. It crops the photo into a square, bumps the contrast a little and vignettes it. Intrigued with her images, we asked her a couple of quick questions:

What's the most interesting thing you photographed?
The most interesting thing about this was that I got to learn about a lot of great little local spots I've never been to before — full of character and characters. Bras and dollar bills hanging from the ceiling at Mahuffer's, Roscoe the Surf Shack's mascot and a lot of cool murals and colorful wall art I found along the way all made the journey fun and interesting to photograph.

Where else do you like to use your iPhone?
They say the best camera is the one you have with you. And I think it's an important reminder that it's not the technology that makes a photo good. I'm always documenting life with my iPhone — friends, funky places, Florida skies, my dog. I'm really impressed with the quality of the pictures from it as well as the ease with which I can post those photos to my blog, Facebook and Twitter . . . so I don't think I'll stop shooting with it anytime soon.

Cruise Gulf Boulevard and discover old and new Florida at its best 07/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 21, 2011 6:07pm]

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