Eight years ago, Patricia Woodside and her family moved to Hillsborough County from the chilly shores of Long Island and its "beaches," where water is not always blue and sand is seldom like sugar.
She might have expected more from her new Florida homeland. Among the first questions she asked: Where's the beach?
She was promptly directed 30 or so miles south to Pinellas County's glistening sands off the Gulf of Mexico.
Woodside doesn't complain much, though, the trek from Town 'N Country being much shorter and cheaper than a plane flight from New York.
Now she and her husband lug their three sons, umbrella and sand shovel to Clearwater Beach or Pass-a-Grille at least a couple times a month during the summer.
Victoria Blake, meanwhile, grew up in Hillsborough. Almost every Saturday she leaves her South Tampa home for the Pinellas shore, rising early to be on the road by 8:15 for the 45-minute journey. Her college daughters, Stella and Audrey, and their friends often tag along, but Blake's mission has little to do with sunbathing, people-watching or twiddling toes in the sand.
For Blake it's all about the good workout she gets from swimming in the gulf. She does about a mile, and by 10:30 or 11 a.m. she's heading north again on Interstate 275.
Woodside, 49, and Blake, 51, are among the thousands who live in Hillsborough but head to Pinellas to experience the Florida that land-locked Northerners seek. Not surprisingly, people from around the Tampa Bay area made up nearly 8 percent of visitors to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, including their beaches, in 2010 — the highest percentage of visitors from any metropolitan area. New Yorkers came in second at about 7 percent, followed by visitors from Chicago at 6.5 percent.
For some locals, their trips will become more frequent this month as snowbirds fly home and summertime looms. For others, the economy's high gas prices will keep them grounded on this side of the bay.
"I love to go to the beach in Pinellas County," said Cyndi Sims, who lives in North Tampa. "The distance doesn't bother me, but the high gas prices have definitely affected how often I go. I used to go every week but now that gas prices are so high, I will go maybe once a month this summer."
Said Woodside: "The number of beach trips likely will be affected, but we'll still go at least a few times."
The impact of gas prices on airfare for tourists will likely be more significant than the impact on fueling cars for locals, according to D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. In previous years when prices increased, Pinellas beaches saw no significant effect on day-trippers in the bay area.
"Our (local) drive market is within one tank of gas," Minich said, adding that people don't typically change their drive habits because of an extra $20. The prices, however, might impact spending at beach restaurants and other businesses, he said.
For those who won't make the drive, Travis Claytor, spokesman for the visitors bureau Tampa Bay & Co., is quick to point out that there's plenty to do in Tampa.
Entertainment on this side of the bay means asphalt, storied buildings and, well, being fully clothed — i.e. the Florida Aquarium, a concert at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a play at the Straz Center, frolicking in Ybor City or at Busch Gardens.
The variety actually adds to the regional "Tampa Bay" experience, Claytor said.
And sand actually does meet water in several Hillsborough locales, although some are relegated to dog parks, impromptu barbecues, or sunset views and serene lunch breaks. Think Ben T. Davis Municipal Beach along the Courtney Campbell Parkway; Cypress Point Park, off the bay near Cypress Street in Tampa; the beachy area where dogs romp off Davis Islands. A few places in southeast Hillsborough, such as E.G. Simmons Park and the Resort & Club at Little Harbor in Ruskin, also claim shoreline.
But some don't even know about those.
"Do we have beaches in Hillsborough?" asked Woodside, 49.
Beaches in Tampa? "If you count Davis Islands beach," said Stella, Blake's 19-year-old daughter.
Do you count that?
"Uh, no, not really"
Her mother won't swim in the bay, preferring the gulf because "you can see in the water."
Lynne Hyman, 58, is excited because her family owns a condo in Indian Rocks Beach and rents it to winter visitors. The renters are leaving and the condo will be available this weekend, which means weekly visits from their house in Tampa's Sunset Park neighborhood.
Things are more casual, laid-back on the water, Hyman said.
"I do think life is better at the beach."
Sharon Tubbs can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.