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Shoreline secrets

(ran TP edition)

The beaches of Pinellas County are some of the best in the world, from the white sands of Carlouel to the seaside elegance of the Don CeSar to the sophistication of an international clientele come to enjoy the sparkling seashore.

And Hillsborough? Well, let's just say Tampa Bay is a little less flashy than the Gulf of Mexico, and its shoreline isn't exactly glittering.

But Hillsborough County residents still have plenty of reasons to go to their own beaches. Though not lavish, those closer to the city offer a convenient spot for some quick sun. And the bay beaches of southern Hillsborough, small and quiet, are flanked by acres of mangroves and tannin-stained banks rich with wildlife and surrounded by marinas and boat ramps.

This backwoods terrain is lonely and as flat as East Texas. To get to most of the beaches south of the Gandy Bridge, you've got to drive back into the overgrown swampy seagrass, past boarded-up houses, blown-over signs and smokestacks among the scrubby fields that border most roads to the water. When you finally get to the beach, there isn't much happening.

Some people like it that way.

Simmons Park

On a recent sunny Saturday near the shore of E.G. Simmons Park in Ruskin, identical twin sisters Terry Lyons and Patty McGill, 39, of Ruskin, sunbathed in matching blue bathing suits on the postage-stamp sized beach.

"It's quiet and close to home," Terry said, squinting and shading her eyes with her hand. "At those bigger beaches, there's too many women walkin' around, well, half-naked. I don't want my kids seein' that stuff."

"I used to go to Bradenton Beach, but I can't stand the birds and people feeding them snacks," complained Patty.

The shore at Simmons Park is lush with vegetation. Large branches of driftwood and exotic birds create a scene of island seclusion. If you want the fantasy to last, though, be careful where you gaze: Across the tea-colored water is a far-off view of smokestacks and buildings in Tampa's industrial core.

Bahia Beach

Bahia Island Resort and Marina on Bahia Beach near Ruskin has a privately owned beach, but locals are welcome to play volleyball, swim and buy drinks and food at the lounge and restaurant.

"We have live music Sundays on the patio till dark. The band plays Top 40 and country music and is very good," said Debbie Hodge, sounding a little like a commercial. She is the front desk supervisor at the resort.

Although private, Bahia Island plays host to the Ruskin Seafood and Art Festival held annually in November.

Apollo Beach

In Florida, names of streets, shopping centers and mobile home parks often lead us to believe a place is more exotic or alluring than it really is.

The community moniker of Apollo Beach is no exception.

When we think of Apollo, we envision a golden sun god. When we think of a beach, we envision sugary sand kissed by gentle waves. It is a cruel joke to be lured off the highway by road sign sirens only to be visually assaulted by cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and that brown water lapping at the seawall behind the Ramada Inn at the end of Apollo Beach Boulevard.

Juanita Rodriguez, 34, a vacationer from Kissimmee, was seduced into town one recent Saturday only to see the huge smoke-pumping stacks of Tampa Electric's Big Bend Station looming large just north of the motel. "I don't like this beach; it's dirty," she said. "We were looking for a good beach, but we didn't find it. We're going to Clearwater now."

"This was a nice beach years ago," said Richard Ruiz, 30, of Clair-Mel. "None of (these houses) were built, and we used to swim here. It was beautiful."

Palmetto Beach

Farther up the road, a forgivable beach deception exists. Palmetto Beach off the 22nd Street Causeway in Tampa has no beach at all, but the tiny piers that snake out into McKay Bay evoke a certain Caribbean island charm. The shacks on these docks, El Bravo Hut and Willie and Marc's Crab Hut, sell fresh fish, oysters, mullet and live blue crabs _ great if you want to have a beachy dinner without ever putting your hands in a bait bucket.

Beer Can Beach

At the top of Hillsborough Bay, Davis Islands offers a neighborhood beach in the Seaplane Basin just south of Peter O. Knight Airport. It is a natural wading pool for dogs and children _ and beer drinkers.

The tiny basin escapes the smell of the nearby Cargill Fertilizer plant and looks out to a view of the South Tampa cityscape. For residents, it's close, convenient, relaxing and, often, there's scarcely anybody there.

Nicknamed "Beer Can Beach," the Davis Islands beach has cleaned up its act faster than its reputation.

"We have a Beer Can Man that comes and cleans up now," said Patty Alley, 29, who lives in east Tampa and works as a loan processor.

The people who frequent the beach are loyal to their little stretch of sand.

"All of our friends come here, and you can bring your kids and you don't have to worry about anybody taking off with them. There's one road in and one road out," Alley said. She has been coming to the basin for seven years.

"We come here because it's a great spot for the dogs to go swimming," said Michael Tighe, 36, of South Tampa. "It's one of the few beaches that dogs are allowed at because it's not officially considered a beach, I don't think."

People go to the Davis Islands beach not so much to swim as to be themselves.

"I come out here basically because I can drink my beer and not get harassed," said carpenter Chuck Hampton, 32.

The water quality isn't as bad as some might think thinks. According to Richard Boler of the Environmental Protection Commission, "Tampa Bay has been safe for swimming in all areas, all places, all times for the past seven years." Through stiffer regulations, the industries on the bay have reduced their pollution.

"Tampa Bay is one of the great successes. Fifteen years ago, you couldn't say that," Boler said.

Picnic Island

A beat-up brown park road sign points the way back through Port Tampa, past the New Paradise Night Club and the Silver Dollar Bar to the newly refurbished Picnic Island.

This west shore spot on Tampa Bay is so nice, the folks who go there don't want anyone else to know about it.

The water here is clearer and isn't as stained by vegetation as the more rural southern shoreline. It resembles a secluded Gulf beach _ well, sort of. There is some seaweed, plastic bread bags and the occasional bottle cap, but on the whole, it's a very clean beach.

"Last week you could stand in the water up to your chest and see your feet, the water was so clear," said Bob Flores, Picnic Island park ranger for six years.

"On an average weekend, we get about 700 to 800 cars," he said. "On the holidays, we get mainly people from North Tampa and East Tampa. The local people don't come here. It used to be a bad park 10, 12 years ago."

That's fine with the families who do go there. They like the quiet park kept to themselves. If you're single and trying to socialize, Picnic Island isn't the place to go.

Rocky Point

At the north end of Old Tampa Bay, the "bridge beaches" line the parkway that bustles its way west to the Gulf.

The Days Inn on Rocky Point Island is "the only beach hotel in Hillsborough County, this is it." says Danny Cooper, 37, manager of the water sports rentals at the hotel for the past seven years. "We shipped all this sand in to make this beach, and every time it rains we gotta push it all back up and order more." They buy their sand from a company in Ocala.

"We're from Orlando and we come over here on weekends," said Francie Alidai one recent Sunday. "Clearwater is our favorite beach because it's not as touristy as it is over in Orlando, and the water is a lot nicer."

So what was Francie doing in Hillsborough County? "We come here (The Days Inn) because it's cheaper to rent a Wave Runner than it is on the (Gulf) beach."

Ben T. Davis Beach

Ben T. Davis Beach on the Courtney Campbell Parkway apparently is thought of as a last resort by many Tampa sunbathers. What with the 18 or so felony reports made in the last six months, including rape, murder and drugs, the beach has a reputation for being a place to avoid.

"The trouble usually happens before we staff the beach with lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day," says Wayne Papy from the city of Tampa Parks Department. "But summertime is not always the trouble time. Early spring, right after the winter season, can be bad, too."

Frank Farruggia, a patron of Ben T. Davis Beach for two years, has found a solution.

"If you get here in the morning, you're cool. If you get here in the afternoon after the kids have been drinking, then you have a problem," he said recently. "We never have any problem because we leave about 2, 3 o'clock."

The causeway beach is the last-chance beach when it's too late to make it to Clearwater before it gets crowded.

"We live in Polk County, and we were on our way to Clearwater but we got a late start, and this beach was closer so we stopped," said Rachel Jacobs, 17, of Lakeland. "I like Clearwater better," says Rachel's sister Anita, 23.

Ben T. Davis' reputation may account for the second-rate way it's treated: snack wrappers, broken glass, tossed cigarette butts, and whatever-that-thing-was floating in the water were just some of the debris spotted on a recent Sunday.

Eric Martez of Carrollwood said he was dragged there by his mother.

"It's too late to go to Clearwater, so we just came over here," he said. "I ain't touchin' the water, though."

Today, Hillsborough County can claim less than 3 miles of beach out of approximately 76 miles of shoreline.

But that eventually will change.

Peter Fowler, manager of the resource section of the Hillsborough Parks and Recreation Department, says that through the Environmental Land Acquisition and Protection Program, Hillsborough beachgoers will have at least three more beaches and nature preserves to enjoy within the next 10 years.

The first park on the agenda will be the Apollo Beach Preserve, an area that will include habitat restoration, beach access and parking.

"This recently acquired land will take at least a couple of years to complete," Fowler says. "We are in the planning stages now."

The ELAP program is also looking at Cypress Point near the Rocky Point office development and a stretch of shoreline in Gibsonton.

The new beaches should contribute to Hillsborough County residents' sense that they can have the best of two worlds _ a cosmopolitan city and laid-back beaches _ right in their own back yards. With the estuary habitat of Tampa Bay so close, we can get to the beach without ever crossing a bridge.

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