Drive down Beach Drive in St. Petersburg and you'll see a city in action. Customers sit at café tables outside busy restaurants and watering holes. Shoppers cruise boutiques selling clothing, tea and gifts. The city's Museum of Fine Arts dominates the park next to Tampa Bay, while just a block away the popular new Morean Arts Center welcomes visitors to a display of the vibrant glasswork of Dale Chihuly. This is the essence of the urban experience.
But drive for a few minutes and you can take yourself back to nature, complete with wildlife, foliage, flowers, water and solitude. In these places, the noise of traffic yields to the chatter of birds, and the man-made all but disappears. The urban yields to the pastoral; life slows down.
Within 15 or 20 minutes from Beach Drive, you can find yourself in these urban refuges:
Florida Botanical Gardens
As though nature weren't beautiful enough, cultivated gardens occupy 30 acres of this sprawling 120-acre preserve, which opened in 2000.
The patio garden, for example, features a bridge and gazebo as well as artful arrangements of landscape plants.
The herb garden features familiar plants as well as medicinal and ceremonial herbs.
Other gardens display tropical fruits as well as plants native to Florida, while other gardens are devoted to succulents, bromeliads, palms and plants that attract butterflies.
The remaining 90 acres of the Botanical Gardens are given over to the conservation of fragile ecosystems teeming with wildlife.
If you go: 12520 Ulmerton Road, Largo. From downtown, take I-275 north to Roosevelt Boulevard North exit. Turn left at stop sign and continue to Ulmerton Road. Turn left on Ulmerton and continue west to the Botanical Gardens.
The gardens are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, and the buildings from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Admission is free. Call 727-582-2100 for information or visit www.flbg.org.
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
Located on the shore of Lake Maggiore, Boyd Hill has the feel of a land that got overlooked as St. Petersburg grew up around it.
Five ecosystems flourish in this 245-acre refuge, home to turtles, gators, coyotes and other Florida wildlife, including enough birds to make Boyd Hill one of the 500 sites on the 2,000-mile Great Florida Birding Trail.
More than two miles of trails wind their way through the preserve, facilitating guided tours. Tram tours begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday. Overnight camping sites are available. Activities for children take place throughout the year.
If you go: 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. From downtown, head south on 4th Street S to 6th Avenue S. Turn right (west) to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street (9th Street S). Turn left and head south about three miles to Boyd Hill.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission to the preserve is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children 3-16 and free for children under 3. City residents can purchase an annual member card for $10 ($125 per year for non-residents, or $12.50 monthly). Call 727-893-7720 or visit stpete.org/boyd.
Weedon Island Preserve
Straddling both the Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges, this huge preserve encompasses about 3,700 acres, and provides two ways to explore nature – by water and by land.
Two self-guided paddling trails for kayaks and canoes navigate the mangroves and also offer expansive views of Tampa Bay. An interpretative boardwalk trail, opened in 2007, allows visitors to walk comfortably through this coastal ecosystem.
Weedon Island also contains a three-story Cultural and Natural History Center featuring exhibits, activities and other events. The Center organizes interpretative tours and hikes, and maintains a library containing materials about the archeology, history and ecology of the area.
No longer an island, the preserve takes its name from a doctor named Leslie Weedon, who received the property as a wedding gift from his bride's father, W.B. Henderson, a former Confederate cavalry officer who purchased it in 1886.
If you go: 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg. From downtown, head north on 4th Street N to 83rd Avenue N. Turn right (east). The road becomes Patica Road NE, and then San Martin Boulevard. Continue to the entrance to Weedon Island Preserve.
The preserve, part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, is open daily from 7 a.m. to about 15 minutes before sunset. The Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday to Saturday. Call 727-453-6500 or visit weedonislandpreserve.org.
Sawgrass Lake Park
You could get lost at Sawgrass Lake, with its 400 acres of maple swamp, but a mile-long boardwalk keeps visitors out of the water and away from the gators, often found sunning themselves on the bank. An observation tower at the edge of the lake provides a panoramic view of the park.
Although located along I-275, the hum of high-speed traffic is barely audible within this spacious preserve, which offers an accessible back-to-nature experience just minutes from the urban bustle.
Bring your binoculars if you're into birding. Sawgrass is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and offers refuge to migrating birds during the fall and spring. You may even spot armadillos, snakes and small mammals such as gophers and chipmunks.
If you go: 7400 25th St. N, St. Petersburg. From downtown, take I-275 north and exit westbound at 54th Avenue N. Turn right (north) onto Haines Road, and take a soft right onto 28th Street N. Turn right onto 62nd Avenue N, and then turn left on 25th Street N, which leads right into Sawgrass.
The park is open every day from 7 a.m. to sunset. For information, call Parks and Conservation Resources in Largo at 727-582-2100, or visit pinellascounty.org/park/16_sawgrass.htm.
Fort De Soto Park
The fort, built at the start of the 20th century and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, still stands, and visitors come to see the hefty mortars and the Quartermaster Storehouse Museum.
But what attracts most people to this 1,000-acre refuge spread over five islands are the opportunities for swimming, fishing, hiking, boating, picnicking, bird watching, kayaking and just plain relaxing.
The snow-white beaches lining the 1,100-acre park topped the 2005 list of best beaches compiled annually by “Dr. Beach,” also known as Stephen Leatherman, the director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami.
Even the “Paw Playground” – a 2.5-acre dog park – has a quarter-mile of beachfront.
A barrier-free nature trail features six interpretative stations. Permits for metal detectors are available at the park headquarters.
If you go: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde. From downtown, take I-275 south to the Pinellas Bayway (exit 17, Florida 682 west). Take the Bayway (also known as 54th Avenue S) west to State Highway 679. Turn south (left) and drive until you see the entrance to Fort De Soto Park (about 6.5 miles).
The Quartermaster Museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the park itself from 7 a.m. until dark. Fishing piers are always open. Group tours of the fort can be arranged by calling 727-552-1862. For general information, call 727-582-2267 or visit pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm.
By the way, Fort De Soto Park also affords a rather spectacular view of the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay.
Tom Valeo is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg.