By Janet K. Keeler
St. Petersburg is in the middle of a renaissance that’s brought craft breweries, art galleries, sidewalk cafes and lots of young people to the city to live, work and play. The downtown St. Petersburg waterfront area draws vibrant crowds to its restaurants and museums year-round.
With the increased interest has come a desire to travel responsibly, using public transportation to get around and eating food that’s locally sourced and more plant-based.
On the other side of the county from St. Petersburg are the Pinellas County beaches that stretch 22 miles from Pass-a-Grille to Clearwater Beach. The Intracoastal Waterway flows between them and the mainland. The beaches are among the area’s natural jewels and efforts to protect them are strong.
Here are some suggestions for the many visitors who want to explore St. Petersburg/Clearwater responsibly and respectfully:
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is a 245-acre park nestled in the middle of residential neighborhoods south of downtown St. Petersburg. Boyd Hill has long been a favorite spot for locals to escape city traffic and get closer to nature. Generations of children have attended summer camps there. Classes, talks and guided walks make Boyd Hill attractive to tourists, too. There are six miles of trails and boardwalks through hardwood hammocks, sand pine scrub, swamp woodlands, willow marsh and along the shore of Lake Maggiore. Consider joining a guided paddling trip on the lake, too. Visitors learn about the critters that live at Boyd Hill, among them birds of prey and gators on guided walks. There are activities for children, too, and visits from noted naturalists.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's mission is to inspire others through the rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals -- a cause that exploded in popularity with Winter, the movie star dolphin with the prosthetic tail. Winter died in November 2021, but the aquarium's mission remains the same.
At the top of Tampa Bay is the city of Oldsmar and its many parks. Explore Oldsmar is an 11-mile network of trails that connects 10 city parks. The connector trail is for joggers, walkers, bicyclers and skaters, and some of the parks have kayak and canoe launches. The Oldsmar parks have many different features, among them bicycle fix-it stations at R.E. Olds Park and the Oldsmar Sport Complex, which makes sense since the main attraction there is a BMX track.
Mobbly Bayou Wilderness
There’s a dog park, zip line tours and paddling opportunities along with an environmental education center at Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve.
Harbor Palms Nature Park
Visitors can meander along the elevated boardwalk at Harbor Palms Nature Park that leads through the watershed to the waterfront where they’ll find a floating dock for fishing.
Pinellas County is a peninsula bounded by Tampa Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other and this means there are plenty of spots to kayak and lots of places to put in, thanks to several parks. Kayakers can paddle through mangroves, in bays and creeks and even in the Intracoastal Waterway if they are careful to avoid boats.
Fort De Soto Park
Fort De Soto Park is one amazing place with so many things to see and do that it’s no wonder people camp there for days at a time. Kayaking is a great way to explore the 1,200-acre facility that’s made up of five interconnected islands. Fort De Soto is at the southern tip of the barrier islands of Pinellas County and is home to a 19th century fort. From here visitors can take a ferry to Egmont Key to see its lighthouse or to hunt for shells and simply relax on Shell Key. Kayaks can be rented from Topwater Kayak Outpost in the park and launched onto a 2.5-mile marked trail from there. Paddlers can expect to see all sorts of wildlife on the journey, including dolphins, manatees and sea turtles.
Caladesi Island State Park
Part of the draw of Caladesi Island State Park is that it is only reachable by boat, and even though it’s just mere miles off the coast from Dunedin is seems so much farther. Visitors usually take the ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park but another way to get there is by kayak. They can be rented from Sail Honeymoon and the paddle time to Caladesi is about 20 minutes. Once on the island, visitors can take a rest on the beach and then launch again through the three-mile mangrove trail.
FOOD AND DINING
Saturday Morning Market
There are a lot of outdoor markets in Pinellas County that feature locally grown and prepared foods. The biggest of the bunch is the Saturday Morning Market on the downtown waterfront in St. Petersburg with about 150 vendors that sell produce and prepared foods and also crafts and other products. But it’s mostly food. The market runs from October to May in its full form and then a smaller version moves to nearby shaded Williams Park in the summer months.The Saturday Morning Market is a hot spot for locals who buy produce grown in Florida but also pick up their weekly supply of eggs and bread. There are many immigrant offerings including homemade tamales and empanadas, plus specialties from Ethiopia, Thailand and France. Tables and chairs are scatted about including near where live music is performed and it’s not unusual for people to dance to some Motown tunes. This is a good spot to buy locally made chutneys, jams and salsas to take home as souvenirs.
Corey Fresh Market
The Corey Fresh Market is a Sunday treat at St. Pete Beach and it also has produce and prepared foods. It’s walking distance to many beach accommodations and runs from October to late May.
Dunedin Downtown Market
The Dunedin Downtown Market is a Friday-Saturday affair, kicking up in November and shutting down by June. The market is not far from the Pinellas Trail so bikers can hop off the trail and grab something to eat and drink at the market.
Walt’s Fish Shak
John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk in Madeira Beach is the home of Walt’z Fish Shak, which serves locally caught seafood. And when the day’s offerings are gone, the “shak” shuts down.
If you’re driving an electric or hybrid vehicle, you can plot your course for charging stations on Plugshare.
There are plenty of ways to abandon the car and get around in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. The Pinellas Trail is a 47-mile long paved trail that runs from downtown St. Petersburg to Tarpon Spring along an abandoned CSX railroad right-of-way. It’s a popular trail for walkers, runners, bikers and skaters. There are lots of places to join the trail and overpasses span busy streets so folks don’t have to worry about car traffic.
The Suncoast Beach Trolley connects the beaches from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater Beach. It’s not uncommon to see folks riding the trolley in bathing suits moving from place to place. The trolley can also accommodate bicycles. It’s a worthwhile ride even for non-beach goers to do a little sightseeing and stop for a meal. The Central Avenue Trolley takes riders from downtown St. Petersburg to Pass-a-Grille Beach with many stops along the way. This is a low-impact way to get out to the beach or to connect with the Suncoast Beach Trolley. Want to stay in downtown St. Petersburg? Hop aboard the free Downtown St. Petersburg Looper. The Looper makes 20 stops downtown and is a fun way to get from museum to museum, restaurant to restaurant. Ride it all the way and get a picture of what the downtown scene is like. It’s especially fun on Friday and Saturday nights when the area bustles with music. It runs on those days until midnight.
If you want to get some exercise while you transport, consider renting a bike from Coast Bike Share. The blue bikes with the retro baskets are located at dozens of stations all over town. Rent one, pedal to your location and return it to the station. Do the same to return. An app makes renting easy.
Green Lodging Program
Reduce, reuse and recycle is the aim of many hotels these days, both large and small. It is common practice now for hotels to ask patrons to use towels and washcloths for more than one day. Recycle bins sit next to trash bins, too. In Florida, the Certified Green Lodging program encourages hotels, motels, resorts and B&Bs to be sustainable and environmentally aware. You can peruse this list to find accommodations that do this.
Or, you can go camping at the beach. Going to bed and waking up to some gentle wave action is a Florida right-of-passage. Fort De Soto Park is probably the most popular with its many campsite options, including primitive camping for youth groups. But there’s more. Travelers who’ve arrived by boat can dock overnight at Caladesi State Park and rock the night away on the water. There’s also primitive camping allowed at Anclote Key Preserve State Park and everyone once in a while the 1887 lighthouse is open for people who want to climb to the top for amazing views.
Winter the Dolphin's Beach Club
An eco- and-family-friendly waterfront hotel on Clearwater Beach inspired by Winter the dolphin, star of the “Dolphin Tale” movies, the hotel offers a wholesome, whimsical ambiance and interactive and educational marine-life experiences in partnership with Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter’s home.
Many organizations that focus on the environment and wildlife depend on volunteers. For visitors seeking to help for a limited amount of time, it’s always best to call ahead to find out how best to contribute.
The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has been rescuing and rehabilitating bird from its facility in Indian Rocks Beach for decades. The non-profit organization aids about 100,000 birds annually and is open daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. There are talks and tours, too. A robust volunteer group helps with cleaning duties such as scrubbing benches and fountains, and raking pathways. These might be the chores for day-volunteers.
15th Street Agrihood
The 15th Street Agrihood is a half-acre urban farm near downtown St. Petersburg. The farm grows more than 40 types of vegetables, flowers and herbs and also holds nutrition classes. Volunteers help pick crops and also get beds ready to planting. Visitors should call ahead to find out if they are in town when work is needed. It would be beneficial to have gardening and/or farming experience.
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