PINELLAS COUNTY -- Solitude is a rare quality to find in this, the most densely populated of Florida's west coast counties. Tranquillity is here, but only for those who make their way seaward through the overload of shopping malls, chain restaurants, and eight-lane highways to a few hidden beaches.
Poor Pinellas. Like much of Florida, its stunningly beautiful barrier islands were discovered in the 1920s and the race to build began. For decades, the talc-like white beaches remained bordered only by modest low-rise motels, two-bedroom retiree bungalows, and a smattering of low-key bars and restaurants. Then during the 1980s and '90s the county experienced a population boom. Development along the beaches quickly followed. According to the 2000 US census, 3,292 people live in each of the 280 square miles of this peninsula, for a total of 921,482 residents along its 45 miles that include Clearwater, Largo, and St. Petersburg.
So what's a solitude seeker to do? Head for the beach, but not just any beach. You must find the few oases of old Pinellas that remain, where sea oats wave in the breeze and shorebirds outnumber the beachgoers.
Breakfast at Caddy's Waterfront might be a beer as easily as a plate of scrambled eggs. The open-air bar and restaurant sits squarely on Sunset Beach at the southern tip of Treasure Island. In keeping with the relaxed character of this mile-long village, tourists, local residents, and a few people who seem to have slept the night on the premises gather at tables and under umbrellas to enjoy breakfast and watch flocks of oystercatchers and Caspian terns forage at the surf's edge.
Sunset Beach, so named because it faces west, takes pride in just that sort of easy congeniality. Houses are peppered with expressions of individuality, from the funky fish mailboxes crafted to look like local grouper or shark, to the electrifying colors used on house trim. These are not the vast McMansions stacked along the beaches north of Sunset. Few structures here are taller than two stories.
Walking south along the beach, several small parks offer drinking water, rest rooms, and a spot to rinse sand from hands and feet. The frequent parks and parking lots along the main street make access to the water easy. At the southernmost tip of the beach, Blind Pass is the entry from the Gulf of Mexico into the Intracoastal Waterway, the protected waterway between the US coastline and its barrier islands. A short boardwalk leads from a small park out along the pass, which, on a day when the fish are running, will be filled with earnest anglers.
On the other side of Blind Pass lies the small city of St. Petersburg Beach. At first, it seems that nothing but mega-story hotels and resorts lie along the city's four miles of sandy beach. Yet way down at the southern tip is another small community known as Pass-a-Grille, named for the coastal pass just to its south.
In 1911, Pass-a-Grille was the first town established on a Pinellas barrier island. The village became part of St. Petersburg Beach in 1957. Bordered to the north by the historic Don CeSar Beach Resort (which resembles nothing so much as a pink stucco birthday cake topped with white icing) and to the south by the pass to the Gulf of Mexico, Pass-a-Grille has the longest undeveloped public beach in the county, at four miles.
Much of the area is listed as a National Register historic district. Full of quirky Victorian architecture and beautiful gardens, the two-block-wide district includes two city parks, 28 designated historic structures, and the area's first homestead, built in 1886. The business district along 8th Avenue has boutiques, antiques stores, and the requisite T-shirt and flip-flop shops.
Toward the southern tip of Pass-a-Grille is a bevy of small bed-and-breakfasts and inns and the famous Hurricane restaurant. This recently renovated two-story wooden structure offers breakfast and lunch at the bar on the first floor and dinner in an enclosed second-floor dining room. On weekends, Hurricane brims with boisterous activity. As the sun sets the crowd at the bar generally spills off the broad porches to continue their revelry on the beach.
From here, keep traveling south until you reach the absolute tip of Pinellas County. There, on five islands covering 900 acres, sits Fort De Soto Park with seven miles of undeveloped beach.
It is quiet here. You can hear the birds. The park is the first landfall of migratory birds as they cross the Gulf of Mexico from South and Central America in the spring. From early March through mid-May, flocks of migratory warblers and other songbirds such as thrushes and vireos visit the park seeking food to replenish their energy reserves.
Shorebirds such as black-bellied plovers, semipalmated plovers, ruddy turnstones, and sanderlings scurry about at the water's edge, burrowing for tiny coquinas. The inland mangrove swamps and tidal lagoons provide nesting and hunting habitats for white, little blue, green, and great blue herons. And always, hovering overhead, ospreys survey the territory, swooping with lightning speed to snatch an unwary mullet from the water.
At East End beach, plucky para-sailors attach windsurfing boards to small parachutes and glide breathtakingly fast over calm water. Anglers of all ages perch on the park's two fishing piers. Paved bicycle trails and more rustic nature trails thread through the five keys on which the park is located. Within the mangrove swamps, a marked canoe and kayak trail entices visitors onto the water. If it seems that there's just too much to do in a single day, book a campsite at the park's campground.
Finally, if there are still too many people about, take the ferry from the park out to Egmont Key State Park. Accessible only by boat, the island was the site of Fort Dade, built at the time of the Spanish-American War, then abandoned by the federal government in 1920. Today, the 400-acre island is both a state park and a national wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary.
So don't despair, you solitude-seeking souls. Even in overbuilt, overcrowded Pinellas County, there remain peaceful bastions by the sea. You just have to look for them.
Melissa Waterman is a freelance writer in Maine.