Best Road Trips For Orlando Residents: St. Pete Beach
115 Miles | 2 hours: 30 minutes Drive Time
Pure white sparkling sand and dappled sunlight on Gulf waters draw newly arrived visitors straight to the shore of St. Pete Beach, ready to jump in like a kid and frolic in the blue-green waves. It’s that tempting. And at dusk, the spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico add another dimension to the destination.
In less than three hours, you can drive to this low-key beach that competes with other communities dotting the barrier islands off the central Gulf coast of Florida. But for some reason, this particular strand has that laid-back beach-bum vibe that makes you want to trade your shoes for flip-flops and kick back.
The Pinellas Bayway takes you over bridges and the water of Boca Ciega Bay, dropping you near the bright pink Don CeSar. The historic hotel opened in 1928 during the Gatsby Era, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2018, and is now well on its way to becoming a centenarian. The architecture, a blend of Mediterranean and Moorish styles that were popular at the time in Palm Beach and Coral Gables, has castle-like characteristics. Famous guests of the “Pink Palace” included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig and Franklin D. Roosevelt. If you’re curious about the Don CeSar but aren’t planning to stay there, stop in for a cocktail at its elegantly updated lobby bar.
Although St. Pete Beach has its share of hotels and condominiums, those in search of a wide-open shoreline will find it at Upham Beach. Follow the dune walkovers for a swim and stroll and then watch pelicans fly in V-formation and dolphin fins breach the water.
Day-trippers might want to go luxe and hire The Cabana Club to set up a spot for them on the beach. Rental packages include cabanas, umbrellas, beach chairs, towels, tables and coolers with ice and water. You just need to decide what you want, where they should set it up, and the time you’ll arrive. Takedown is included. Spending a day on the sand was never so easy.
Fishing is a big deal in St. Pete. Anglers can choose from inshore and nearshore action in Tampa Bay, where snook hide in flats, mangrove shorelines and around docks. If you want to reel in snapper, fishing guides can take you to spots inshore or offshore where a variety of snapper—mangrove, mutton, yellowtail, vermilion, lane and red—bite, making the sport so much fun.
Hanging out at a beach bar with a cold beer and basket of fried seafood never gets old. You can’t go wrong at Jimmy B’s Beach Bar with its big deck just steps from the shore and open-air stage where local talent performs. At Undertow Beach Bar, volleyball and cornhole games on the sand draw crowds, as do Adirondack chairs and tiki huts, where you can leisurely spend the day. If a coffee drink is more your style, check out the new Grove Surf + Coffee, where you can sip an orange vanilla latte while shopping for a new swimsuit or beach bag.
Some travelers like resorts where they can check in and never leave for their entire vacation. Tradewinds Island Resorts is that kind of place. Choose from two properties: The Island Grand, which boasts a floating ocean-water park, 10 restaurants and five pools; and RumFish Beach Resort, home to a three-story dual-line zipline, 35,000-gallon aquarium, four restaurants and two pools. Guests enjoy paddleboats, inflatable surfboards, slides and St. Pete’s gorgeous beach. If you’re visiting with kids, ask about the pirate shows.
Some 70 years ago, Ted Peters smoked mullet, laid it on a plate with potato salad and plopped it on a picnic table. Cold beer? Root Beer? That was enough to keep folks coming back to Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, a short drive from St. Pete Beach. The no-frills open-air restaurant continues to serve local mullet, mahimahi and mackerel straight from the smoker. And if you hooked a fish, bring it in and they’ll smoke it for you in the adjacent smokehouse.
Although you might be tempted to hang out on the sands all day, a trip to the island’s southern tip, home to the cozy beach town Pass-A-Grille, is a must. Barely a block wide from the Gulf to the Intracoastal Waterway, this gem is totally walkable. Pop into art galleries where friendly locals share their art and good conversation. Historic cottages, rooftop bars for sunset watching and Merry Pier, where you can board a sunset cruise, are other highlights.