Located on a peninsula stretching between the Gulf of Mexico on the west and Tampa Bay on the east, Pinellas County seems to be dominated — in the press, in population figures, in travel brochures — by its two urban giants, the county seat of Clearwater in the north and the largest city, St. Petersburg, in the south.
True, these big guys are the main hub of cultural attractions like the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Chihuly Collection, the Salvador Dali Museum, and Tropicana Field, home of baseball's Tampa Bay Rays. But if you think Pinellas County is just a tale of two cities, you're missing a big part of the story. Florida's second smallest county is also its most densely populated, with a series of bustling beach towns stretching down the Gulf Coast, each with its own unique flavor: the fishing town of Madeira Beach, where anglers haul in more grouper than anywhere else in the state; Treasure Island, the sand-sculpting capital of Florida; or historic Pass-A-Grille, with its collection of almost 100 early 20th-century buildings.
And although all the public beaches, laid-back seafood shacks, and waterfront bars can get a bit crowded, this stretch of towns hides a secret just offshore: a tangle of uninhabited state parks, sandbars, and mangrove keys made for snorkeling, kayaking, bird-watching, beachcombing, or — perhaps most importantly — doing nothing at all.
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Hop aboard the Shell Key Shuttle at Pass-A-Grille for a 10-minute ride to the undeveloped barrier islands of Shell Key Preserve, one of the most important springtime shorebird nesting sites in the state. Your $25 round-trip boat fare comes with free use of beach umbrellas, shell bags, masks, and snorkels, which will come in especially handy during the spring months. The water around the islands are warm and clear this time of year, before the summer brings with it its cloudy plankton blooms.
Built in 1928 to look like a Moorish-Mediterranean castle and painted an instantly iconic shade, the Loews Don CeSar Hotel quickly earned the nickname "The Pink Palace" — and attracted rich and famous guests like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Al Capone. Stop in for a drink and some live nightly music at the Lobby Bar. The cocktail menu is appropriately chic and sophisticated, with standouts like the signature shot "The Don" at the Don, made with Don Julio Reposado Tequila, cinnamon, sugar, and orange, or the Don of the Daiquiri, made with Ron Zacapa 23, fresh grapefruit juice, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and agave.
Fall might mean harvest season in other wine regions around America, but at Florida Orange Groves & Winery, grapes play second fiddle to just about every other fruit you can imagine. Try not to be intimidated by the wild slate of wines on offer, made from citrus, stone fruits, melons, berries, and tropical fruits — like banana, coconut, pineapple, guava, or mango. You'll even find novelty wines, like tomato, carrot, orange coffee, or orange chocolate. Trust us, they're so much better than they sound and definitely worth a stop in for their daily tours and tastings!
The calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico may not be known as a surfing hot spot, especially when compared to the bigger Atlantic waves on Florida's eastern shores. But that doesn't mean St. Pete Beach doesn't have its very own local surf scene, which bursts to life each winter when the winds pick up. Join the locals on Treasure Island's Sunset Beach or St. Pete Beach's Upham Beach, and don't worry if you haven't brought your own equipment: You can rent or buy everything you'll need — from surfboards to wet suits — from the Surf Shack, just a block from the sand on Gulf Boulevard.
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