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Bay Tripper – March 2007

In search of Old Florida — and wind

In search of Old Florida — and wind

It rarely happens that everything goes as planned on a sailing cruise, but I believed I would have more control of where, when and why during a land cruise of Florida’s GulfCoast in December. My plan to prolong summer, however, backfired on me a bit. At times, it was almost as warm in Annapolis, Md., the place I had left, as the St. Petersburg area, my designated harbor of refuge from the expected cold.

Initially, I had planned on idle daysailing and bay-tripping in and around TampaBay: kayaking the skinny waters of remote CedarKeyIslands in the northern flats, and sedentarily combing beaches with a folding chair and books. Some of this worked out some of the time, but I soon began looking for an angle to help justify what has turned into a series of past winter escapes to warmer climes.

An Internet search for inexpensive lodging had led by chance to a coral pink and white Depression-era motel in St. PetersburgBeach, with the requisite palm trees and a pool. A charming duplex bungalow at $49 a night only two blocks from the beach sparked a getaway theme that would help offset any weather-related negatives. The new program was a serendipiter’s journey into a kind of Twilight Zone to find agreeable anachronisms in what is left of a vanishing Old Florida. In nearly two weeks I roamed a thousand miles in this rambling search for the past, finding some of it and wanting to go back for more.

From my base of operations at the small Carlton House motel, a meandering trail led to wonderful beaches, rental sailing facilities, elegant restored hotels, and funky restaurants and pubs — all on or near the water. But adverse wind conditions also soon turned against me: either too much, too little or none at all. And, as I would soon discover, a number of sailing charter and “windjammer” cruise boats were inactive, awaiting the seasonal arrival of winter folk from the North after the holidays. My timing was clearly off. But “The Best Beach in America,” at FortDeSotoNational Park, was a highlight. The exquisite white-sand powder here is so fine that I filled a couple film canisters in order to call up periodic beach fixes back at the office.

Since the landlubber snowbirds and tourists had yet to arrive, I had the 1,136-acre park and beach practically to myself on repeated visits early in my trip. There are campsites, fishing piers, launch ramps, bike rentals, and canoe, kayak and hiking trails, and except for an isolated locale with airborne, surfing kiteboarders, the place was almost empty. I found a favorite rest at the famed NorthBeach in the windless lee of a sand dune where it reached 80 degrees in the sunshine. I figured (wrongly) I’d get out on the water a lot later on.

Leaving St. Pete Beach and heading north, I stopped at the ClearwaterCommunitySailingCenter for a half-day bareboat charter on OldTampaBay in a JY15 at $25 an hour. But, as my luck would have it on this trip, there was not a breath of air, so I opted for the lovely ClearwaterPublicBeach nearby on the Gulf side. There the weather was at least cooperating for surfers, and I watched them frolicking — another bummer because it reminded me that my own surfing days are over.

Leaving Clearwater behind, I drove even farther north for two days in the Cedar Key boonies, an isolated outpost and kayaker’s paradise three miles off the mainland. Skinny waters are what kayakers love, but those days also were fruitless, waiting for the tide to come in and cover the exposed mudflats in order to get out on the water. Dealing with yet another weather-related program change, instead of paddling a kayak to sandbars and mangrove islands in an effort to prolong summer (and youth) I was forced to switch to geezer transportation and explore the roadways in a boring rental golf cart. (Maybe I’ll return there one day with a high tide.)

Sadly, this sleepy old fishing village now has modern rental units and condos, but at least they are grouped off to one side of the main waterfront and can be visually ignored with a turn of the head. Overlooking the main harbor are a string of attractive wooden-frame restaurants along a kind of short, narrow, commercial Main Street. That first afternoon I was cold and hungry and looking for good seafood in Clamville. Fresh clams are a big tourist attraction, especially the village’s famous creamy chowder, thick and steamy and served in large mixing bowls filled with clams, onions and potatoes.

Looking to follow the Old Florida theme, I found lodging at Mermaid’s Landing, a tiny compound of a half-dozen old, one-room fishing cottages crammed together on a muddy bayou with kayak rentals. A space heater was barely adequate as a cold front dropped temperatures to 38 degrees. But before bedtime I called at the famous 10-room Island Hotel, a landmark established in 1859 with large porches and a dozen ghosts left over from past hurricanes that temporarily blew them and the hotel away at times. I settled into the tiny rear lounge of the tiny Neptune Bar (no television), both packed with locals. An older man with a white ponytail informally entertained on a keyboard from an elevated platform, mingling and shaking hands during the intermission.

The next morning I was hoping to breakfast with clammers who gather at 6:30 a.m. at Annie’s Cafe, a small out-of-the-way place on Sixth Street that is easy to miss. But the unusually low tide kept most watermen at home tending to clamming chores, and I missed them, too, but had breakfast at the long table.

Heading south on a toll highway to avoid the hopeless clutter of U.S. 19, I landed back in St. Pete Beach, where in Indian Shores I spotted a road sign proclaiming: “Mahuffer. Wurst Place on the Beech. Warm Beer. Lousy Service. Home of Sloppy John’s.” My kind of joint.

The outrageously funky Mahuffer’s, it turns out, is kind of famous for being infamous. An unforgettable beach community saloon, it is owned and operated by “Sloppy John” Susor, an irritable, eccentric 87-year-old curmudgeon and cat lover whose pets have free run. He also is famed for insulting his customers, “who are never right,” he says. “Mahuffer,” incidentally, is Susor’s nonsense word meaning “none of your business.”

Once a bait shop, it is a cluttered labyrinth with wood stoves, an open fireplace, a pool table, and a roofless patio filled with odds and ends, including bathtubs, toilet bowls, the bow of an old boat, and the front end of a pink Caddy. Beer is iced down in picnic coolers, and food (such as it is) is melted Velveeta served with corn chips and something called “Road-Kill Pelican.” Decorated and furnished with battered pieces of accumulated flotsam and jetsam, every square foot of the walls and ceiling is covered with — for want of a better word — “stuff.”

A far cry from Sloppy John’s are two grand hotels known as the “Pink Palaces” that lured me for repeated visits. The haunting (and haunted) 277-room Loews Don CeSar on the white sands of St. Pete Beach, which opened in 1928, was a special favorite with an elegant lobby bar that serves an authentic mint julep. I checked out Sunfishes on the beach, but they were only for hotel guests.

One evening for laughs I played the Jack Nicholson role of “Jack Torrance” from the film “The Shining,” inspired by the haunting nature of the place and the resident ghosts. After addressing my bartender as “Lloyd” (the movie’s ghostly bartender), he immediately caught on, replying, “Hello, Mr. Torrance. Your money is good here.”

The equally elegant Vinoy, which opened in 1925 and is now a Marriott resort, is a 347-room hotel on the St. Pete waterfront and eerily similar to “The Don.” Closed in 1975 and taken over by homeless wanderers and eventually condemned, it reopened in 1992 after a $93 million restoration.

Dozing off in a wicker rocker with a rum punch and a cigar on the open porch of the Vinoy near the end of my visit, I asked a waiter where I could rent a small sailboat. He pointed out the nearby NorthHarbor, where I found the sign: “Boat Rentals.” The Electric Marina is owned and operated by Nancy Frainetti (a former horticulturist from Philadelphia) with the assistance of a friend, Jeff Stringfield. They have an assortment of small boats and plan to build a canopied electric boat with a swim platform and head. They also have a resident pet duck named Stormdrain that washed up to their pier through a city storm drain as an orphaned duckling.

Finally, at last I had a boat to sail, a Capri 18 that rents for a half-day at $125. I started the 4-hp outboard, raised the mainsail, rolled out the jib, and departed the lagoon for the open waters of TampaBay — only to encounter a diminishing northerly zephyr of 5 knots that soon died. I motorsailed back after a few hours.

The unstructured GulfCoast voyage ended, somewhat unexpectedly, at an old friend’s house overlooking a marina in the offbeat, artsy-crafty village of Gulfport, a St. Pete time capsule on BocaCiegaBay. Here I met Bob Phillips, a very active member of the laid-back Boca Ciega Yacht Club. On my last day, we had scheduled a sail on his old Morgan 24, but my bad luck held as the wind came up strong and racing was canceled.

The historic old town of Gulfport and the club are worth revisiting for a separate story, but that will have to wait for another time, as I have run out of space.

— Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.