Sunday, November 21, 2010

This Week: Treasure Island, Florida

Treasure Island

It was another cloudy afternoon in Orlando. Not cold, but cool and no sun to be seen. The morning had the promise of sun, but then it disappeared and took the fun out of sunbathing by the pool. With the threat of rain showers in the forecast I said to my husband, “I don’t wanna sit in this condo watching Sports Center all day!” After all, we had a convertible rental car and he did like to drive. I grabbed the Florida map and out we went. We made our way to I-4 heading west toward Tampa. Traffic was heavy, but as soon as we hit the town of Lakewood, the clouds disappeared and out came the sun.

An hour and a half later my husband said, “OK we’re in Tampa, now what?”

“We’re driving until we find water,” I said. As I scouted the map, I noticed dark bold letters on the gulf that said “Treasure Island.” That sounded promising, but I could only envision two things: Treasure Island, the book and Treasure Island, the Las Vegas hotel. What would we find on Treasure Island, Florida?

“Keep going on I-4 over the Tampa Bay Bridge,” I told him. Traffic was getting worse. It wasn’t even rush hour yet and a Tuesday afternoon no less, but we were only at a crawl. My husband had to use all his aggressive driving skills to get us out from behind an overloaded truck trailer belching exhaust into our convertible. Finally as we drove over the Tampa Bay Bridge the traffic seemed to break free as we headed down I-275 into St. Petersburg. Trying to figure out how to get to this mystical Treasure Island, I looked for a simple way on the map, but couldn’t really find one. Suddenly the exit for Alt 19 came up and I made my husband cut through three lanes of traffic to get off the interstate. There was no direct route to Treasure Island and the Gulf of Mexico. Right after we exited the interstate, however, we saw a sign that said, “Treasure Island, 7 miles.” We followed the signs, first heading west, then south, then west and finally north. As we crossed a small bridge another sign greeted us, “Welcome to Treasure Island.”

As we continued heading north following the coastline, we could see boat slips and resorts on both sides of the road. Treasure Island isn’t that wide so the gulf is on one side and various coves of Tampa Bay are on the other. Again my husband’s keen driving skills came into play when he found a public parking lot. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the vacationers that came to spend the day at the beach were leaving so we had plenty of choices. With the top safely up on the convertible and my camera around my neck, we were ready. We crossed a long wooden bridge that was built to keep people from walking through the protected grassy marshes along the beach. On the other side was the beach itself, unbelievably wide. I took off my sandals to feel the sand between my toes. We walked along the waterline and every few steps were piles of tiny shells. My husband said that was because of the pulling of the tides and the direction of the winds, the Gulf was pulled and pushed in two directions, forcing the shells to be deposited in piles rather than evenly dispersed on the beach. Eventually I had to put my sandals back on because the shells were just too hard on my feet.

As we walked, we noticed there weren’t any high rises along the beach, no huge hotels with neon signs or sky-high glassy apartment condos. I couldn’t believe there was this much water front property and the tallest building we could see was the Bilmar Resort at only eight stories. With its bright yellow paint and blue letters, the Bilmar was straight out of the fifties. From the water we could see people walking next to the hotel on some sort of path and decided we would take the same way back.

We must have walked up the beach for a half hour and we were getting hungry. As we headed inland we saw an icon I’d been searching for, a volleyball net. It was part of a small group of condos and had two tiki huts next to it. We walked around the condos to another wooden bridge that brought us to the “boardwalk.” It wasn’t a real boardwalk since it was cement, but a path none the less. The walk was wide and smooth and perfect for a couple to hold hands. As we walked along we came upon one art deco hotel after another. All were only two stories high; most had a U shape surrounding a courtyard with a small pool. Each hotel pool was filled with children while parents and grandparents sat near by and every hotel had a shuffle board. All were painted pink or white or yellow or all three. These tiny hotels had names like The Tahitian, The Windjammer and The Fargo. They seemed an era away from the modern high-rise resorts of Orlando.

We continued walking and saw another tiki hut built on the edge of a hotel only this one was a full bar. A small group of adults had gathered around, which reminded us it was 5 o’clock in Florida. Slowly, the eight-story Bilmar loomed again in front of us. Jutting off the back of the hotel we saw the deck of a restaurant filled with people and decided to stop. As we approached the steps to the deck we saw a blue and white mini-menu that said Sloppy Joes. Could it be related to that famous bar in Key West where Hemmingway used to hang out? It was! We walked up the steps and came upon a two-tiered deck with small groups of people sipping cocktails.

The hostess sat us at a table in the corner under a Corona umbrella with a perfect view of the water and the approaching sunset. Since Sloppy Joe’s was synonymous with Hemmingway, the menus contained a timeline of Hemmingway’s life on each page. I spent so much time reading about the famous author instead of studying the menu, I wasn’t ready to order when the waitress returned. In a rush I ordered the first thing that caught my eye; fish tacos I imagined that that fish tacos from the gulf would be fantastic. They didn’t disappoint. My husband added an appetizer of chicken quesadillas which were good, but the fish tacos were to die for. Made with gulf grouper, they were light and flaky and barely spiced with salsa and lime.

Unfortunately, we ordered too much food and stuffed ourselves. With one taco still left, we couldn’t eat another bite and instead settled back in our seats to watch the sunset show. The sun had been sinking since we arrived, but as it approached the horizon it had grown to gigantic proportions and commanded our attention. I got out my camera. With few clouds in the sky, there wasn’t much in the way of color, but the size and oblong shape of the sun made it interesting. As we watched, a blimp flew by. Why it was there and where it was going we didn’t know, but it made an interesting silhouette in the sky.
After the sun descended below the horizon, I clapped my appreciation. Time to go back to Orlando, the “happiest place on earth” and yet I was disappointed. The simplicity and retro-ness of Treasure Island stayed with me. I hope to go back someday and spend more than just three hours.