RNC Beach Guide: The best coast

Staying near the Gulf? Or just longing to get there? Here’s your convention escape route.

The beaches that skirt the Tampa Bay region are about as apolitical as you can get. Most locals and visitors are unwilling to engage in discussions regarding electoral politics or ideology. Some keep their worldviews closely guarded; many just don’t give a shit.

There are, however, a couple of things about which all beach-dwellers passionately care: the beach itself (whether it’s careless litter, sleazy development or just an overabundance of seaweed, you just don’t mess with it), and their booze (don’t tell them where or when they can drink — seriously).

If you scored a hotel room or couch somewhere along the Tampa Bay beaches, know that you’re extremely fortunate. But you still need to know which places are prime locations for your revelry.

That’s where this guide comes in.

The Tampa Bay region has some of the most amazing beaches in the country, some of which have even gained international accolades. Here is how to make the most of them.

FIND YOUR BEACH

Chances are you flew into Tampa International and rented a car, or rolled in as part of a convoy of vans long enough to stretch to the state line. You probably didn’t bother to look at maps of this place ahead of time, but don’t worry — nobody ever does.

Once you’re here and lost, you’ll notice that you can’t exactly walk to the Tampa Convention Center from your gulf-side hotel suite. Most Tampa Bay beaches are in Pinellas County, which is the peninsula due west of Tampa that’s home to St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The beaches themselves are a series of narrow, eroding barrier islands paralleling the mainland.

State Road 60 gets you to Clearwater. Interstate-275 gets you to St. Pete, where you can catch one of several westbound roads to the water. With a few exceptions, Gulf Boulevard is the main north-south artery out on the beach.

YOU GET AROUND

If you haven’t already read about it in the national press, you’ll notice that public transit here is absolutely terrible. There are a few options, though:

The Beach Trolley. This is taxpayer-funded transportation, so Republicans may want to skip it out of principal. The “trolley” is actually a bus that goes from Pass-A-Grille (to the south) to downtown Clearwater (to the north). About that taxpayer funding: There isn’t much of it, which means the trolley doesn’t run late into the evening. Be prepared and look up ride times at psta.net.

Free Beach Rides. The Pinellas beaches have seen an influx of golf carts touting free rides (you’re supposed to tip, though). Unlike the trolley, the golf carts run into the wee hours. There are but two catches: Most of these services cover a limited area, and if you try to get one right at last call, you face a best-case 45-minute wait. You can schedule door-to-door service at 727-776-7553. An alternative is Jimmie’s Free Beach Rides, which can be reached at 727-217-6935.

THE BASICS

You’re stuck on the beach. Now what? Time to familiarize yourself with these key establishments:

For provisions: Publix. It’s where Floridians buy oranges grown in California. There’s one about every five minutes on Gulf Boulevard, except for the condo canyon that stretches between Madeira and Clearwater beaches.

For sunscreen and cheaply made souvenirs: You could acquire these at one of the beaches’ versions of the Big Box Store (Surf Style or the like), which are slightly more respectable than setting foot in a Wal-Mart, though you might as well get your Made In China beach-themed mementos at one of the mom & pop surf shops, such as Surf Shack (St. Pete Beach), Lenny’s (ditto), or Suncoast (Treasure Island). For the sporty visitors, most of these places rent stand-up paddleboards, beach cruisers and scooters.

For a good meal: You’ll find a range of options — too many to list, especially when it comes to seafood. There is an abundance of Thai places that also serve sushi. (Thai-Am II on Madeira Beach and Nori Thai on St. Pete Beach are among the best.) Excellent Mexican can be found at Casa Tina in Dunedin and Café Agave on St Pete Beach, and you can even find Russian food at St. Petersburg Nights in St. Pete Beach. Any delegates from Minsk?

For any kind of meal after you’ve tied one on something fierce: Most restaurants on the beach close at 10 p.m., and bars that serve food tend to stop doing so around the same time. Those staying in or around St. Pete Beach have an easy go-to: Vito and Michael’s, an Italian joint that slings pizza and fettucine alfredo to just before dawn (4 a.m., to be exact). It sure beats Doritos from the hotel vending machine.

For breakfast the morning after: Beverly’s La Croisette on St. Pete Beach is hands down the best, and they even have a vegan option. Get there early, as there’ll probably be a long wait, especially during RNC week.

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