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Florida Matters: Exploring Tampa Bay's Beaches

Oct 20, 2015

This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 a.m.), we’re exploring some of the many beaches around Tampa Bay, with a look at parking, water quality and recollections of beach days gone by.

The beach is romanticized as a place to relax and reflect for some and for others it’s the ultimate party place. But as beach-going crowds have grown in Florida, so have the beach rules.

No camping. No alcohol. No vendors. No fires. No dogs.

Visit a Florida beach today and you’ll likely see rules posted everywhere.

There were no regulations when Francie Bistline Stephan’s grandmother traveled to the Atlantic shore.

“She went by horse and buggy,” said Stephan, who grew up in Longwood, a small town north of Orlando.

For four generations, her family has traveled to New Smyrna Beach. In the 1950s, Stephan’s father would rent a cottage on the beach.

“That was one of the best things back then because everything was open, no air conditioning, no tall buildings, just these little cottages and you’d go to sleep to the sound of the surf just rolling in, rolling in, rolling in,” Stephan said.

One of her favorite memories with her father: digging up coquinas, small clams, to make coquina soup also called periwinkle soup, “it almost tasted like the beach.”

Florida beaches – in a simpler time – were for a fun, family get away.

“My mother hated everything about Florida especially the cockroaches. My dad loved everything especially the beach,” said Florida culture writer and author Jeff Klinkenberg.

He remembers as a child wearing a snorkel and mask and hanging onto the back of his father’s swim trunks. And his dad would tow him through the water during his mile-long swims in the Atlantic.

“It was like swimming through an aquarium,” Klinkenberg said.

Klinkenberg also idealized the surfers he saw living on the beach. They “caught fish, sold shells to tourists, guzzled beer and bragged about their many girlfriends,” he wrote in his 2007 story, Beach Bums: An Endangered Species.

“Slowly but surely the beach bum disappeared and part of it was real estate. And these laws passed where you couldn’t do that,” Klinkenberg said.

As property values have gone up, public access to beaches has dwindled. And other realities that have closed in on the freedom Klinkenberg once felt at the beach.

“I think parking meters and beaches are incompatible. Because you’ve got this freedom, this view, this romance, and parking meters are anti-romance,” Klinkenberg said.

Parking, too many people and the hassle to get to Florida’s Gulf beaches are why Sean McDaniel of Largo prefers Gandy Beach, a slip of land on Tampa Bay just west of Gandy Bridge.

There you can still drive your car onto the sand, you can bring your dog and you don’t have to pay to park.

Known by some as Florida’s “Redneck Rivierra,” Gandy Beach is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation and patrolled by the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office. The water is not clear. There are no concessions and it’s had a reputation of attracting a more raucous crowd.

Yet it’s still a slice of personal paradise for McDaniel.

“I’ll bring my daughter here,” McDaniel said. “We’ll get a spot in the mangroves and just pull up and she can raft, whatever, swim … This is home to me. I want my daughter to understand where I grew up and the places that I went and spent time at.”