Seven weeks ago Friday found me solemnly executing my marital obligations by boarding the plane that would take Kathy (and me) to Florida for her last-ever Spring Break trip. We ended up in Madeira Beach, smack in the middle of the Pinellas Spit. The Spit is a slender strip of sand coursing 20 miles from Clearwater Beach Island to the north to Cabbage Key, which sits where Tampa Bay empties into the Gulf at the south tip.
7 bridges bring over folks from the mainland. There are 10 named beaches, but the sandy shore on the Gulf is pretty much continuous. Sea and sand are the main attractions, but there are bars aplenty to serve those who need a break. “Madeira Beach” names both the beach and the little town (pop’n 3985) that surrounds it. Madeira has the same glorious fine sand, going on forever, on the same Gulf as the highly rated Clearwater Beach to the north, but way less people both on the beach and trying to get to it. Beach denizens are a refreshing bunch of ordinary normal people with bodies to match. Let’s just say the swimsuit competition is a low-pressure event.
Of course, we wanted to spend as much time as possible on that beach. That boring 750 and sunny all the time just calls you to it. Life is loose and easy by the Gulf, and we were happy to join in. But a man needs goals in this life and getting to the beach every day seemed way too low a bar. Fortunately, a little pamphlet I picked up at the airport gave me the structure I needed.
Even without the pamphlet, I’d have had no trouble executing another goal of this trip, which was to hit as many beer bars in the area as possible. Mr. Yelp told us we had plenty of nearby targets.
That’s just the first layer. Yelp said there were 240 spots within 5 miles of my place.
But we like to go local. Less than half a mile from our AirBnB were the Salt Water Hippie, Lucky Lizard Tap House, The Reef Bar and Grill, Dockside Dave’s, Caddy’s, the Ember Rooftop Lounge, Pete’s Sushi and Poke (yes, they serve beer), Sweet Brewnette (mainly a great coffee shop – our go to spot – but they do serve wine and beer!), Gulf Bistro, Madeira Beach Snack Shack, and Daiquiri Shak Raw Bar & Grille.
All those choices call for some winnowing, and that’s what the little brochure provided. Put together by the St. Pete/Clearwater Tourist Bureau, the GulpCoast Craft Brewery Trail features 41 brewpubs and breweries scattered around the area, grouped into 5 regions. Training your phone on the QR on back of the brochure gets you your “Gulp Coast Craft Brewery Passport”, a list of places that link to a spot giving directions and descriptions. But it’s more than a high-tech guidebook. Many of the listed places have special deals for GulpCoast visitors, like 2 for one pints. And that trip on the trail has more benefits than just gallons of good beer. At each place you visit, you ask for a 4-digit code and enter it on a passport to get credit for the visit. 15 visits give you a GulpCoast custom T-shirt to commemorate the journey along the trail. A fatter GulpCoast brochure I picked up later in Dunedin said 10 breweries were sufficient, also offering a ”Silipint” to go with the shirt after 20 and a mysterious “Gulp Coast Prize Pack” for completing all 41.
With a goal to divide and conquer, I organized the breweries by location into the regions near us we were likely to visit: the Spit, Clearwater, St. Pete, and Dunedin. At the time, I was not aware of the fatter brochure, but 15 visits seemed doable. Smallest journey begin with single step too, so we stumbled on to the strip. First evening was an 0.08 mile ramble to The Reef Bar and Grill. No trip is without its disappointments, and here we’d meet our first. Their taps were totally out! Nothing but canned beer. Fortunately, they offered other beverages, including my “Shark Attack”. Whether it was to serve as enticement or defense was never made clear.
No shark came near me the rest of the trip. That about wrapped it up our first day.
Next day we took care of the low hanging fruit. Dockside Dave’s had an amazing grouper sandwich, good for lunch.
Lucky Lizards 0.2 miles away, featured a bar that let you sit outside
With a pretty good beer selection
Green Bench IPA, made over in Clearwater, is excellent.
Gotta love a place called “Saltwater Hippie”, another 0.2 miles away. But it would have to wait till tomorrow.
Then it was time to get in the Jeep and drive down the Spit. Had to stick to the GulpCoast guide and bypass all those other enticing bars along the way. First stop was Sea Dog Brewing, which is based in New Hampshire with 10 locations through NH, Maine, and Florida.
This section of the Spit is called “Treasure Island”. Didn’t see any pirates, but it was a tough yo-ho-ho left turn off the Gulf Boulevard to grab their parking lot and sorta sneak in by the back door.
Once inside, it was clear headquarters had them well equipped.
They produced a good IPA as well as Kathy’s new favorite sweatshirt.
Next stop was Mastry’s, showing what great use to which an old gas station can be put.
Their ample beer offerings were dispensed with gleaming precision.
We had a snack from their kitchen, conveniently parked out front.
After that we left the Spit over the big Treasure Island Causeway to venture to Anna Maria Island, where my mom hung out in her teens. That’s her mom with her’s.
The next day we’d finish the job by going a little north. Seeking an amusing Anecdote, we headed 7 miles up Gulf Boulevard to Indian Rocks Beach.
Choices were well spelled out
We met a couple from Peoria, there driving their 4-door convertible Jeep, just like we’ve been considering. But we shared way more than car talk.
Our trip back to Madeira Beach took up right by Saltwater Hippie, which we’d missed the day before. Coulda been the most fun bar of the whole trip.
They won an award in 2021 as best beach bar in Florida. It ain’t because of the extensive beer selection.
Our GulpCoast tour took us inland, of course, but this piece is about the Spit. So here we’ll stop with the beer places. Not that the mainland is without its delights: Old St. Pete, Clearwater with its great Capitol Theater (1), dandy Dunedin (2), and of course the stop on the way to the airport at the cottage Tom Brady rents from Derek Jeter on Tampa Bay (58 Bahama Circle, Tampa 33606). He wasn’t home when we stopped by, as I’m sure he would have welcomed in a couple of Wolverine fans who love him. We probably spent more time on the beach than in bars, but isn’t that what Florida is all about? Of course, we brought along a cooler.
Not all the brews we quaffed were malt beverages. We were happy to have discovered just a few blocks south of us Sweet Brewnette’s, a fine little coffee house with fresh breakfast items and an outside patio on which to eat them. An order at the counter got a tall metal flag bearing some movie star’s name that sat on your table till one of the girls brought the food out to you. The place was clearly owned and run (well) by women, as you could see in their sign.
Any doubts about that fact go away seeing what hangs behind the cash register
But estrogen adds no taste to any cup of coffee, so I was spared.
So, Kathy and I think we’ve stumbled onto a pretty cool part of Florida. She got to know Orlando and the Cape pretty well in her NASA years. My brother in Clearwater enticed us to the Gulf Coast, and we’ve enjoyed our stays in Clearwater Beach. It was a day with time to kill before the flight home a couple years ago that introduced us to the rest of the Spit. We drove it south to north, falling on a magical restaurant with a thatched roof right on the beach. We searched all over for the place this time, worried that such establishments had been bulldozed to make way for high rises. Thanks to Yelp and Dr. Google, we’ve found that such places still exist, right in St. Pete Beach, lower end of the Spit. We must have driven right past ‘em on our way to Anna Maria Island. Here are the two we found that might have been the place.
Undertow Beach Bar (3850 Gulf Boulevard)
I couldn’t find a thatched roof, and from their Facebook page it looks like they cater mainly to pretty young babes in bikinis (3).
Flippers Beach Bar (4900 Gulf Boulevard)
Not very thatched. The “beach bar” finder I found looking for Flipper’s (4) lists 15 beach bars in St. Pete’s Beach. Guess we have some exploring to do upon our return.
But regardless of what we find in St. Pete’s Beach, we’re very fond of Madeira Beach. Less crowded and less expensive than its more famous beaches to the north, the beach itself is wonderful, amenities ample and convenient, and people friendly. There’s even a great church (5). Kathy snagged a place right on the beach for us to occupy in October. 5 more GulpCoast trail stops to get that t-shirt!
1. The Ruth Eckerd Hall Experience. Billheimer Captial Theater. https://www.rutheckerdhall.com/bilheimer-capitol-theatre
2. Ike B. drink down Dunedin. WordPress 3/3/21. https://theviewfromharbal.com/2021/03/03/drink-down-dunedin/
3. Undertow Beach Bar. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/undertowbeachbar
4. Flipper’s Beach Bar. https://www.floridabeachbar.com/flippers-beach-bar
5. Church by the Sea. https://www.churchbythesea.com/