The area around Fort DeSoto has a number of places where you can pull off the road and back your pickup truck right next to the water to swim, fish, drink beer, or just sleep. Lots of fun, and way more quiet than the big beaches at Clearwater or St. Pete Beach.
Pass-a-Grille is within the city limits of St Pete Beach, but it certainly has a distinct feel. Pass-a-Grille features four miles of beach, with no high-rise hotels, condos, or apartments. 8th Avenue is the town's historic district, and it features galleries, boutiques, and restaurants within an easy stroll of the beach. The historic district contains some 450 historic buildings that date back to the late 19th and early 20th Century.
The huge, pink Don CeSar Hotel marks the northern entrance to Pass-a-Grille. The hotel's architectural blend of Mediterranean and Moorish styles was created by Thomas Rowe and built from 1924 to 1928. In its early years, the hotel was a favorite of rich and famous people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. As World War II got underway the army purchased the hotel, and it became a military hospital. In the 1970s, the government planned to demolish the hotel, but it was saved when purchased by William Bowman Jr., a Holiday Inn franchise owner. The hotel was soon restored to its elegant, if pink, original condition as a historic icon on the beach. Rates at the hotel start as low as $140 a night and go up to $500 or $600 a night for some of their package deals.
A historical marker along the tells the story of the town's history:
For 10,000 years, Indians hunted the prairies and fished the waters
of what later became Pass-A-Grille. The last group of Native
Americans to settle in the Pinellas County area were the Tocobagas
around 1000-1700 A.D. This are was first visited by Europeans
in 1528, when the Spanish explorer, Panfilio de Narvaez, anchored
off Pass-A-Grille Pass. Afterwards the island was used as a camp
ground for fishermen to obtain fresh water and to grill their catch.
According to legend, it is thought that Pass-A-Grille derives its
name from the French, Passe aux Grilleurs. In 1857, John Gomez, self
styled, "last of the pirates", began bringing excursionists here from
Tampa, which gave this area the distinction of perhaps being the
oldest resort on Central Florida's West Coast. Zephaniah Phillips, the
first homesteader settled here in 1886, and by the turn of the century
Pass-A-Grille had its first hotel and a ferry boat service from
what is now Gulfport. The town of Pass-A-Grille Beach was incor-
porated into the city of St. Petersburg Beach in 1957, and in 1989,
a section of Passe-A-Grill was declared a National Historic District.
Birding (is "bird" a verb?) is very popular pastime on Fort DeSoto. The best time to see a variety of birds--and avoid the hot summer sun--is September through November and March-June when many species are migrating. Birds abound at Fort DeSoto due to the diversity of habitat here including mangrove swamps, some hardwood trees, the water, sandy beaches and even some mudflats.
People love to fish at Fort Desoto's piers. Why? Because the water is full of fish of all types and sizes. This current around the bend in the island brings in every kind of fish imaginable.
Guess what? Dolphins like it here for the very same reason. This place is a prime place for them to catch lunch as well. Somehow they generally avoid the bait and fishhooks...
Redington Shores was established in 1955, and it stretches 1.2 miles along the coast.
The old Redington Long Pier was renamed the Dubai Long Pier after a spat between the owner and the city. Apparently the city gave the owner the option to bring the pier within code for about $500,000 or close it down. Since the city didn't offer to help fund repairs, the owner decided the city's name should no longer adorn his pier. Later he traveled to Dubai looking for a buyer for his pier and decided to name it in honor of some of the royalty he met there (probably hoping to entice them to purchase the unique piece of real estate).
I have eaten in Redington Shores at the Lobster Pot restaurant.
Fort DeSoto Park has two fishing piers that are open for use of local fishermen and nature lovers. Both piers offer free access, food and a bait concession.
The Bay Pier is the eastern pier, and it extends 500 foot into the water. The more westerly pier is called the Gulf Pier, and its length is double the Bay Pier at 1000 feet.
The island was first explored by the Spanish in 1757, and the US took control of the small island in 1827 when the entire state was transferred from Spanish control. The lighthouse was constructed in 1847 but destroyed a year later. The current structure, the second on the site, has stood since 1858 to mark the mouth of Tampa Bay. Also in the late 1850s, Egmont Key was a prison camp for Indians captured in the Seminole Wars. During the Civil War, this Key was initially controlled by Confederate Forces, but was soon occupied by the Union Army where they blockaded Tampa throughout the War.
The north end of Egmont Key, facing the shipping channel, is home to Fort Dade. Construction began before the Spanish American War (1898) but was not complete until 1906. The fort had a maximum population of about 300, but was only in service until 1923. Since then, the few permanent residents on the island were the light keepers, until the light was automated.
In 1974 Egmont Key was declared a National Wildlife Refuge, and it became a Florida State Park in 1989. Visitors can hike the trails, picnic, use the beaches, visit the old fort and more. The only access to the key is by private ferry service.
A plaque near Fort DeSoto reads:
A large Indian burial mound was built near this spot about 1500 A.D. It was used for some years by the inhabitants of a nearby Safety Harbor culture village, Indians who were among the ancestors of the later Tocobago tribe. Excavation in 1961 by State agencies added to our knowledge of these people.
North Beach at Fort DeSoto is widely acclaimed as one of America's best beaches. In 2005, North Beach was named top beach in America by Dr. Beach, and in both 2008 and 2009 TripAdvisor named this location the best beach in America. Here you will find hundreds of parking spaces, a dozen or so picnic pavilions, plenty of restrooms, picnic tables, barbecue grills, and perfect white sandy beaches.
The beaches in Fort DeSoto Park stretch seven miles, so if North Beach gets too crowded, there are plenty of other options.
Fort De Soto Park opened in 1962 and was formally dedicated in 1963. The centerpieces of the park are North Beach and Fort DeSoto, but other facilities abound. These include two fishing piers, each with bait, tackle and food concessions, various picnic areas, the fort's Quartermaster Storehouse Museum, an 800-foot boat ramp, a 238-site camping area, fourteen large picnic shelters, a pet area, a seven-mile multipurpose trail, a 2¼ mile canoe trail, and two nature trails. There is also a ferry to nearby Egmont Key State Park and Fort Dade.
Fort DeSoto Park is made up of three islands, that have since been connected: Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Bonne Fortune Key and the main island, Mullet Key. This park contains 1,136 acres, and is the largest of the Pinellas County parks. 2.7 million people visit the park each year.
Robert E. Lee, in 1849, recommended that Mullet and Egmont Keys be fortified. It was not until the Union blockade of Tampa that the islands were occupied from 1861 to 1865. In 1889 a quarantine station was established on Mullet Key for those entering the city via boat; this quarantine site operated until 1937.
Fort DeSoto was constructed from 1898 until 1906 and named for Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. Fort DeSoto along with nearby Fort Dade contained batteries of artillery and mortars to protect Tampa Bay from invasion. The fort was only active until 1923, but since 1910 it had been almost totally abandoned. Pinellas County purchased the fort in 1938 , but the government reacquired the fort in 1941 for use as a bombing range. Pinellas County repurchased the island in 1948, and it was connected to the mainland in 1962. The park was dedicated the following year in 1963.
Fort DeSoto during the Spanish American War:
The Tampa area was an essential staging area for the troops heading off to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The seeds of this war were in the Cuban independence movement and the eventual sinking of the USS Maine. The war against Spain began on May 1, 1898, when Commodore Dewey's naval squadron defeated the Spanish squadron at Manila in the Philippines. The war continued with the capture of Guam on May 2, 1898, and the attack on Puerto Rico began on May 12, 1898.
Though the US maintains control over Puerto Rico and Guam until this day, the invasion of Cuba is the most famous chapter in this war's history. Theodore Roosevelt, then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, worked with Colonel Leonard Wood to organize the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, which became known as the "Rough Riders;" Roosevelt was appointed a Lieutenant Colonel and the unit's second in command. On May 29, 1898, 1,060 men of the Rough Riders traveled by rail to Tampa, Florida, where they made camp at various sites in and around the city, alongside some 30,000 other troops sent for the invasion. Seven military camps were established in the Tampa area: Fort DeSoto, Fort Brooke, Palmetto Beach, Tampa Heights, Ybor City, West Tampa, and here at Port Tampa. The fancy Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa's Plant Hall) was the headquarters for the expedition while awaiting the invasion of Cuba. In May of 1898 this park on an island called Mullet Key became an overflow camp for some of those preparing for the invasion of Cuba. In November of the same year construction began on Fort DeSoto, much of which is still in its original condition.
In late June, about 15,000 troops sailed to Cuba to begin the assault. The famous Battle of San Juan Hill took place on 1 July 1898, resulting in a siege of the city of Santiago de Cuba. On July 3, the US Navy attacked the Spanish squadron in this port city, destroying the fleet. Yellow fever took a huge toll on the soldiers occupying Cuba, and by early August they were ordered to withdraw from the Island. On August 12, 1898, the Protocol of Peace between the United States and Spain was signed, ending the war.