Only minutes from the Interstate and seconds from the beach, the Sea Breeze Manor in Gulfport is a strikingly friendly, beautiful base camp for enjoying the best of St. Petersburg and its beaches.
You can greet the dawn while strolling across the white sand and splashing in the gentle surf of Boca Ciega Bay, separating St. Petersburg Beach and Treasure Island from peninsular Florida. Then you can return at the end of the day for the nightly sunset ritual.
For passing the time in between, downtown St. Petersburg is 15 minutes away, with its splendid waterfront park and marina, crowned by the famous Pier and distinguished by a series of fascinating museums. Five minutes closer is the Tropicana Dome, where the Tampa Bay Devil Rays struggle for major league success and where big-name entertainers pack in the crowds.
Another 15 minutes south is something completely different -- the 900 acres of Fort De Soto Park on Bayway Drive, a necklace of five islands connected by out of the way roads. They are Madelaine, St. Jean, St. Christopher, Bonne Fortune and Mullet Key, largest of the group. The only Spanish presence was back in 1513, when Ponce de Leon apparently landed at Mullet Key to careen his ships and scrape off barnacles, but it was built up during the Spanish-American War when the government finally acted on a recommendation that the islands be used for coastal defense. The lieutenant colonel making that call was Robert E. Lee. A fort was built and huge cannons imported but no shots were ever fired except in training exercises during the two world wars.
There are more than three miles of beaches, swimming areas with lifeguards, playgrounds and picnic tables with grills, kayak rentals and fishing piers.
St. Petersburg Beach and Treasure Island, along with Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, all hugging the Gulf of Mexico, have a different kind of distraction. A string of souvenir shops, restaurants, raw bars, snackeries and sub shops tempts tourists and residents alike to overindulge -- from the simplest of Asian takeout to the dining destinations of the magnificent Don CeSar Hotel.
No matter how or where you spend your days, you have the comfort of knowing you're going to be well-housed and pampered a bit when you return to Sea Breeze Manor. Relax in your suite or cottage and capture the spirit of the islands on antique beds and rattan, soothed by the cooling colors of the Caribbean.
The spa-inspired bath with separate tub and shower has an ample supply of soaps and shampoos, and stacks of thick towels. Each guest accommodation has a private patio or deck, individual temperature control, phone with data port, television with VCR.
Innkeepers Patty Burke and Karen Kelley create a welcoming home-away-from-home spirit underscored by their declaration that "We're never in much of a hurry here -- unless, of course, it's to fill a guest's request." They give advice about happenings in town or on the beaches, recommend restaurants, and serve afternoon tea and evening wine and cheese in their little tropical garden.
They say they can offer "a kinder and gentler life -- island style," as they promise in their flier touting their pride and joy: A two-story, 1923 Florida Tudor that was a private residence until Lawrence and Patty Burke decided it was time to go into the B&B business. The fact that they were building contractors helped, as they put in all the modern conveniences while maintaining the historical features and architectural style.
You can learn about the problems encountered and appreciate the professionalism of the achievement while sipping wine or settling into the complimentary breakfast buffet, built around freshly squeezed Florida orange juice, tropical fruit, homemade muffins and coffee.
They might even be able to tell you about the history of Gulfport, the waterfront settlement that was founded as Disston City in 1884 by local businessmen eager to attract the attention of the young Philadelphia saw maker who had saved the state from declaring bankruptcy three years earlier by buying 4 million acres of land at 25 cents an acre -- the largest amount of land ever bought by an individual in the history of the United States.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Take the St. Petersburg 22nd Avenue South exit off I-275, going west and turning left at 58th Street South, heading south. At the stop sign just before the water, turn left on South Shore Boulevard South and look for the inn's red-shingled roof.
Rates: $99 to $150 depending on whether your unique antique bed is king, queen or double. Inquire about special party, anniversary and wedding packages; major charge cards are accepted. The inn does not accommodate pets or children younger than 12. The inn is smoke-free, and there is reserved complimentary parking. As for special needs, the owners say: "We haven't found one yet that we were not able to meet. Just ask."
Information: Contact the Sea Breeze Manor Bed & Breakfast Inn, 5701 Shore Blvd., Gulfport, FL 33707; call 727-343-4445 or 888-343-4445. www.seabreezemanor.com