If you ever wondered what a Florida town looked like in the early part of the twentieth century, check out Gulfport.
Located nine miles from St. Petersburg and about a half hour drive from Tampa, this charming town is known as the Gateway to the Gulf, as it faces Boca Ciega Bay that leads to the Gulf of Mexico.
Although, it may be quite close to Tampa, it feels as if you are thousand of miles away from the traffic and congestion. The history of the town dates back to 1867, when the first settlers, James and Rebecca Barnett, as well as Mrs. Barnett’s three children from a former marriage settled in an area now known as Gulfport.
In 1884 Hamilton Disston, had great plans for Gulfport. Convinced that a railroad would pass through the town, and considering the apparent business opportunities, Disston built his Waldorf Hotel on the shores of Boca Ciega Bay, along with a dock, three stores and a few . Unfortunately, Disston’s plans were never realized and his dreams came to naught, as the railroad went into St. Petersburg instead of Gulfport – then known as Disston City.
Six years later, along came Captain John F. Chase, who envisaged the possibility of establishing a city where veterans of the Civil War might want to spend their last days. Consequently, the name of the city was changed to Veteran City,” although prior to the change the city had been known as “Bonafacio.” Apparently, the post office officials took a disliking to the previous name of Disston City. It was only in 1910, when the official incorporation and name change to Gulfport transpired.
My favorite pastime is an early morning stroll along Gulfport Beach listening to the chirping of the budgies and watching the dolphins putting on a show in Boca Ciega Bay. If your interest, however, extends beyond a morning walk, you can try your hand at fishing on the pier, where you’re are sure to catch some interesting specimens – perhaps a large catfish or a lady finger. Look out for the pelicans – they grab your catch right off the hook!
From the pier you also will be able to catch a glimpse of the famous pink hotel called the Don Cesar Beach Resort or as often referred to as “The Don” located at the entrance of Pass-A-Grille-Beach. Many Hollywood movies have been filmed at the Don Cesar, and among its famous guests have been F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lou Gehrig, Clarence Darrow and Al Capone.
It should be pointed out that the first pier was built in 1907. The latest one, extending 521 feet into the bay, was renovated in 2001.There is no admission charge to gain access, and there is exterior lighting, benches and a fish cleaning table.
Meandering through the brick streets and along tree lined Beach Blvd, you surely will notice the absence of tall buildings, with the exception of the condo complex of Town Shores, which in no way spoils the idyllic southern atmosphere of the town
Thanks to the initiative of local business people, there has also been a revitalization of some of Gulfport’s beautiful old buildings. This is particularly in evidence with the city’s oldest structure, the 11-room Peninsula Inn & Spa.
The original hotel and restaurant dates back to 1905, when the inhabitants of Gulfport enjoyed the services of a trolley line transporting them to St. Petersburg. Up until recently, the building was unoccupied and very much dilapidated, until it was re-incarnated and returned to its original function and beauty with an elegant British Colonial décor.
Another landmark dominating the waterfront is the Gulfport Casino, with its authentic 1930s ballroom and hardwood dance floor that is in fact the third version of the original casino built in 1905. The first one succumbed to a fire, while the second was the victim of a hurricane. In recent years there has been considerable sprucing up of the exterior and interior of the building that has a gorgeous view of Boca Ciega Bay. The Casino holds weekly and monthly dances as well as other activities throughout the year.
Be sure to drop by Gulfport’s Historical Society Museum, opened Monday though Friday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday. The 90- year-old building housing the museum was at one time a Methodist Church.
A recent addition to this town is the Catherine Hickman Theater, a new state-of-the art performing arts theater, where throughout the year theatrical performances and other events take place. As I have attended some of these theatrical performances, I have to admit they are first class productions.
As for dining choices, one of the most popular restaurants in the entire St. Petersburg area is the Backfin Blue Café, famous for its Maryland crab cakes. People line up nightly during the high season to savor their tasty seafood dinners. This is a restaurant with a great deal of character rather than trend appeal. The fish is as fresh as one can imagine, as if it just came off the boat!
An alternative option is La Cote Basque Winehouse, where you can have a meal at an extremely reasonable price. This one is particularly well-known for their weiner schnitzel, as well as its famous home baked French bread, and its variety of house wines that include burgundy, chablis, zinfandel, and premium French Bordeaux.
A delightful evening is combining your dining experience with the evening art walks and gallery strolls that take place the first Friday of every month and the third Saturday between the hours of 6 and 10. You can even hop on a trolley bus that will show you around the town – all for free.