Treasure Island

By Tom Scherberger, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

Geography: Treasure Island is a small town (pop. 7,500) with a split personality -- the beach and the bay. The beach folks live in funky neighborhoods like Sunset Beach and Sunshine Beach within walking or biking distance of the Gulf of Mexico. The bay people live in waterfront neighborhoods like Isle of Capri, Isle of Palms and Paradise Island that fan out in Boca Ciega Bay, with boat docks aplenty. Together they jealously guard their collective bit of paradise against overdevelopment.

A little history: Timucan Indians first settled the land around 300 A.D., but the Treasure Island we know today began to develop after a bridge linked it with St. Petersburg in 1939 (only recently replaced with a new, toll-free structure). The city was founded in 1955 from four smaller communities -- Sunset Beach, Sunshine Beach, Boca Ciega and Treasure Island. In classic Florida fashion, a developer buried phony treasure on the beach as a publicity stunt. T-shirt shops and family motels soon followed, especially during the land boom of the 1950s when many of the city's distinctive motels were built. Sadly, many of those space-age buildings are being replaced by undistinguished condo towers.

The beach: It's 8 miles of white sand, much of it dredged from the gulf over the years. The beach is narrow at its northern and southern tips and  wide in between, perhaps the widest beach in Pinellas County. Most of the hotels are clustered along the wide stretch on Gulf Boulevard. The wide beach provides plenty of room to fly kites and stage public events such as July 4th fireworks and outdoor concerts.

Amenities: Guacamole at the VIP Lounge. Smoked corned beef at Caddy's. Stuffed artichokes at the Pearl. Thursday all-you-can-eat snow crabs at the R-Bar.  Fat and juicy wings at Ricky T's. And that's just the food amenities. The city runs a golf and tennis center on Paradise Island and a community center downtown.

Long known as an affordable, family-oriented beach, Treasure Island is changing. High-rise condos and condo-hotels are replacing many of the one- and two-story mom-and-pop hotels, though hundreds of units remain.
The changing demographic supports a couple of fine-dining restaurants, the Pearl and Middle Grounds Grill. But it's still old Florida in many ways, with a funky, laid-back vibe and genuine beach bums (check out the Ka'Tiki on Sunset Beach for sightings of this endangered species).

Treasure Island also is one of only two Pinellas beaches that allow alcohol (but no bottles). Caddy's Waterfront at Sunset Beach draws crowds to its beach location, while Ricky T's and Sloppy Joe's are popular main-drag spots. A mile-long sidewalk winds behind beachfront hotels like the Bilmar and the iconic Thunderbird hotels, perfect for strolling, biking and rollerblading. A half-mile wooden boardwalk encircles the southern tip of the island, near the Beach Pavilion with restrooms and showers. Hundreds gather on the beach at sunset every Sunday behind the Bilmar Hotel for a popular drum circle.

Some drawbacks: The main beach is so wide it can be a long hike from your hotel room to the gulf. Residents also await the arrival of a new Publix, the only grocery store on the island.

Parking: The city operates seven metered parking lots, supplemented by a metered lot owned by St. Petersburg and a free lot owned by Pinellas County. There's also limited street parking in Sunset Beach and Sunshine Beach, though the streets are narrow, so be careful not to block driveways.

Bottom line: The laid-back atmosphere and wide beaches continue to draw visitors and residents to a slice of old Florida.