This is what I like to do when I am at the beach.
Watch little kids play in the waves.
Smile at old folks sitting in the shade, in their straw hats.
Dig my toes in the hot sand.
Enjoy the breeze on my face, the surf sounds.
Beachcomb for rocks and shells.
Watch a family wearing all white, posing for a sunset photo.
Daydream about what the sunrise must look like here.
Make plans to come back.
I want to do this every day.
Happy Cinco De Mayo.
It’s official. I am now, finally, completely in love with this place.
This trip’s been four years in the making. I drove through here on my way to Sarasota in March 2007, on my way to visit my elderly Aunt Zan who lives there. In was in part an attempt to prolong the early, beachy part of my vacation, but I also was curious about the drives and towns along the gulf coast. I had a feeling that I-75 miles inland wasn’t the best way to see this state. Turns out, if you’ve only seen it that way, you’ve hardly seen it at all.
“No hurry, no worries” – my waitress here at Peg’s Cafe, on me saying that she could bring me some more coffee, “whenever.”
Treasure Island. What a crazy thing to name a place. I didn’t know it existed until I stumbled upon it on that evening drive from the Tampa Airport. I was on my way to St. Pete Beach. Looking at the map, that seemed like the best quick, obvious beach stop on my way through.
That’s the thing about of-the-moment travel, though. What you can see on the map doesn’t always translate into something cool you can find in reality.
Or, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble on a place like this, that small dot and two words on the map aren’t necessarily enough to entice you in. You need to find a place like this on accident, while passing through. And that is, in fact, what I did.
After that quick and curious drive-through, a few coincidental mentions of the place once I got back home kept it on my mind.This small town of 7,500 people even made the New York Times after my first quick visit, as I saw when my friend and colleague Dennis Nawrocki left a copy of the piece in my office mailbox.
Treasure Island is famous for its retro motels – bright pink, orange, and seafoam green strip places. Moms and pops with central palm-lined courtyards, poolside shuffleboard, and a close view of sandy white beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. I read in that article that part of this small town’s appeal to young travelers is that it’s cheap, relatively speaking, in an area where beachside can cost you 300 bucks a night. 60 bucks and the ocean? A deal worth traveling for.
Beyond their kitschy visual appeal alongside the occasional Days Inn or Best Western, these motels are a living time capsule, some dating back to 1955. “Founded In 1955,” as some local touristy t-shirts say. That moment being a high point of American nostalgia is significant: the year of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and the rise and unfortunate early death of James Dean. It was a year of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and the Everly Brothers on the airwaves. Full high paranoia and Cold War related fear on the nightly newscast.
In some small ways, that particular view of what America and Americans used to be is preserved here, through tthe architecture that’s survived a recent condo-building blitz. The chain motel knockdown and building spree – the impetus for the NY Times profile – is described as a tragedy for retro-travelers young and old alike.
Four years later, after spending several days here, I’m relieved that enough of the past remains for this place to keep its flavor. It’s a bit harder now to find, but it’s there. In a place that’s only five square miles and surrounded by water, you don’t have to look that long or far.
What isn’t easily found in early May, however, are people under the age of 60, unless they’re working at restaurants or hotels. These folks have a very weary, resigned air about them, as if endless early-bird specials have worn them down. For them perhaps this retro place feels like one step from the edge of the earth (which in a sense, it literally is).
I don’t mind the older folks, though. They’re relatively quiet and polite in public. They tend to turn in early and leave places like the pool deck open for exclusive hanging out.
There are some entertaining exceptions to this trend. The huge group of retirees and Jimmy Buffett fans at my favorite Satellite Motel, for instance. They get tanked poolside on margaritas, on a Wednesday afternoon. They’re fun to watch because they give a younger person a glimpse into one option for the future years. If you’re lucky with $$ and retirement time available, and you’d rather be here than there. Why not? If you can swing it, looks like a pretty good time to me.
It also follows that in 1955, these people may have been in their teens. This gives stuck-in-the-past Treasure Island additional personal appeal. So, while the lighted shuffleboard courts sit largely unused, they’re still there. I like to think of them as reminders of the old days, before cable and the internet augmented our beach vacations. Before our after-dark activities were driven back indoors. The past and present share space here, for sure.
Please vote! Up today, Cream Scones.
VOTE: Blueberry Almond, Cranberry Walnut, or Chocolate Oatmeal?
VOTE: Cafe Dreams, Retro Cafe, or Vinyl Cafe?