By T. Michele Walker
He’s team Siesta Key and I’m team Indian Rocks Beach. Go team!
We both spent our summer vacations with our families at our respective beaches. Every summer, we’d make the drive from Orlando to the west coast (AKA the best coast), escape day to day pressures and spend precious time with our family.
I was born in St. Pete but raised in Orlando. My mother’s family lived primarily in Gulfport, so we probably made the I-4 trip six to 10 times a year. But the most important trip of all came when we’d pile into the car and head to Indian Rocks Beach and stay in a cottage on the Gulf.
I would sneak my bathing suit under my clothes, fully prepared to run straight to the Gulf from the car. Maximum Gulf swimming time was the ultimate goal. And nothing could beat the excitement of finally turning onto Gulf Boulevard.
There was a group of cottages owned by Mrs. Mitchell, a friend of my parents’ mother, which is where we would stay every Fourth of July.
Located on the narrows, just across the street from the ice cream shop (which I believe, still survives), they were a quaint group of cottages, beautifully landscaped with sea grapes and other foliage, creating a tropical paradise.
We’d spend all of our time in the water until our mothers would make us get out for a rest, something I never understood. When taking our mandatory break, we’d play in the “jungles” around the cottages, otherwise known as the sea grapes. There was always shuffleboard, the courts as ubiquitous as the sand.
I was born in the early 60s when Gulf Boulevard was a different street with a small town vibe. Lined mostly by cottages with the occasional two-story hotel thrown in the mix, there was never a time where you couldn’t see the strikingly blue Gulf waters from the road.
The old pier was epic. Indian Rocks Beach had the longest pier and every summer, walking the pier was an event with fishing, food and a little cardboard pelican where you would pay to have your picture taken. One year, my cousin Marsha splurged and bought us a picture. I treasure the picture of Marsha with my sister and me, standing next to that cardboard pelican.
When someone says to me, “go to your happy place” as a relaxation exercise, I go to the morning where I woke up in a room directly on the beach. I was around eight or nine years old: no air conditioning back in those days, but the oscillating fan was moving the white gauze curtains, windows wide open. The sounds of the Gulf were in rhythm with the fan and curtain, orchestrating that perfect July morning to create another perfect day just for me.
Tiki Gardens wasn’t a parking lot, but a real live shop and gardens where I would beg to go every summer. When my grandmother would visit, she’d buy me a Tiki Garden treasure, most likely a soap inside of a shell or pungent orange perfume. Tiki Gardens was my version of the Magic Kingdom, years before Mr. Disney started purchasing Central Florida property.
The year before they tore down Mrs. Mitchell’s cottages, I believe I was in my 20s. I stopped by and the manager kindly allowed me to go inside the cottage where we would stay every summer. I held back tears as I smelled the cypress wood interior and roamed the perfectly designed rooms, built to usher in the gulf breeze, memories stronger than that orange perfume from Tiki Gardens.
Vacations with our families are magical. Once a year we come together to escape the day-to-day grind. We leave the stress of school, work and cleaning the house far behind and we are in a magical place where there’s some peace and joy. No fights, no criticism, no grades or pressure. Just freedom and being with the ones you love.
We spend the rest of our lives searching for that same feeling that we had once upon a time, that elusive vacation-related feeling of freedom.
Later in life, we begin to understand that those feelings of peace, joy and freedom are not tied to a specific place, but are something inside of us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it’s been inside of us all along.
But who am I kidding? There’s no place like home, and by home, I mean Indian Rocks Beach.
A special thanks to Nancy Ayers at the Indian Rocks Beach Historical Museum for her cooperation and enthusiasm in sharing all photos within this article. Museum hours are 10 am to 2 pm Wednesday through Saturday.