Florida Beach Camping: Paradise on a Budget
St Pete Beach, it might one of the most stunning stretches of sand in the USA. I mean really mean that. Its everything a person wants from paradise. Clear blue waters, pristine white sands, abundant bars and water sports. Many people assume you have to pay the $300 per night minimums to enjoy it, staying at the beach front hotels on or near the strip. Well, Unearthed went down to see if there’s another way.
Drive ten minutes south of the beach and you will arrive at Fort DeSoto park. The park is a haven of wildlife, mangroves, amazing white sands beaches, historical buildings and a big dolphin and manatee population. Its also home to the Fort DeSoto Campground.
I pulled into the palm tree laden grounds late, so late in fact that the registration office had closed, so I went and set up the tent. I could hear the lapping of water near my site, but couldn’t make out how close it was. Being a long day of driving (i’d put the tent away that morning in Kentucky) I headed straight to sleep. What I awoke to when the sun rose was extraordinary.
I peeked my head out of my tent and saw the sun’s early morning rays creeping in through the branches in the palm trees. The sand stretched from the water to the opposite end of the campground and from my complete surprise dolphins were swimming not twenty meters out at sea! Where the heck was I?
The fort which the park takes its name from is located on the corner of an L shaped island. Floating in amongst this first island is a second one, where the campground sits. Beautiful beaches line the shores of the southern and western edges of the L. Mangrove forests and wonderful mammals float throughout the area. It’s a pretty great set up. The strange thing I noticed as I got up and explored the area was how few people I encountered.
I set up my ENO hammock on the palm trees and enjoyed the view of the water (and dolphins) as I sipped my coffee. I peered around and thought to myself that although this campsite isn’t typical of those I normally stay in, it was absolutely awesome. For a start the site was isolated, though close to adjacent sites it felt like I was entirely alone, helped by the sounds of the water and the thick palm trees.
My original plan was to sit and swing all day, read and recover from the drive, but I couldn’t help it. I drove to Top Water Kayak, a kayak and board hire company to go and explore the coast and see if I could get close to a dolphin.
The dolphins where nothing short of abundant! I came by three in the ninety minutes that i’d been floating. At one point I had to halt my paddling as a large Manatee surfaced within ten feet of the kayak (see video above!). The area was filled with life, birds as well as mammals, I had a great time and at just $30 for two hours it was great value.
The beaches on both sides of the park were absolutely no different in their quality or sheer length to the main St Pete’s beach strip, the only difference being its lack of major hotels. Its St Pete’s quieter, more peaceful cousin, and I loved it. I hit the beach with a cooler of drinks and food on the second day and delighted in my calm personal paradise. I arrived at ten in the morning and sat on a mile of beach, completely alone.
Why exactly do we pay $1000 dollars to sit on a beach for a week? Is it the beach access, or the bars nearby? Is it the pool? Is it the hotel? I honestly can’t put my finger on it for sure, but I can say I had just as much fun lying in a hammock watching the sun set over the water on my last night as i’ve ever had in a hotel room. I can say that I had the beach, bars were close by and the pool wasn’t required. Can you do it for less? Yeah. Forget paying $1000 for a hotel, pay $100 for the campground and spend more on actually doing fun things. The next time your hand hovers over the ‘purchase’ button on a huge blowout trip, close the window. There’s another, better way.