For an escape from the hustle of normal Tampa Bay civilization, set your sights on Fort De Soto Park, an absolutely stunning retreat. It's part of St. Petersburg, but seems to be from a faraway world. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, it bears a military name but has a spiritual heart.
Fort De Soto Park is an 870-acre patch of paradise. It's a mecca for migratory birds and migrating travelers who love to camp, swim, fish, picnic and otherwise duck civilization. Its wide expanse of beaches is ideal for privacy, and its waters have a blue-green Caribbean color.
You have to make a mild effort to get there, driving down a long peninsula that leaves the condominium developments far behind. Once there, you discover an eerily pleasurable sense of quiet. There are a couple of supervised beaches that have snack bars and swings for children, but also long strips of beach where you can be several hundred yards away from the nearest bather.
There still exists an actual Fort De Soto, which you can tour for free. But there's satisfaction in knowing the fort's cannons were never fired at people, just at moving barges off the coast for target practice. Military buffs might wish to know the fort has the last four 12-inch M1890-M1 mortars in North America (the only others in the world are in the Philippines). But that's of trivia interest only at this point. Today the fort is a peacetime marvel that belies the paranoia that made its onetime residents (during the late 19th and early 20th centuries) build concrete walls that ranged from 8 to 20 feet thick for protection.
The site's history, however, goes back centuries. The park is on Mullet Key, which juts into the ocean south of St. Petersburg. Explorer Ponce de Leon anchored off of it in 1513, at which time he used his ship's cannons to fight off an Indian attack. He returned again in 1521, when he received a wound during another Indian attack. He later died of the wound in Havana, Cuba.
Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto came ashore in 1539. The park was later named for him. And, fast-forwarding to 1849, none other than future Confederate general Robert E. Lee, then with the United States Army Engineers, anchored offshore to survey the land for possible use as a coastal defense site.
The fort was closed in 1922 when the secretary of war wrote to Florida's governor, saying the fort was no longer necessary for Tampa/St. Pete's defense. The site later became a bombing range during World War II, then was sold to Pinellas County for a mere $26,495. It was officially opened to the public in 1963.
Still, it's a best-kept secret among most of the public. Weekends can get relatively busy with area locals -- and the campsites are nearly always full -- but on weekdays, you would think you were on a remote island far out in the Caribbean. It's that pristine. You can walk in warm lagoons, visit with pelicans on the park's fish pier, stare off at ships in the Gulf of Mexico or just plain hide in the sands. The entire park is food for the soul.