Before we go any further, I’ll be completely honest with you: I’m a snob. An easy-going, open-minded, adventurous, generous and caring one — but a snob nonetheless. So when I was recently invited to visit Florida for the first time, Tampa in particular — and not just Tampa but St. Pete Beach, for that matter — I’ll admit: I was skeptical.

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Simply put, Florida looked overrun: the state looked to be an unending expansive resort known by all, lacking those hidden gems that require imagination or ingenuity to discover. It’s the easy go-to option when one needs a quick fix of Vitamin D, where all it takes to score a comfortable beach chair is a credit card for making reservations and a pair of feet to walk across some sand before plopping down for a bit of thoughtless sunbathing.

Then again, I’ll try anything once. Moreover, my preferences consistently skew toward beautiful beaches, in any part of the world — they never cease to please me, whether I’ve ponied up for a cozy cabana atop white sand dunes or I’m trekking down ladders for the chance to park myself atop some rocky ledge in a secret alcove. Tell me there’s a nice spot where ocean meets land and I’m there.

Which is how I ended up in St. Pete Beach at the Postcard Inn. Driving in from Tampa airport, the first appearance of St. Pete Beach is a strip of over-the-hill boxy motels, beach-goods shops and unmarked strip clubs flanking the unending straight shot of concrete on which too-large cars waste their 4WD capabilities called Gulf Boulevard. Other than the occasional Cuban/Spanish restaurant, the scene is pure whitebread Americana. Until you arrive at the oasis that is PCI.

PCI, as locals call the Postcard Inn, wears its retro look in a way that is simultaneously earnest and hip, classic and contemporary, accessible but aspirational. It doffs its cap to the heyday of 1950s surf cool: the main lobby feels bohemian and easy-spirited, an expansive open-plan area dotted with throw-back touches like low-slung birch furniture, vintage lamps and even a photo booth. This isn’t a pretentious boutique hotel, though — a cheery mood brightens each corner, from the chalkboard behind the check-in counter announcing that day’s specs (temperature highs and lows, sunrise/sunset hours) to the attendant, just returned from a stint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who can’t say enough about the local beaches and easy living.

A room at Postcard Inn
The large, bright and airy rooms feel casually thrown together in way that could only be precisely premeditated, yet avoid feeling overly precious, the sandy sisal-like carpeting balanced by funky ‘70s-style colors like menthe green and sunflower yellow for a bohemian edge. Surfboards and wall decorations such as a collage composed of surfer photos and postcards (of course), beachy amenities like extra-large blue-and-white striped beach towels and the most recent edition ofEastern Surf Magazine, and products including Sun Bum sunscreen (tagline: “Protect Your Lazy Ass”) reinforce the surf theme, keeping true to the local culture.

The other aspect that stays true to the locale while injecting a stylistic upgrade is the outdoor area, designed by landscape architect Christy Ten Eyck: between the U-shaped lodge and the beach, walking paths cut past the edge of the large pool, from which burst local brush and flowers like honeysuckle and orchids. Separating the beach from the PCI Bar and PCI Snack Shack are Majesty and Areca Palms, before revealing an endless expanse of white sand beach. This is where local surfer-cum-creatives of the area lounge away the day; at night and especially weekends, they stay on to listen to local bands and drink into the next day.

This is really what I came here for: a beautiful beach, paired with a sense of discovery. In fact, there are several such beaches to be explored — North Beach at Fort De Soto, for example, or Pass-A-Grill Beach in the south. I’m sure there are plenty more hidden treasures to be found in the area, I just haven’t yet had time to look. With PCI and St. Pete Beach, I found a diamond in the rough, though I had to dig beyond what I knew and what at first appeared to be available. Which is just how I like it.

Originally posted on TabletTalk on June 6, 2011.

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