No matter how many times I drove out to Howard Beach, the moment where the pine woods give way to the causeway, stretching a mile across the Gulf of Mexico, would never fail to take my breath away.
That drive, which begins as a meandering trip through the waterfront neighborhoods of Tarpon Springs before you enter the outer park and it’s canopies of trees, multitudes of squirrels, and the occasional turtle (there are turtle crossing signs at several places along the road), is beautiful enough. But when you exit the dark woods into the bright light of the sun, and its reflection on the water, it’s as if you’ve set foot on the Yellow Brick Road and are approaching the Emerald City.
The beach isn’t just a beach, of course. One side of it, tucked in next to the causeway’s terminus, is dedicated to aquatic sports. Athletes, and those inclined to think they’re athletes, can rent kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, or water bikes. For slightly more sedentary folks, there are also paddleboats.
Across the causeway the other leeward quarter of the island (okay, it’s only an island when the tide is extremely high) is marked by a palm grove, and it’s usually occupied by a few people who want solitude, and don’t really swim. There is no lifeguard on either if the leeward beaches.
The windward coast of the island slopes gently toward the warm water of the gulf. The bottom there isn’t clear, as there is sea grass covering most of it, but it’s short, and unlike seaweed and kelp, it doesn’t wrap itself around your ankles.
This is the swimming beach, and it’s typically filled with happy families. On a recent trip I ran into a young woman with vivid blue hair, spending the day on the sand with her pink-haired partner, and their toddler-aged daughter, and a Greek mother with three kids, though none were under her umbrella. Rather, they were out in the water with their father while she caught some sun.
It’s worth mentioning that the water here is warm and shallow. An average-sized woman can touch the bottom with her feet while keeping her head above water most of the way out to the channel markers. It’s deceptively calm, though, there is a serious riptide if you get caught in the wrong current.
Howard Beach, like most of the beaches in the Florida State Park system has a lifeguard on duty. It also has clean bathrooms, outdoor showers, and a small walking trail to an overlook with a bench. Parking is ample, and costs five dollars a day, though locals and long-term visitors can buy passes. Handicapped parking is free with a placard, and also ample. There is no concession stand, but the town of Tarpon Springs has many restaurants and cafes. Greek food is most plentiful as the town was originally a Greek fishing village, but there’s a whole range.
After a day at Howard Beach driving back across the causeway feels a little like leaving technicolored Oz and returning to black-and-white Kansas. What helps is watching the fishermen along the road, asking them if they caught anything.
What also helps is the knowledge that this little piece of sand will still be there, welcoming the next families, the next laughing children, the next people to cross the causeway looking for fun in the sun.
Written for Brief #4 of Like the Prose 2021: Literary Travel