I stumbled upon Gulfport the first time by happenstance while in nearby St. Petersburg. I was sitting on a brightly colored patio at Stella’s, enjoying my breakfast burrito and sipping a mimosa when I struck up a conversation with the older couple sitting at the table next to me. Before I knew it, I heard the story of how the two met many years ago. I heard about their unlikely courtship and how they fell in love. I heard about how they served our country, but struggled to keep their relationship a secret during their time in the military. I heard about how the two had remained a couple over the years and grew old together. As the tale of their extraordinary lives was told me, their impenetrable bond became apparent.  I was enthralled with their story, courage and vivaciousness.

They were no “ordinary” couple. The proud veterans are a biracial gay couple.

They spent many years overcoming the hurdles of being together – back then, their love was taboo in most every way, but not anymore. And, not in the city they call home – Gulfport, Florida. Their relationship, and most any other kind, is celebrated by the supportive and open-minded community in Gulfport. I left Gulfport with a smile on my face and a promise to myself that I’d return again soon.

Earlier this month I grabbed my girlfriends and headed back to the city which had left such a lasting impression on me.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Where is Gulfport, Florida?

Gulfport is located next to St. Petersburg on the St. Pete/Clearwater peninsula and is only about a 30-minute drive from Tampa International Airport. Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Gulfport’s Quirky, Funky, Eclectic Community

The quirky community of Gulfport is a well-kept secret and remains somewhat undiscovered by those who don’t know the Tampa Bay area. Downtown Gulfport is comprised of a few blocks of cute restaurants, beach bars and shops. It’s much like your favorite beach town… but, with a lot of extra flair. The buildings are brightly hued, the lawns and homes are ordained with art and rainbow flags are proudly flapping in the wind.

Gulfport is a haven for free spirits which are drawn to the city’s artsy, laid-back vibe, thriving art scene, popular restaurants and the closely-knit community. The residents of Gulfport are open-minded and accepting. They are offbeat and eccentric. But most of all, they are welcoming and warm.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Had I stumbled upon a real-life hippie utopia?

Probably so.

The community is a hidden gem unlike anywhere else I’ve visited. You may come to Gulfport for its quirky beach-town atmosphere, but you’ll fall in love with the community because of its people.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

What To Do & See in Gulfport

Other than mingling with the locals, make sure you take in everything Gulfport has to offer.  Peruse the eclectic shops and art galleries, pop into one of the beachfront bars and indulge in the city’s delicious dining scene.

  • Dining: Although small in size, Gulfport has a serious foodie scene.  Check out Stella’s for breakfast or brunch, O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille for a casual lunch and Pia’s Trattoria for a cozy Italian dinner.
  • Nightlife: Gulfport’s laid-back nightlife won’t disappoint. Start with some live music at Salty’s, and then grab some liquid courage at Manatees on the Bay’s tiki bar before you sign up to sing karaoke at O’Maddy’s.
  • Art: Stroll the city’s Art Walk showcasing local talent on the first Friday and third Saturday of every month.
  • Shopping: Enjoy the Tuesday Fresh Market, an open-air market offering local, organic and hydroponic fruits and vegetables, as well as local honey, seafood, Florida grass-fed beef, fresh flowers, bath and body products, jewelry and almost anything else you can imagine.
  • Festivals: Plan your trip around Geckofest, Gulfport’s end of summer celebration, which features a host of hippie-themed festivities, street performers, live music and a colorful costume contest.
  • Nature: Picnic at Gulfport’s Veteran’s Park, enjoy the view from William’s Pier or explore the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve.Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Get Out on the Water

It would be a crime to visit Florida and not dip your toes in the ocean. Lucky for you, the area is a great place to get out on the water and paddleboard, kayak or Jet Ski.  If you’re adventurous you can try your hand at windsurfing or parasailing.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Just outside Tampa Bay, you’ll find the jewel-toned water of the Gulf of Mexico. Charter a boat to Egmont Key for some fun in the sun and snorkeling or take the shuttle to the barrier island of Shell Key.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Land a Fish as Big as You

While in Gulfport I opted for to experience a Floridian favorite — sport fishing. Specifically, sunset catch-and-release tarpon fishing.

Tarpon are huge acrobatic fish that take a lot of patience, strength and skill to land. They can reach eight feet in length and weigh up to 260 pounds! Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert sport fisherman/woman to partake in the fun — you can just hire one, like Captain Chad Manning.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

We headed out on Captain Manning’s boat in time to catch an epic Florida sunset as he steered us to the location he thought would be best for catching the elusive fish. I realized why when I looked down into the water and saw dozens of small crabs floating towards the surface. We used fishing nets to catch the crabs to use as live bait. After collecting enough crabs, we casted our rods and hoped that one of us novices would snag a tarpon.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

It didn’t take long for my friend Terry to get a bite, but we learned that tarpon fishing is considered a sport for a reason… the fish wasn’t coming in without a fight. The massive tarpon did somersaults and barrel rolls around our boat as Captain Manning provided Terry with constant instruction and support. Just as we thought the fish had run out of fight, a hammerhead shark grabbed a hold of it. (Seriously. I couldn’t even make this up…). Captain Manning estimated the hammerhead to be between 11 and 14 feet long based on the size of its dorsal fin. (!)

Our captain got the tarpon loose from the shark and the struggle between Terry and her fish resumed. After about 90 minutes of non-stop action, we finally landed the feisty fish. Captain Manning explained that Terry wasn’t the only one who was exhausted from the fight – so was the fish. To revive the tarpon, he held the fish upright in the water and moved it back and forth to enhance the circulation of water through its gills. Captain Manning estimated our tarpon to be between 105 and 110 pounds – about the same size as Terry!

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

Tarpon fishing was exhilarating and I’d certainly recommend it as a unique way to get out onto the water while visiting Gulfport.

Gulfport: Florida's Hippie Haven

So, will I head back to Gulfport?

Absolutely. Gulfport is the kind of place you intend to visit for a weekend, but end up wanting to linger much longer.

Have you heard of Gulfport, Fl.? Would you like to visit?

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of VISIT FLORIDA. The opinions and text are all mine.

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