Like Juan Ponce de Leon, I set out to explore Florida on behalf of my fellow bed-and-breakfast lovers, never knowing exactly what I’ll find. My latest discovery? Gulfport, a city of 12,000 on Boca Ciega Bay, in southern Pinellas County.
Strangely enough, although I have lived within an hour’s drive for most of my life, I had never visited Gulfport and knew little about it until I became a Facebook fan of its two bed-and-breakfast inns. I was intrigued and decided to spend the night at the Historic Peninsula Inn.The inn – in the center of the small, walkable downtown – offers 12 rooms and suites and a restaurant, Isabelle’s, serving new Southern cuisine for dinner.
The property has a long and storied history, originally opening as a hotel in 1905. After World War II, it was converted into a hospital for injured veterans. The building was used as a nursing home, and then a retirement home, before it was boarded up in the 1980s. After a year of renovation, the previous owners opened the Peninsula Inn and Spa in 2002.
The present owner, Veronica Champion, took over in January 2016.
Before my arrival, Champion impressed me with her speedy and efficient service online. I emailed asking about a AAA discount and she immediately gave me a 10 percent credit, even though my room had already been charged to my credit card. She also responded quickly to my request for restaurant recommendations, providing a number of options.
Champion herself greeted me when I arrived at the Historic Peninsula Inn on a Sunday and escorted me to my room in a huge vintage elevator with a collapsible gate, installed in the 1940s to transport hospitalized veterans.
The Irian Jaya Room
I had booked the Irian Jaya room, the smallest room in the house, and the least expensive. The regular rate was $129 (only $116 with my AAA discount).As regular readers of my reviews know, I normally book the least expensive room, and most of the time I am perfectly comfortable. This time, I was not comfortable. The Irian Jaya is so small that I had trouble moving around. I stubbed my toe twice while trying to pass between the bed and the wall.
The inn’s website states that the small, but charming, room “works well for the business traveler” – but there is nowhere to work. I had to sit up in bed to watch TV; the only other option was a little chair stuck in the corner with no arms. A queen-sized bed, a large dresser and a bathroom sink fill up the room.
To make this room more comfortable for one, or even two, guests, I would downsize the furniture. Switch to a full-sized bed and a much smaller dresser – who uses a dresser on vacation? Then there might be room for a cozy armchair.
For now, I recommend guests spend a little more money and choose one of the Historic Peninsula’s other larger rooms or suites, starting at $139 a night.
For dinner the night of my visit, I tried Isabelle’s, the restaurant on the first floor. It offers indoor seating, but I chose the covered porch that runs across the front of the house, decorated with romantic, hanging white sashes.My scallops were tasty, but the Carolina rice was rather dry and the mashed sweet potatoes were too sweet. My dinner companion gave high marks to his grilled romaine salad and seasonal vegetables.
In the morning, I was directed to the bar for breakfast, which was a disappointment. The food was adequate – assorted breads and eggs to order – but no effort was made to create the enticing presentation that I expect at a B&B. I ate on the side porch to escape the dreary bar with the TV running.
It was a Monday and the inn had few occupants in residence, but that’s no excuse for not going all-out. B&B guests expect breakfast to be a special occasion, no matter when it is served.
After checking out of the Historic Peninsula Inn, I walked down to the beach, just a few blocks away, where two piers jut out into Boca Ciega Bay. It’s a tranquil spot, with a playground, volleyball and covered pavilions.
On the waterfront, visitors can walk to several restaurants and the historic Gulfport Casino. The city landmark, with its 1930s hardwood dance floor and band shell, hosts dances, weddings and other large events.
Of course, I couldn’t leave Gulfport without investigating the shopping scene. In a stroll down Beach Boulevard, the main downtown drag, I found several shops worth exploring. (And I’m sure there are many more.)
BoTiki sells unique jewelry, hats, clothes and all kinds of purses. And the cold water offered to shoppers was a nice touch – especially on a steaming summer’s day! I could have spent hours browsing there.
Domain Home Accessories & Gallery has fascinating artwork.
If you only have time to visit one shop, make it the Gulfport Beach Bazaar. It’s really 20 shops since 20 vendors share the space. The inventory includes antiques, repurposed furniture, clothing, housewares and much, much more.
Also, I discovered that the owners, Mike Fagan and Gini Carroll, live in Sarasota, my hometown. Talk about a small world – and a long commute. The Beach Bazaar building was constructed in 1952 as Gulfport’s first post office, and Fagan and Carroll still run a post office inside the store.
GeckoFest and other events
Gulfport holds regular events to entertain both visitors and residents – an art walk, a farmers’ market, a blues fest and holiday celebrations. But the city’s largest and best-known event celebrates the gecko, its unofficial mascot.
The free GeckoFest is usually held in September, with live music on two stages, strolling street performers, a costume contest and a parade with audience participation. Sounds like a blast!To learn more, order “Your Vacation Guide to Gulfport, FL” from the Historic Peninsula Inn. It provides links to recreation, entertainment, events, restaurants, shopping, museums and golf. For assistance while you’re in town, stop at the colorfully painted little Welcome Center, 3101 Beach Blvd. S.
Whether you stay in one of Gulfport’s B&Bs, or visit for the day, I think you’ll be delighted to discover this little city on the bay.
(Note: As always, I accepted no compensation in exchange for writing this review, and did not reveal my intentions to the innkeeper.)