Quick Trips

Dunedin mixes artistic sensibility and mellow vibe

We were sitting at a high top in Florida’s oldest microbrewery, which happens to be in the unhurried and unheralded town of Dunedin.

“I got mine two years ago,” a guy at the table next to us said. “Woke up in the morning and there it was.”

“We just got ours last week,” his tablemate replied.

We watched as glasses were raised and clinked in celebration.

The funny thing was we’d heard nearly the exact conversation from other diners the day before, sitting on the deck at the Olde Bay Café, overlooking St. Joseph’s Sound.

Turns out they were all talking oranges, graffiti oranges. The brightly-colored murals of oranges, showcasing this small town’s historic tie to the citrus industry, are found on buildings all over town. What started as a midnight prank by two local artists three years ago has become a great source of civic pride. We loved the look-on-the-bright-side story, and a whole lot more about this tight-knit town.

Down-to-earth Dunedin, overshadowed by neighboring Clearwater Beach and the string of touristy beach towns to its south, is a delightful surprise. The slow-paced city, one of the oldest on Florida’s West Coast, is at once folksy and stylish, home to a mixed-bag of fixed-up bungalows, one-of-a-kind shops, and innovative restaurants. And, full of people who have seen the world and choose to be here.

There’s a sweet waterfront boardwalk, several well-maintained parks and green spaces, and a causeway leading to Honeymoon State Park, a 4,352-square-mile oasis with paths and nature trails, about four miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, and a chain of white sand beaches.

Caladesi Island State Park, one of the few completely natural islands remaining along Florida’s Gulf Coast, is a short ferry ride away. The barrier island, three miles long and up to a half-mile wide, sits within the protected waters of St. Joseph Sound, and has miles of secluded mangrove forests, sea grass beds, tidal flats, windswept dunes and one of the top-ranked beaches in the country. (So says Dr. Beach, Stephen Leatherman, who named Caladesi the number one beach in America in 2008.) The best part: this swath of pristine area is minutes away from charming downtown Dunedin.

“It’s the gem of the north,” says David Roy, co-owner of the Meranova Guest Inn on Main Street, of his hometown. “We have no tacky T-shirt shops, no spring breakers. You can go to the beach and come back to this lovely village, with its eclectic, artsy vibe.”

We decided to explore the town on two wheels. We rented bikes from a local shop and headed for the Pinellas Trail. The 15-foot-wide, 40-mile path, open to walkers, skaters and bikers, runs smack through the center of town and helped earn the city’s ranking as “Best Walking Town in America” from Walking magazine.

We discovered Dunedin’s version of rush hour: We passed moms and dads with strollers, townies on their bikes, Pinellas Trail through-riders, and dog walkers as we pedaled the easy-going, flat trail. We curbed the bikes to visit the small Dunedin Historical Museum, housed in a 1923 railroad station with exhibits highlighting the region’s history, and the Stirling Art Studios & Gallery, showcasing the work of a dozen or so local artists. We browsed locally owned shops, like the Enchanted Spirits Metaphysical Shop, Kina Kouture (with a nice selection of high-end, industrial chic women’s fashions), Lacy Lingerie, and Q Fashion Jewelry.

Pioneer Park in the center of historic downtown was buzzing as people shopped the local, open-air farmer’s market for fresh produce, seafood, cheeses, and other specialty items. Later that evening, families set up lawn chairs and blankets in the park to watch a movie on the outdoor screen. On any given weekend, you’re likely to find something going on downtown.

Dunedin also hosts a slew of special events throughout the year, including its popular ArtHarvest. This nearly 50-year-old, juried show, held the first weekend in November, showcases the work of more than 200 artists. The popular Dunedin Wines the Blues festival, also in November, draws some 30,000 people and offers wine and beer samplings from around the world and entertainment from top-notch blues musicians. The annual Celtic Festival in the fall and the spring Highland Games celebrate the city’s Scottish heritage.

We were sorry the Toronto Blue Jays weren’t in town during our visit; we’d have grabbed close-to-the-action seats at Dunedin’s old-fashioned Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, for a spring training game. Instead, we treated ourselves to ice cream cones at the award-winning Strachan’s Ice Cream Shop (their homemade carrot cake flavor is reason enough to visit this town) and returned in the evening for drinks at the Brewery and spicy Korean style BBQ beef lettuce wraps at the contemporary Living Room restaurant.

Not all of Dunedin’s art is on its outside building walls. The next morning, we visited the surprisingly top-notch Dunedin Fine Arts Museum.

“The fact that we have an art center in a community this size is amazing,” Roy said, urging us to check it out. We weren’t disappointed. The museum has four galleries featuring national, regional and local artists, a fine gift shop, a small café for coffee, sandwiches and sweets, and the fun, interactive David L. Mason Children’s Art Museum.

After, we contemplated taking the ferry to Caladesi Island State Park to kayak among the mangrove forests and twisting tidal flats. We decided instead to take a cue from the mellow locals, grabbed a seat on the patio at Kelly’s, ordered cold pints of craft beer and a bucket of peel and eat spicy shrimp — and felt right at home.