A Tiki Gardens postcard folder touts “A South Sea Island Paradise in Florida.” The attraction, located in Indian Shores, opened in 1964. It suffered damage from Hurricane Elena in 1985 and was sold to developers a year later. It is now county property, with the former gardens fenced off behind a beach access parking lot.
INDIAN SHORES – The area’s main attraction in past years was a transplant from the mystical and beautiful South Seas, created by a local couple with a “never quit” entrepreneurial spirit.
Tiki Gardens was a 12-acre Polynesian paradise located in Indian Rocks Beach South Shore, now Indian Shores. Its site is currently a fenced-in wilderness area in back of the Tiki Gardens Beach Access. Where the parking area is now stood the famous Signal House shops and Trader Frank’s restaurant, renowned for its exotic cuisine.
The Gardens formally opened in 1964. They were the creation of Frank and Jo Byars. The Byars had operated the Signal House Gift Shop at 196th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard in 1955 as a showcase for Jo’s handcrafted seashell jewelry. The shop also sold Polynesian themed merchandise and local handicrafts.
When the shop was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1964, the Byars decided to rebuild, and add something truly spectacular. They hired St. Petersburg architect Robert Lewis Malkin to redesign the Signal House shop and Trader Frank’s, and turn a small garden area and adjacent property fronting the Intracoastal into what would become Tiki Gardens.
The Byars envisioned a South Seas paradise that would capitalize on a Polynesian craze that was sweeping the nation at the time. When it opened later in 1964, Tiki Gardens transported visitors on a trip to the South Seas.
Its attractions included jungle trails, lagoons, and 10 Polynesian themed gift shops, populated by exotic birds and Hawaiian Queens, all watched over by towering tikis. Visitors were offered a jungle ride along the Intracoastal in The Tiki tour boat.
The torch lighting ritual, performed every evening at twilight, was a much anticipated event.
Belleair Bluffs resident David Cortright remembers exploring Tiki Gardens as a child, when his family lived on nearby Indian Rocks Road. They would spend part of the summers at the Florentine Motel, a short walk from the Polynesian paradise.
“I remember what a wonder it was to walk over to Tiki Gardens and roam the trails, enjoying the peacocks and monkeys,” said Cortright. He recalls the animals roaming free, although the monkeys had a wire attached to them so they didn’t leave the grounds.
Seymour The Monkey, a special favorite, “would reach out his hand and grasp your fingers!”
Cortright said he loved to wander the nature trail, seeing all the animals, the giant tikis overhead and the women in exotic South Seas dress.
A special kids’ treat was the Japanese rice candy, available at the Lotus House for a nickel.
“I didn’t have a lot of money to spend,” said Cortright, “and that was a great tasting exotic sweet that I could afford.” The candy was even wrapped in a rice paper that was edible.
The whole Tiki Gardens experience cost the Cortright family about two dollars, well within the budget of most local and visiting families, he said.
After the family returned home from vacationing on the beach to their home on Indian Rocks Road, David Cortright and a friend would sometimes paddle their canoe down the Intracoastal Waterway to the back of Tiki Gardens, jump out and walk around. The trip took about two hours, but it was worth the effort, he said.
“I never tired of being at Tiki Gardens,” said Cortright. “I have such great childhood memories of the place.”
Cortright said the Tiki Gardens experience helped fuel his passion for “tropical tiki stuff.” He and his wife Carol became tikiphiles and have opened a shop “Roadside Attraction,” located at 13836 Walsingham Road.
Debra Sullivan, city clerk of Belleair Bluffs, has more adult memories of Tiki Gardens. A friend managed the Gardens’ restaurant, bar and gift shops, and her sister also worked there.
“I used to go there after work and hang out,” she said.
Frank and Jo Byars, Tiki Gardens owners, lived across from the Gardens.
“They used to come in and help close up at night, and sometimes hang out after hours at the Tiki Hut,” Sullivan said. “We became very good friends with the Byars.”
Sullivan remembers Jo Byars as “the real go-getter. Her husband was more in the background.”
“They were very civic minded, a very caring couple, and so friendly.”
Sullivan has special memories of the oyster store, one of the gift shops that were located throughout Tiki Gardens. The shop had jewelry and an oyster pond.
“If you bought an oyster,” Sullivan said, “you were guaranteed a pearl.”
She also remembers the Pink Polynesian Punch, her favorite, “that we drank out of tiki mugs,” and a Hawaiian singer who performed almost every night.
While Tiki Gardens was a national attraction, it was also a place where the locals went.
“If you lived here, you went to Tiki Gardens, or Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg,” she said.
“It was a sad day” when Tiki Gardens closed, Sullivan said. It was sold by the Byars family to an Australian investor in 1986, reportedly in exchange for a fortune in opals.
The land became county property in 1990 and is today the Tiki Gardens Beach Access.
Sullivan said when she thinks of Tiki Gardens closing, she is reminded of the Joni Mitchell song, “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”