When you can tear yourself away from the sun, surf,
and sand in this Florida getaway, you’ll discover just how much there is to see and do
By Lola Augustine Brown
Photos: Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (beach); Lola Augustine Brown (Chihuly Collection).
Lying poolside at St. Pete Beach’s historic Loews Don CeSar Hotel waiting for the server to bring me a fruity cocktail, I knew it was going to be hard to peel myself off the sun-lounger to check out the numerous delights of nearby St. Petersburg, Florida, but it had to be done.
Arriving just after lunch, I had committed myself to an easy afternoon of sunning myself before checking in to my junior suite, which came complete with a sunny balcony overlooking the marina and three flat screen TVs (including one in the bathroom—how decadent is that?), but for supper, I left the property.
Not really knowing where to go, I took a left from the hotel parking lot and drove past sweet little beach houses and much bigger, more posh homes to Pass-a-Grille, a quaint historic beach town at the southernmost tip of St. Pete Beach that looks more lived-in than touristy. I window-shopped the little stores and galleries on the main street and checked out the secluded beach until I got hungry. A seafood place called Hurricane had a weathered sign boasting its “World-Famous Since 1977 Grouper Sandwich.” The massive plates of great-looking food that servers were delivering to patrons seemed a good enough reason to eat there.
I took a seat on the patio, skipped the gator-bites appetizer (though I was tempted just so I could say I’d tried alligator), and ordered the world-famous grouper sandwich. It arrived too big to fit in my mouth, so I hacked into it and was treated to succulent white fish in a light crispy batter smothered with homemade tartar. There was so much of it that I couldn’t manage the bun and left most of the fries, good as they were. I sat with a beer as the sun went down, listening to the funky band playing the bar upstairs, blissed out and sun-kissed.
Powdery White Sands
That perfect afternoon set the tone for a very laid-back vacation in St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
Photos: Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (museum); Lola Augustine Brown (hotel and Sunken Gardens).
The Loews Don CeSar is a highly visible landmark in St. Pete Beach (never “St. Pete’s Beach,” by the way), otherwise known as the Pink Palace. A National Trust Historic Hotel opened in 1928, it was a Jazz Age playground for the rich and famous and was frequented by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone (I was never there at the right time to take one of the free historic tours of the hotel, but I bet it would have been fun). It languished after the death in 1940 of its creator, Thomas Rowe (some say he still prowls the property to see that all is as it should be), and then served as a military hospital and convalescent centre during the Second World War and as a Veterans Administration office before it reopened as a luxury hotel in 1973.
The beach itself is superb. Beautiful powdery white sands edge the warm clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and whether your idea of heaven is to just lie there feeling the light breeze on your skin or to get out on the water and do something more strenuous, you’ll love doing it right there.
St. Pete Beach is the perfect beach resort, with plenty of places to watch the sun go down with a cocktail in hand. You can catch a band at Jimmy B’s Beach Bar every night of the week, the food at Sea Hags Bar & Grill is excellent, and The Undertow offers more than 150 different beers. There are lots of seafood restaurants, and old-fashioned ice cream stands, too. If you love to fish, you can catch a charter at Merry Pier or just cast from there. A tourist told me his party had spotted dolphins off the pier the previous night, and there were plenty of huge pelicans milling about.
From Beachfront to Cool Galleries
Many of the visitors with whom I spoke told me they’d never been across the bridge to St. Petersburg itself except when entering or exiting Long Key, the island on which St. Pete Beach sits, and thought me nuts for not wanting to stay right there. But St. Petersburg has some of the best art museums in the United States and some cultural attractions you’ll definitely want to see if you’re in that part of the world and want more than just a beautiful beach and sunshine out of a vacation.
Photos: Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (pelicans); Lola Augustine Brown (Hurricane); Fotolia/Ana (moustache).
My first stop was the impressive Dalí Museum, which moved to its current location in 2011, a glorious piece of concrete and glass architecture right on the waterfront. Out back is the museum garden, cleverly named Avant-Garden, which comes complete with a labyrinth and a massive sculpture of a Dalí-esque moustache that provides the perfect photo opportunity. Inside is the largest collection of Dalí’s works outside of Europe, and though you’ll see lots of famous pieces you’ll recognize, there are also paintings from among his early artistic endeavours in which he experimented with various styles, including Impressionism.
The museum also hosts a changing rotation of shows by other artists, and it has a gift shop and café, so you can grab lunch and a souvenir or two.
Two other excellent art museums are within walking distance. I strolled over to the Chihuly Collection, where you’ll find galleries filled with the famed glass artist’s beautiful floral pieces, bowls, and abstract blown-glass arrangements. If you’ve never seen Dale Chihuly’s work before, this museum will make a fan of you. Lit in such a way that they look ethereal, the pieces are thus made all the more remarkable, and they’re bound to impress even if you’ve already seen large-scale Chihuly pieces before.
You can also take a short walk to the Morean Arts Center (of which the Chihuly Collection is a part) and watch glass artists blowing pieces, and even try your hand at making your own glass art masterpiece. There’s a store where you can pick up works made by local artists, too—ideal because a piece of Chihuly’s work is decidedly beyond reach for most of us.
Just across the street is the Museum of Fine Arts, which is filled with pictures, sculptures, and installation pieces from well-known international and domestic artists. The permanent collection has photography by Cindy Sherman, abstract art by Willem de Kooning, Tiffany lamps, a Cézanne, a Rodin, and a Renoir among hundreds of other pieces. There are also temporary exhibitions and a sculpture garden filled with tropical plants—if you want to escape the heat, this is a beautiful place to do just that.
Photos: Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (museum); Lola Augustine Brown (Chihuly Collection and museum display).
If you’re interested in checking out more local art and small galleries, you’ll find a bunch of them on Central Street at around 6th and 7th, as well as some unique boutiques and plenty of antique stores if you want to pick up a few trinkets to take home. The arts scene in St. Petersburg apparently is really picking up steam, and if you’re lucky to be in town on the second Saturday of the month, there’s an arts walk in the city’s Warehouse District (you can take a trolley around the area, too), with live music. You’ll meet the artists as you explore the various galleries, working studios, and stores.
After hitting all three museums in one day, I headed back to the hotel and spent a little time poolside, where a musician was set up and playing laid-back rock classics. I stayed there for dinner, eating at the Sea Porch restaurant, enjoying beef ribs cooked in ginger beer and served with plantain, followed by a whole snapper, crispy fried and absolutely delicious. (Breakfast at the hotel was similarly tasty and interesting, with dishes such as coconut pancakes, Cuban-bread French toast, and chorizo and plantain hash, so I ate there every morning.)
Stuffed after my superb dinner, I decided a walk along the beach as the sun set would be the perfect way to end the evening. As I left the restaurant, storm clouds rolled in, blocking the sun, and the rain drizzled down. I walked anyway, because it was still warm and pleasant, and I was treated to pink flashes of lightning all across the ocean before me. Nature put on quite a show.
Urban Gardens and Curiosities
I woke up to another perfect day and set out to explore a little more. Staying in St. Petersburg, you’re close to a lot of other interesting areas to visit—as long as you have a car, you can check out nearby Tampa and Clearwater.
I liked the idea of visiting Ybor City, Tampa’s historic Latin Quarter, and so headed over there at around 9 a.m. and realized soon after I arrived, 40 minutes later, that this was not a morning destination. Nothing was open save a coffee shop I’d read about, Tre Amici, where I sipped a latte and ate Cuban toast while waiting for the place to get lively. Sadly, it didn’t.
There was a neat vintage store that opened at noon and a few cigar stores, as well as some interesting old architecture to admire, but mostly I saw bars offering cheap drink specials and tattoo parlours. Disappointed, I headed back to St. Petersburg. Maybe I was missing something, but I just didn’t feel the love in Ybor City.
My next stop was the Sunken Gardens, a 100-year-old tropical paradise in the middle of the city. There were vast numbers of beautiful plants and trees (more than 50,000, according to the brochure), some with monstrous and prehistoric-looking flowers and leaves, as well as a couple of flamingos, plenty of turtles, tropical birds, and butterflies everywhere. It took an hour to wander the paths. Though it was warm, there was enough shade to ensure that the visit was quite lovely (take plenty of water to drink, though) and there were benches throughout so that one could just sit and observe the colourful birds, lizards, and bugs that make their home there. I saw a poster advertising yoga in the gardens and thought how wonderfully soothing it would be to take a class surrounded by so much beauty.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring downtown, beginning with a walk around Mirror Lake and a look at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, which has been there since 1924. It’s a gorgeous set-up that has recently become very popular with hipsters, who converge there with the old-timers to play in the evenings.
I stopped in at one of the four craft breweries in town, Green Bench Brewing Co., which offered 12 different beers on tap and a view over the working brewery when you sit in the taproom, or you can sit out back in the huge beer garden. I tried the IPA, which was delicious. While there, I was told that the craft-brewing scene in St. Petersburg is fairly young but something locals have really embraced, so if you’re a beer fan, you’ll find plenty to appeal to you.
After that, my evening went to the dogs. Literally. I headed over to the Derby Lane greyhound racing track, which has been operating since 1925, to catch an evening of racing and lose a few dollars by betting on the dogs who had the most interesting names (but often no chance of winning). I watched the dogs sprinting around the track after a stuffed rabbit, amazed by their speed, and tore up all my losing tickets in mock disgust at the end of every race. They race there six nights a week, with buffets in the restaurant for special events and matinee racing on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you’ve never seen greyhound racing, it is fast, fun, and exhilarating—even if you don’t win anything. Hanging out at the track, I got to chatting with some interesting locals and left hoarse from shouting encouragement at the dogs I had bet on.
Cruising After Dark
I spent the next day pretty much doing nothing. I lay on the beach and lounged by the pool, ordering fish tacos for lunch. I went inside only to visit the hotel’s gelato shop, where I treated myself to a couple of sinful scoops, and then walked around the property, admiring the gardens.
I managed to get off my butt and leave the hotel in the evening.
Photos: Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater (museum and downtown); Rob’s Radical Rides (bikes).
Googling things to do in St. Petersburg before going on my trip, I found the website Rob’s Radical Rides, which offers tours of the city on electric low-rider bikes. The tricked-out bikes looked awesome, with a very Harley-like chopper style, and I booked myself on an evening tour that came complete with pizza. I didn’t know what to expect, but the ride was definitely a highlight of my trip and the bikes were very easy to ride.
A chemistry professor at the University of Tampa, Rob began building the bikes as a labour of love and then, realizing how much attention they drew, decided to give tours of the city as a lucrative sideline. He’s an interesting guy and gives a great tour customized to include whatever you’re most interested in seeing.
We cruised through alleyways full of quite incredible graffiti art (sanctioned by the city in many cases, with some pieces done by artists who sell their non-graffiti work for thousands of dollars), down to the harbour, past the Dalí Museum (which looked stunning as the sun went down on it), and up the pier where giant cranes stalked fishers. We also circled the St. Petersburg Museum of History, where Rob pointed out the massive working replica of the first commercial plane, suspended from the ceiling (commercial flights began in 1914 in St. Petersburg, crossing Tampa Bay before bridges were built to connect the islands). We finished with delicious hand-crafted pies at Wood Fired Pizza (now closed) and chatted for an hour, with Rob telling me about a dozen more things I ought to see while in St. Petersburg.
Sadly, I was out of time, but Rob gave me plenty of reasons to plan a return visit to this great vacation destination. I think next time I’d want to stay all winter. It was that much fun and, man oh man, could I handle that weather.