ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - A daily newspaper in St. Petersburg once famously offered free copies on cloudy days. The newspaper is long gone - but not because it had to give away many copies. Laid-back, upscale, colorful - and, oh, so sunny - St. Petersburg might be the perfect antidote for a case of the rainy Midwest blahs.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A daily newspaper in St. Petersburg once famously offered free copies on cloudy days. The newspaper is long gone — but not because it had to give away many copies.
Laid-back, upscale, colorful — and, oh, so sunny — St. Petersburg might be the perfect antidote for a case of the rainy Midwest blahs.
Add beautiful beaches, baseball and a touch of the arty and surreal, and this city between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico becomes an urban vacation destination that should appeal to an array of travelers — especially those tired of carrying umbrellas.
Speaking of arty and surreal, the first stop in my exploration of downtown St. Pete was one of the city’s premier attractions: the Dali Museum, a tribute to the Spanish painter famous for his melting clocks. I had fantasized that visitors would have to enter through a vat of giraffe eyeballs or something equally strange. But, as I learned, surrealism was only a part — although the most famous part — of Dali’s oeuvre.
The museum is a three-story structure of glass geodesic domes and boxy concrete, a striking mix of the fanciful and the utilitarian.
Works from every phase of Dali’s career are on display. I was struck by the technically precise realism demonstrated in his early paintings and in his later monumental canvases.
Dali was an excellent draftsman, and his complete command of color, form and perspective allowed him to warp them all at will, making him a de facto leader of the surrealism movement of the mid-20th century.
His tireless self-promotion didn’t hurt, either. But Dali’s showmanship was also a part of the charm of the artist, who died in 1989 at age 84.
After saying hello to Dali, I was ready for a stroll through the Florida sunshine.
Downtown St. Petersburg is a pleasant, walkable mix of high-rise office buildings and condominiums and a variety of hotels, nightspots, shopping and dining venues stretched out along the bay. And the almost continuous string of small parks between the water and the city are perfect for a leisurely walk while admiring the vessels in the St. Petersburg yacht basins and the architecture along Beach Drive.
At the edge of the North Yacht Basin sits the grand Vinoy Park Hotel, looking like a Bahamian-pink wedding cake adorned liberally with curlicues of bright white icing. The venerable Vinoy was built in 1925 as luxury lodgings for well-heeled visitors. The hotel fell on hard times and closed in the 1970s before a $93 million renovation in the 1990s restored it to its Roaring ’2 0s elegance.
Less than a block from the Vinoy is the Chihuly Collection museum, the only museum built specifically to house works by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. The 10,000-square-foot museum includes art ranging from tiny marblelike spheres to eye-popping, room-filling installations specifically designed for the site.
I continued my art theme with a short walk through North Straub Park to the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, which nestles between the water and the “restaurant row” along Beach Drive.
The original Palladian-style museum building and a modernist expansion house offer a nice collection, including works by masters such as Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, in cozy, human-scaled galleries. The courtyard and sculpture gardens, too, are lovely and inviting.
Just around the corner from the art museum, on the small spit of land that divides the Central and North yacht basins, is the St. Petersburg Museum of History — a great place to learn a bit about the background of Florida’s west coast. I was fascinated by the story of the world’s first regularly scheduled commercial air flights on board a seaplane that ferried passengers across Tampa Bay between St. Petersburg and Tampa beginning in 1914.
Near the history museum is a small spit of sand called Spa Beach, which might do, in a pinch, for swimming or sunbathing. Serious beachgoers, though, will opt for the long, magnificent beaches of St. Petersburg Beach and other Gulf communities that lie just across Pinellas Peninsula, a 20-minute drive west from downtown St. Pete.
From the waterfront, Central Avenue leads to several other interesting neighborhoods. Driving in St. Petersburg is relatively easy, or visitors can take the Central Avenue trolley running all the way across Pinellas Peninsula to Pass-A-Grille (which, as I finally learned, is a beach community, not a hamburger stand).
West of the waterfront is the Central Arts District and Tropicana Field ballpark, which becomes quite lively when the Tampa Bay Rays are playing. Here visitors will also find the Morean Arts Center and Glass Studio — a nice compliment to the Chihuly Collection downtown.
Farther along Central Avenue is the scruffier but interesting Grand Central district, where bibliophiles will find Haslam’s Book Store. It has a collection of new, used and antiquarian books said to be the largest in Florida.
On my way out of town I also drove a few short miles up U.S. 19, once the main thoroughfare to St. Petersburg, to Sunken Gardens, an old-timey Florida exhibit that has been delighting tourists for more than a century. By some accounts, it’s the oldest tourist attraction on Florida’s west coast.
The 4-acre attraction, which is now owned by the city of St. Petersburg, is missing some of the old-fashioned kitsch that it flaunted back in the day such as the King of Kings Wax Museum and caged tropical animals. But the cool, palm-shaded paths, the burbling fountains and ponds, and the lush, semitropical floral displays seemed plenty exotic — and encouraging — to a visitor still impatiently waiting for the rain to stop and the peonies to bloom back home.