St. Petersburg, Florida as a Art Hub?

A 24-hour Cultural, Culinary and Bar Tour through Central Florida

It is ironic that our first post in our new blog is about a trip that is so brief and so unrepresentative of our travels.

Tom had to be in Orlando Florida for business. Since he had already done all of the theme parks and explored Orlando’s Church Street nightlife, he didn’t think he needed additional time in the city.

He was, however, very anxious to see St. Petersburg’s new Dali Museum. Although he had been to the original Dali museum, this one was supposed to be much improved. It is. The collection has been expanded and arranged much more effectively. Moreover, guided tours and free audio guides are invaluable in helping visitors gain some comprehension of the artist’s paradoxical work, his life and flamboyant personality, the importance of his muse, and the layers of hidden meaning in his work.

Not only is the museum wonderful, it is  also located on a beautiful site in what AOL Travel News calls “one of the top ten buildings you have to see before you die.” While this may be a bit over the top, the spiral staircase (representative of a recurring theme in Dali’s thought and work) and the glass-sheathed dome ARE indeed beautiful. The dome is also functional, with the custom glass dome capable of withstanding Category 3, and the interior “vault” protecting the art, Category 5, hurricanes.

Even if you are not enough of a Dali fan to justify paying the $21 entry fee, you can still enjoy the dome, the gardens, and the outside labyrinth for free. And then there is the gift shop, filled with Dali-themed memorabilia, and great views of the dome and staircase–all for free. And seeing the Dali-designed “Sea Car” in the gift shop is sufficient in and of itself to alone justify the several mile trek to the museum.

Beyond Dali

Although the museum, along with its dome and gardens, is a destination in and of itself, Tom packed as much into trips as he possibly can. This trip also included a few other stops, recreational and culinary, as well as cultural:

Friday evening

His plane arrived at 6:00 PM. After picking up a car, he drove to and deposited his car at his hotel (Hilton Garden Inn on East 9th Ave) and spent the evening in the historic Ybor City section of Tampa. After a walk to explore the neighborhood (and particularly the main 7th Avenue thoroughfare), reading the historical signs and performing his first level of triage to identify the bars to explore later, he:

  • Ate dinner at the huge, extraordinarily popular, 105-year old Columbia Restaurant (the oldest continuously operating and largest Spanish restaurant in the U.S. The Shrimp and Crabmeat Alcachofas (under a melted parmesan crust) and Pompano en Papillote were both passable, as was the only red Rioja available by the glass. This is more than could be said for the occasional service.
  • He then succumbed to the lure of the dozens of cigar makers and stores in the neighborhood (the old cigar-making center of the city) and smoked his find during his second level of bar triage.
  • Drank his way through three bars with live music (one blues, one Latin and one contemporary) while wandering into and loitering around a few others. While many of the bars were virtually empty, a few (none of which appeared to have any desire to allow a gray-haired boomer to pollute their early 20s’ populations), had big waiting lines. Overall, his favorite was “Play”, an open-aired bar with a great band out of the main traffic flow on 8th Avenue.

Saturday

After a relatively painless 22 mile drive to St. Petersburg (with little traffic on a Saturday morning), he spent time:

  • At the wonderful, above-discussed Dali museum;
  • At the rather smallish, but still impressive Chihuly Collection,  which is devoted to the glass art of Dale Chihuly. It provides examples of each of the primary types of his glass artwork, including drawings, baskets, sea forms, Venetians, chandeliers, towers, floats, boats, and fiore, not to speak of a tempting gift shop. All a nice “appetizer to an upcoming June trip to Tacoma—the American temple of glass art, with its Glass Museum, Chihuly bridge, and the hundreds of studios and galleries dedicated to the art of Chihuly and his growing legion of disciples.
  • A quick stroll along Beach Drive and stop for lunch. 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House has a number of outside tables with great views of the park, harbor, and the very big, very pink Vinay Resort. His very good lunch (enabled by excellent service) consisted of a half dozen local gulf oysters and a revisit to one of his Florida staple foods (along with stone crab claws), a grouper sandwich.

Unfortunately, time constraints did not allow him to do any of the three other things on his Tampa Bay area visit. He was not able, for example, to spend time in Tampa’s other major historical area, the Port of Tampa, or its Channelside entertainment complex. Nor could he visit St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts nor the Chihuly Collection’s sister organization, the Morean Arts Center and Glass Studio & Hot Shop.

While he may have been able to squeeze at least one of these in, he wanted to see one more art exhibit. This, however, entailed a 60-mile drive to Lakeland, which, as luck would have it, is almost directly on the way to Orlando. The reason for the stop was:

  • Polk Museum’s exhibit of Annie Liebowitz photos of women. A nice exhibit accompanied by another interesting permanent exhibit of Pre-Columbian pottery. He also spent a little time viewing the beautiful buildings along a couple of the city’s lakes and the small downtown—areas that he had not visited since a few days after the 2004 Hurricane Frances battered the city.

The day, however, was not over. he still had to get to Orlando, check into his hotel, return the rental car, and figure out what to possibly do for an evening’s entertainment and food in a big resort hotel (The Peabody). While the hotel does have a couple of restaurants that he would really like to try (Capriccio and Napa) and an attractive bar,
he was looking for more adventure. Unfortunately, Church Street, the center of Orlando nightlife where he usually goes, was too far away to justify a cab. Fortunately, another entertainment area, Pointe Orlando, was much closer. Although the complex contains many of the standard restaurants, stores, and theaters, the Wonderworks entertainment site is at least worth a look from the outside, whether or not you decide to spring for the $20+ entrance fee.

Wonderworks Orlando

While he was content to view most of these stores and venues from the outside or for a quick, look in, he was drawn into extended stops at two:

  • B.B. King’s Restaurant and Blues Club, for a couple of beers, an hour set of music, and just a taste (I simply could not resist) of fried dill pickle chips. (His verdict: not bad. But after tasting a few of this “new era health food,” he donated the rest of this basket to the grateful and apparently hungry table next to him.)
  • Oceanaire restaurant for dinner. He had the Red Grouper and Thai Red Chili sauce with Coconut Milk. The fish, while tasting similarly, did not have quite as firm a texture as Black Grouper. While he could not find a Pinot Noir from the list of wines by the glass that suited his taste, he made due with a Pinot Grigio. The server (Stacey), was excellent.

But enough fun, culture, food, and drinking. The rest of the trip (other than five minutes watching the highly hyped, highly formalized, and highly popular march of the Peabody Ducks from their top floor “suite”, out of their reserved elevator, down their own red carpet, and into the lobby fountain), he had work to do.

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P.S.

After staring at an all too uninspiring buffet put out during the business part of his trip, he joined a colleague to beat a hasty retreat. We decided to go to Napa (in the Peabody Hotel). We shared the appetizer sampler (a beautiful, five-level tower, consisting of very generous portions of five dishes ranging from a scallop ceviche to beef croquet).

Five level appetizer sampler tower at Napa

This was followed by perfectly done New York Steak and Filet Mignon and accompanied with one of the most delightful Cabernets he has had in a long time—a 2007 Burley from the underexposed Coombsville region of the Napa Valley. Great service, yet again, from both the server and the sommelier. Judging from three of the four restaurant experiences from this trip, there does indeed appear to be something to the old saw about southern hospitality.

Finally, this conference, like most self-respecting Orlando events, was bracketed by trips to theme parks. Although he missed the trip to SeaWorld, he did make it to Universal Studios Orlando. A number of new rides appeared since the last time he was here. While only part of the park was open for our night visit, Spiderman was a hoot and the walkthrough Hogwart’s Castle to Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey was quite a spectacle. As for the four roller coasters he was on, they don’t make them like when he was young. He found The Dragon Challenge, in particular, to be, how shall we say … “challenging!”

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