St. Petersburg, Florida as a Art Hub?

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

It is ironic that this, the first “near-real time” post in my new blog, is about a trip that is so brief, and so unrepresentative of my travels?

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

I was, however, very anxious to see St. Petersburg’s new Dali Museum. Although I 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 has also been 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, I pack as much into trips as I possibly can. This trip also included a few other stops, recreational and culinary, as well as cultural:

Friday evening

My plane arrived at 6:00. After picking up a car, I drove to and deposited by car at my 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), read the historical signs and perform my first level of triage to identify the bars I that I would later explore in more depth, I:

  • 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 Papillot were both passable, as was the only red Rioja available by the glass. This is more than could be said for the occasional service.
  • 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 my find during my second level of bar triage.
  • Drank my 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, my 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), I spent:

  • 10:00-12:30 – At the wonderful, above-discussed Dali museum;
  • 12:45-1:45 – 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 art work, including drawings, baskets, seaforms, venetians, chandeliers, towers, floats, boats and fiore, not to speak of a tempting gift shop. All a nice “appetizer to my 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.
  • 1:45-2:15 – 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. My very good lunch (enabled by excellent service) consisted of a half dozen local gulf oysters and a revisit to one of my Florida staple foods (along with stone crab claws), a grouper sandwich.

Unfortunately, time constraints did not allow me to do any of the three other things on my Tampa Bay area visit. I was not, for example, able to spend time in Tampa’s other major historical area, the Port of Tampa, or its Channelside entertainment complex. Nor could I 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 I may have been able to squeeze at least one of these in, I was on a — I really 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. Since the museum’s Website said the museum closed at 4:00, I thought I had to rush (it actually didn’t close until 5:00). Fortunately, however, this did allow me to spend a little time viewing the beautiful buildings along a couple of the city’s lakes and the small downtown—areas that I have not visited since a few days after the 2004 Hurricane Frances battered the city.

The day, however, was not over. I still had to get to Orlando, check into my hotel, return my rental car by 6:00, 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 I would really like to try (Capriccio and Napa) and an attractive bar,
I was looking for more adventure. Unfortunately, Church Street, the center of Orlando nightlife where I usually go, 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 I was content to view most of these stores and venues from the outside or for a quick, look in, I was drawn into extended stops at two:

  • B.B. King’s Restaurant and Blues Club, for a couple beers, an hour set of music and just a taste (I simply could not resist) of fried dill pickle chips. (My verdict, not bad; but after tasting a few of this “new era health food,” I decided to donate the rest of this basket to the grateful and apparently hungry table next to me.)
  • Oceanaire restaurant for dinner. I 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 I could not find a Pinot Noir from the list of wines by the glass that suited my taste, I made due with a Pinot Grigio. The server (Stacey, as I recall), 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, I had work to do.

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P.S.

Well, I thought I was done with interesting restaurants, but after staring at an all too uninspiring buffet put out during the business part of my trip, two of us beat a hasty retreat. We decided to go to 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 Fillet Mignon and accompanied with one of the most delightful Cabernets I have had in a long-time—a 2007 Burley from the underexposed Coombsville region of the Napa Valley. I will absolutely explore these wines at the winery. Meanwhile, great service, yet again, from both the server and the sommelier. Judging from three of my 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 I arrived too late to participate in the SeaWorld trip, I did stay for the closing trip to Universal Studios Orlando. A number of new rides appeared since the last time I was here. While only part of the park was open for our night visit, Spiderman was a hoot and the walk through Hogwart’s Castle to Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey was quite a spectacle. As for the four roller coasters I was on, they don’t make them like when I was young. I found the The Dragon Challenge, in particular, to be, how shall I say … “challenging!”

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