For those of us who like to escape the cold weather climes without completely losing the urban vibe that we love, St. Petersburg might just be the perfect solution. With its ‘old Florida’ feel on the St. Pete Beach side, and a thriving neighbourhood in downtown St. Petersburg, this city is not just a manageable size if you want to fit both lifestyles into one holiday, but it just may be the perfect compromise between sand and chic. Throw in a little bit of ‘civilized nature’ where you can get up close and personal with some of Florida’s wildlife, and there’s even more to love.
When I’m planning any kind of beachy holiday, I figure the beach should be the superstar. And my idea of a stellar beach comes with some pretty high standards: powdery white sand that goes on for miles, plenty of room for lounging and walking the shoreline without stepping over sunbathers, and easy-access swimming with shallow beaches and gentle surf. So when I stepped out onto the almost blinding white sands at Pass-A-Grille Beach in St. Petersburg, it immediately checked off all my requisite boxes.
It’s hard not to fall in love-at-first-sight with Pass-a-Grille, not just because of its soft sands, but because of the laid-back feel of the neighbourhood itself. Populated with colourful bungalows boasting quirky decor and beach-side restaurants with a casual flip-flop vibe, there’s a hippy feel to this beach, and if you are there in shoulder season (like November when I visited), there are no crowds and plenty of parking adjacent to the beach dunes (just remember to pay at the parking kiosks along the street).
Visiting in this season also means you can easily get a spot at one of the few restaurants when you feel like grabbing a bite, something that becomes much more difficult in high season. Of course, in keeping with the casual attitude here, you could always bringing your own picnic to the beach.
But Pass-A-Grille isn’t the only impressive beach here. “St. Pete’s Beach” proper a little to the north is basically a continuation of the same white sand that you find at Pass-a-Grille, but this stretch continues for miles up the coast of Long Key, anchored at the southern end by an icon of beach days past and present, Loew’s Don Cesar historic hotel.
Nicknamed ‘the Don’, and the ‘Pink Palace’ (for obvious reasons when you see its pink stucco’d exterior), this luxury hotel has been a landmark on this stretch of sand since it opened in 1928 as the hotel of choice for a well-heeled crowd looking for a beachy playground. (It has played host to a wide spectrum of guests from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Lou Gehrig and even Al Capone). Saved from demolition in the 1970s by the residents of St. Pete themselves, ‘the Don’ was restored, admitted to the National Register of Historic American Places, and now is owned by Loews Hotels. A visit to St. Pete’s beach wouldn’t be complete without at least stopping by the Pink Palace for a drink or a meal, and admiring the hotel’s luxurious interior and amenities.
‘Civilized Nature’ 10 minutes away
If you’re looking for a less developed stretch of land to explore, Fort De Soto Park is only a 10 minute drive from the Pink Palace, and boasts several beautiful beaches of its own, including North Beach, voted one of the United States’ best beaches.
Like the beaches of St. Pete and Pass-A-Grille a little further north, North Beach is a stretch of pristine white sand but there are no homes here at all, only parkland, fishing piers and the remains of an historic 19th century fort. There are, however, the usual park amenities (restrooms, snack bars, and even playgrounds for the kids) so you won’t be roughing it by any stretch, even though the beach is unspoiled and uncrowded. (In fact, if you visit in November, you’re more likely to have nesting shore birds for company than people.)
Kayak the Mangroves
The real beauty of visiting Fort De Soto Park is the opportunity to explore not just its beaches, but the chain of interconnected islands (keys) where they are located. One of the best ways to observe the shorebirds, manatees, dolphins and jumping fish (mullet) that populate this area is to take a self-guided kayak tour through the mangroves and inlets that make up part of the 1100-acre park, which I did, courtesy of Topwater Kayak Outpost.
The paddle is an easy one through calm waters, as the inlet is protected by the mangroves and outer islands, and I was surprised at how easy it was to get close to egrets, herons, and osprey as I made my way along the ‘trail’ (numbered markers on the shoreline led the way). This is definitely an opportunity to bring your camera, but make it a waterproof one just to be on the safe side.
As for dolphins or manatees, although I spoke with another kayaker who had encountered manatees on a previous visit (one even bumped up against her kayak!), I wasn’t lucky enough to spot one myself (which may be a good thing, because I don’t know how I’d feel about being jostled by a large underwater creature, no matter how gently!) What I did see, though, were dozens of mullet fish near the shore that literally leapt several feet out of the water – making me wonder if they were being chased by something bigger, or just having fun. Either way, it made for more energetic kayaking, as I zig-zagged across the water trying to catch up to these leaping fish who always seemed to be on the opposite side from where I was paddling.
With or without manatees, the kayaking was a great way to break up suntanning and swimming with a little civilized adventure, and spend an hour or two getting a little closer to nature.
TIP: Prices at Topwater start at $23/hour for single kayaks and canoes, and the outfitters are there daily until 5:00 or 6:00pm, depending on the season. Get more information and directions here.
Downtown St. Petersburg Has Gone Uptown
While I was expecting St. Pete’s beaches to be good (and was even more delighted that they were awesome!), I really didn’t know what to expect from St. Petersburg when it came to its more urban amenities. So I was pleasantly surprised when I visited their downtown for the first time, and found not only a thriving arts community, but excellent dining and shopping.
The south end of Bayshore drive is a good place to start if you want to take in some of the city’s best museums, since it is here that you’ll find the Dali Museum, boasting the largest collection of Salvador Dali artwork outside of Europe. Architecturally beautiful both inside and out, the permanent collection of Dali’s artwork is exceptional, but the museum also regularly hosts other exhibitions here as well. (MC Escher is on until January 2, 2016, followed by Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination, beginning on January 23rd.)
A short distance north from the Dali is the Museum of Fine Arts on Beach Drive, which houses a collection of pre-Colombian art, Impressionists and modern masters, and further along this mini ‘Museum Row’ lies the Chihuly Collection, the Morean Arts Centre’s showpiece for the glass artwork of Dale Chihuly (if you’ve ever been to the Bellagio in Vegas, you’ll recognize this artist’s work as his giant glass flowers adorn the Bellagio’s reception area ceilings.)
Just opposite the Fine Arts Museum on the other side of Beach Drive is a collection of restaurants, tapas-style bistros and bars that can satisfy any appetite or taste, whether it’s perfectly cooked Beef Wellington at the Parkshore Grill (not many restaurants even offer this item on their menus), or an upscale venue for a night out celebrating ‘whatever’ at the Birchwood’s elegant Canopy Roof Top Lounge. There are plenty of great dining options in St. Petersburg, but this block is by far the most concentrated collection of upscale restaurants and outdoor patios. And with those patios brimming with patrons after dark, the streetscape is buzzing with nightlife.
When it comes to shopping (and it always does come back to shopping!) art gallery-style shops and jewellery stores are also part of Beach Drive’s string of storefronts, and there are more stores to tempt you in the nearby Sundial Centre, opened in 2014. Here you can shop for boutique clothing, indulge in a spa treatment, or join the local foodies shopping for all things fresh, gourmet and local at Locale Market.
If you like the experience at Eataly in Manhattan, this is a St. Petersburg version with Gulf and Farm-to-Table offerings of the highest quality.
If artsy and unique shops are more your style, better allow at least half a day to explore the Arts and Edge districts on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg. Here you can shop for everything from designer resale to Parisian-style home decor stores with plenty of locally-made or reclaimed treasures in between. (this street deserves an entire post all to itself!)
Having never been to the Gulf Coast of Florida before, I didn’t know what to expect from a part of Florida that has always been known more for its snowbirds and sandcastles than fine dining and fine arts. But St. Petersburg turned out to be a delicious, diverse surprise. With the perfect balance of sun, sand and sophistication, it has all the ingredients for the best kind of grownup Florida getaway ? and one that deserves more than just one visit.
TIP: If sun and sand are your thing and you want it right on your doorstep, you’ll probably want to stay in St. Pete on or near Gulf Blvd, but if you want museums, shopping and nightlife within walking distance, downtown St. Petersburg near Beach Drive is the place you’ll want to be. The two areas are about 17 km (11 miles) apart, but easily navigable by car if you want to go from one to the other.
Special thanks to Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater who hosted my 3-night stay in the area and introduced me to some of the area’s attractions.