Arty and party time in the Sunshine State

David Graham finds St Petersburg quite surreal in its cultural patronage

Written by  The Confidentials | Follow @ | Tuesday, 8 December 2015 09:36

HOLIDAY hotspots like Florida have a great reputation for serving up a good time — and the Sunshine State also a great reputation for being more party than arty.

The Dali Museum almost defies superlatives and deserves to be on any bucket list of the world’s must-see places

But you can combine the two in some style with a stay in trendy St Petersburg, just a short drive from the very handy gateway of Tampa on the Gulf Coast and a bit south of its holiday partner Clearwater.

From the word go, it’s important to stress the difference — in the nicest possible way — between the heart of St Petersburg city itself, with its culture-vulture and foodie arts and Downtown districts; and its bouncing, brash, full-on seaside resort twin of St Pete Beach.

The delightful, compact Downtown is on Tampa Bay, just across the water from its larger neighbour and its user-friendly airport, while St Pete Beach, the spread-out strip that features in all the holiday brochures, is a good few miles away over on the Gulf of Mexico itself.

The Beach boasts an amazing expanse of pristine white sand, just part of a chain of popular holiday spots stretching almost 30 miles northwards to Clearwater Beach, and has all the facilities you’d expect in an American vacation playground, from cheap room rentals and burger joints to some smart hotels and pretty good eating places, with lots more in between.

But if you fancy some sustenance for all the senses, it’s back to St Petersburg, once considered a bit staid and doddery and now undergoing something of a renaissance, and deservedly becoming more fashionable every time you go there. 

 

retro lobbyThe Hollander's retro lobby

All manner of accommodation is available, too, but start as you mean to go on with some nights at The Hollander, a refurbished 1930s boutique hotel just a few minutes’ walk or free hotel shuttle ride from the waterfront and its yacht basins and parks, and any number of shops, restaurants and other Downtown delights.

No shortage of delights at the Hollander, either, with a welcoming retro lobby complete with period fireplace and comfortable sofas giving way to an equally-friendly bar area with 21 craft beers and ‘specials’ from the beer menu on offer every Tuesday for just $3. Combine that with an extended happy hour every day, a $5 Martini Monday, burger, fries and a beer for $10 on Wednesday, and a $5 Margarita Thursday, and you have the makings of a good week, with live music and other goodies at the weekend. 

 

The Hollander barThe Hollander bar offers a terrific range of affordable craft beers

It’s certainly a good start to ticking all the right boxes and the good times kept on coming when it was time to eat, with a menu that presented plenty of substantial choice without being too over-facing — an all-too-familiar ordeal in many American restaurants.

The Tap House and Grill showcases the abundance of great ingredients on the doorstep, and while it may not be up in the Michelin star bracket (and how many are?) it touches all the reliable bases from breakfast through to dinner along with a very passable wine list. 

The traditional US breakfast might well curb the need to stop anywhere for lunch. A couple of easy-over eggs, one or two rashers of streaky bacon and a pile of home fries, plus a bottomless coffee pot and some fresh-squeezed orange juice, is a satisfying start. Especially when served on the Hollander’s 130ft outdoor terrace overlooking the sidewalk on 4th Avenue North, making it almost a spectator sport.

More indulgence, if you’re so inclined, can be had in the full-service Harmony Eco Spa before you relax by the pool under the stars. Nice.

The whole place and its surroundings reflect the genuine enthusiasm for heritage coupled with progress which fuels much of St Petersburg’s appeal, with each of its Five Districts showing off a distinct character. 

 

View from the DaliView from the Dali Museum

The Waterfront Arts District kicks things off, showcasing a Number One reason for being tempted there in the first place — the Dalí Museum (main picture), which almost defies superlatives and deserves to be on any bucket list of the world’s must-see places.

The futuristic, hurricane-proof building is exciting enough from the outside, but once inside, the real jaw-dropping experience starts in earnest. The biggest Salvador Dalí collection outside the artist’s native Spain, offers 96 oil paintings, more than 100 watercolours and drawings and 1,300 prints, photos, sculptures, objets d’art and an archive of documents.

The collection was started in the early 1940s by wealthy industrialist Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor, who fell in love with the great surrealist’s work and eventually became firm friends with the artist and his wife Gala.

Their first purchase cost $1,250, which must have been a pretty penny back then and when their collection was appraised in 1979 it was reckoned to be worth $35million.

The couple were determined that the collection at their home in Cleveland, Ohio, should never be broken up and when the taxman duly pounced, they had a hard time finding a home for it, until St Petersburg stepped in and it was moved to a converted marine equipment warehouse there in 1982.

The gamble paid off and the collection, now valued at well into the hundreds of millions, is safe in the stunning new building, which sadly the Morses did not live to see finished.

 

GlassworkGlasswork at the Chihuly Collection

Staying on the arty side to take in more culture in St Pete, you can walk along Beach Drive to the Chihuly Collection to see unique glass artwork by Dale Chihuly, and also take in the Museum of Fine Arts where you can see important works by Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin and Renoir among others, before listing the St Petersburg Museum of History for another day, along with  bewildering number of galleries and art shops.

 

Museum of Fine ArtsThe Museum of Fine Arts is outstanding

And that’s just mainly the Waterfront Arts District — just look online to savour the delights of the adjoining Central Arts District, with its restaurants, bars, craft breweries, galleries, performance centres and boutiques; the vibrant EDGE District, committed to ‘historic preservation-based revitalisation’ and evolving with locally-owned restaurants, craft beer pubs and delis; the Grand Central District, a designated ‘Main Street Community’ formed in 2001 with loads of galleries, antique stores, restaurants and unique shops; and the Warehouse Arts District, once mainly an industrial area and now a place ‘where art is made’, and home to new and established artists and galleries as well as, not surprisingly, the odd brewery.

The St Petersburg waterfrontThe St Petersburg waterfront

Basically, the whole place is buzzing and can only get better. And it’s a heck of a lot warmer than its namesake on the Baltic.

David Graham visited St Pete on an extended trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida, flying from Manchester to Tampa, via Atlanta, with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta. He is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and on the team at SilverTravelAdvisor.com