Florida Travel

Playful St. Pete: City of culture, city of fun

St. Petersburg transports "street art" to "alley art" downtown.
St. Petersburg transports "street art" to "alley art" downtown. Chelle Koster Walton

At first impression, St. Petersburg comes off all sophistication and culture with its impressive art museums, grand historic hotels and cosmopolitan dining scene. But any trace of snobbery quickly dissolves into a wash of sea waves, beach towns and good-time bars that exude youth.

For despite its reputation of yore as a retirement haven — symbolized by the green benches that once were scattered around downtown to provide resting spots for the elderly — St. Pete has turned young. Bicycles parked curbside replace the benches, which still lend their names to local places of businesses, including downtown’s Green Bench Brewery.

Like so many travel destinations these days, St. Pete touts its craft beer scene (counting the most craft breweries in the state, it claims) and has even plotted a Craft Beer Trail of breweries and brew pubs.

The trail poses a strong contrast to the art trail that takes visitors from shining star Dali Museum — which hosts an exclusive Picasso/Dali, Dali/Picasso exhibit opening Nov.8 — and a permanent Dale Chihuly exhibit downtown to the funky 600 block alley turned gallery by ultra-contemporary art murals. It lies a block off of Central Avenue, a once-seedy neighborhood that has become nightlife’s heartbeat, especially with The Pier’s current state of shutdown.

Once the center of downtown dining and shopping, The Pier and its inverted pyramid building have been declared unsafe. Plans to replace it with something equally impressive have not gelled, so until city leaders agree on a solution, the building remains dark. Happily, the venerable Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort still brightens the bayfront, as it has since the 1920s.

And a different new development promises a fashionable, viable shopping and nightlife substitute for The Pier in absentia. The Sundial entertainment complex replaces the long-defunct Baywalk with shiny name-brand shops and restaurants, including Locale Market and FarmTable Kitchen, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and a sequel to the successful Sea Salt down the coast in Naples. Developers expect tenants to be fully operational by Thanksgiving. The addition bolsters St. Pete’s reputation for good food — from its Spanish-influenced fine dining to its funky seafood shacks.

BEAUTY AND THE BEACH

Spain and the Mediterranean had exerted influence on downtown St. Pete long before Dali came to town, by sheer proximity to Tampa’s Cuban cigar heritage. Of course on the beaches, there has always been the fantastical Don CeSar to wield a worldly influence in an F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of way.

But for decades, St. Pete Beach and neighboring Treasure Island have maintained a reputation for old-school, rowdy beach towns. A reverse shift is taking place here, too: Even as downtown becomes younger in its attitude, the always youthful islands that front the Gulf of Mexico gather a certain cast of maturity.

That began as resorts got facelifts, and polished products such as TradeWinds Beach Resort and the boutique Postcard Inn came on board. In 2013, the Guy Harvey Outpost brand absorbed TradeWinds’ Sandpiper Suites. Its Rumfish Grill features well-crafted seafood dishes, such as cedar sheet sugar and spice salmon, and a 33,500-gallon aquarium that guests can pay to swim in.

And now there is top-chic Hotel Zamora, which debuted in June with sexy flamenco paintings, heavy-mail fixtures, bursts of burnt orange and fine leather furnishings. Cuba-Fernandez Design of Miami orchestrated the $20million transformation from two demolished motels to Spanish hacienda. Locals saturate the fashionable bayfront digs with an attitude of party-time gourmandizing that seems to prevail in this playful town.

At Castile restaurant in the hotel, Ted Dorsey, the executive chef, has married the finest Spanish recipes and products to local seafood and farm fare for a result that has tastebuds dancing the flamenco.

Tapas such as lobster fries or baked oysters with lump crab demonstrate complexity and perfection along with entrees like seared diver scallops with creamed corn casserole and candied pancetta, and a brunch specialty I shall never forget – Spanish sausage and boniato sofrito hash with duck eggs. Indeed, Hotel Zamora reaffirms St. Petersburg’s reputation for the finer things in life — including an esprit of comfort, relaxation and unpretentious fun.

Going to St. Petersburg

Getting there: The drive to St. Petersburg from Miami takes about 41/2 hours. Flying time to nearby Tampa International Airport is about one hour. American flies from Miami to Tampa; Spirit and Southwest fly between Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.

Information: Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224, www.visitstpeteclearwater.com

Special Events: The BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit (727-388-6682; www.blueoceanfilmfestival.org) — the world’s only dedicated oceanographic film and conservation event — takes place in St. Petersburg Nov. 3-9.

When to go: Like most lower Florida destinations, crowds and rates in St. Pete are at their highest at holiday times and from President’s Day through Easter.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Zamora, 3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; 727-456-8900, 877-798-2434; www.thehotelzamora.com. The first new hotel on St. Pete Beach in 20 years, it opened this summer on the bay, across the street from the beach. Its 50 modern, roomy units include 22 suites with glass walls between the bedroom and living area. A rooftop bar, attractive pool deck, boat docks, and gourmet Castile restaurant make it popular with the local party crowd. Rooms $160 to $364.

Loews Don CeSar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, 727-360-1881, 800-282-1116; www.doncesar.com. “The Don” has reigned over St. Pete Beach since 1928 as a vision of a pink castle with complete services and elegant style. Rates start at $199 in low season and $279 in high season.

Guy Harvey Outpost, 6000 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; 800-234-3489; www.guyharveyoutposttampabay.com. Sharing amenities with TradeWinds Island Grand resort, it makes an ideal family destination with water sports, an inflatable slide on the beach, kids programs, restaurants, and an aquarium. Rooms $139 to $237 in low season, $320 to $491 in high season.

Watergarden Inn at the Bay, 126 Fourth Ave. NE, downtown St. Petersburg; 727-822-1700, 888-873-2122; www.innatthebay.com. The 14-room B&B occupies a 1910 Victorian house decorated with Florida themes. It is steps away from downtown’s shopping district and features a well-tended garden with a swimming pool. Rooms and suites $130 to $290.

WHERE TO EAT

Castile, 3701 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; 727-456-8660, 877-798-2434; www.thehotelzamora.com. The Spanish-influenced restaurant at Hotel Zamora blends European and Florida cuisine for dishes with profound flavor profiles in a modern Old World setting. It serves breakfast, Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees $21-$35.

Red Mesa Cantina, 128 Third St. S., downtown St. Petersburg, 727-896-8226, redmesacantina.com. This red-brick hot spot travels to Latino lands with traditional dishes such as ceviche, churrasco, and carne asada; and fusion blends like orange-braised duck confit sandwich with jack cheese and guac. Dinner entrees $9-$23.

Sea Porch, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, 727-360-1881, 800-282-1116; www.doncesar.com. The more casual of the Don CeSar’s two main restaurants, it’s steps off the beach serving fresh Florida fare with a Cuban accent for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees range $24-$36.

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