By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez
After three days of touring Tampa, it is time to move on to St. Petersburg and Clearwater to discover other attractions of the Tampa Bay metropolitan area; these three complementary cities provide their inhabitants with a bit of urban buzz in a tranquil oceanfront setting. It is easy to switch gears here: just take off the business suit from that recent meeting, slip into sandals, and head for the beach. The seamless blend of work and play undoubtedly enhances the value of this destination.
We begin with one of the area’s highlights. We arrive in downtown St. Petersburg shortly after ten in the morning and go straight to the Dalí Museum, which exhibits a large number of works that span the entire artistic career of Spanish painter Salvador Dalí. The permanent exhibit features ninety-six oil paintings, many original drawings, prints, sculpture, photographs, manuscripts, and an extensive archive of documents. Some of the outstanding pieces representing different creative periods of Dalí’s work include Lobster Telephone (1938) and Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1976). The museum building, designed by renowned architect Yann Weymouth, is itself worthy of a Dalí painting. Our visit was actually not that short, but it certainly seemed like it; I could have spent the whole day contemplating these splendid artworks.
We want to see more of the town. Situated on the shore of Tampa Bay, downtown St. Petersburg abounds in pleasant parks and green spaces which are appreciated by residents and visitors alike. There is no lack of cafés, restaurants, or outdoor dining places where you can enjoy the landscape and the sea breezes. A walk along Central Avenue and Beach Drive brings art lovers to two gems: the Museum of Fine Arts and the Chihuly Collection Gallery. We stop at the gallery to admire a permanent exhibit of unique glass pieces created by internationally recognized U.S. artist Dale Chihuly. This Washington-born master of blown glass gives us an abstract vision of his fascination with nature, the sea, and wild creatures, making a visit to the gallery a captivating experience.
Nearby stands the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, better known as the Vinoy. Built in 1925, this historic and architectural icon was added to the United States National Register of Historic Places thirty-five years ago. Even a brief stroll through the lobby and the main restaurant hints at the history of this Mediterranean-style hotel. It used to open only in the summer, when it hosted celebrities like baseball star Babe Ruth and President Herbert Hoover. At the time, a room cost the then-extravagant sum of twenty dollars a night, making it the highest-priced hotel in the area. During World War II, the army used the hotel as a military training center, and… I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering the rest of its history by yourself.
After lunch, we leave downtown and proceed to Fort De Soto Park on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. This municipal park encompasses five interconnected islands and 1137 acres in the Gulf of México and Tampa Bay. We go directly to the fort, which was named in honor of Spanish conqueror Hernando De Soto, and in turn gives its name to the park. The fort was built between 1898 and 1906 and was still in use until after World War II. I was struck by the desire for a barefoot walk on the white sands of the main island of Mullet Key, where the fort is located. I devote the rest of the afternoon to photographing local fauna gilded by the sun’s rays as the orb sinks in the sky.
Shortly before sunset, we head for the town of Gulfport for a beer. It might sound a little silly —although not to your correspondent, who takes his libations very seriously—, but trying the beer in this corner of Florida is practically a duty. Craft beer is in high demand in Florida, and the Tampa Bay area is very much at the forefront of this movement. I must confess that this is my idea of Disneyland. One of the best-known bars in the area, Peg’s Cantina, is located on Beach Boulevard. We taste a little of everything while sitting on the tree-lined patio. There is a wide range of choices and a beer for every taste: bitter, sweet, austere, pale, or dark. My favorites turn out to be Purple Haze and White Rascal, but all the beers are delightful. I could not imagine a more refreshing way to cap off a tiring day of work.
We make plans to go to Clearwater the following day. We get up early, have breakfast and set out on the highway. Along the way, we stop at John’s Pass Village, a small fishing town in Madeira Beach, famous for its marina, antique shops, handicrafts, and seaside restaurants specializing in fresh fish. The town’s mayor invites us to join him for a ride in his own boat. The trip is a wonderful opportunity to see dolphins and enjoy the gorgeous seascapes. On the way back, we stop for lunch and confirm that the area deserves its reputation for delicious cuisine.
Our next stop is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It is no surprise that the aquarium is crowded with visitors, as this is the home of Winter, the famous bottlenose dolphin that starred in the movie Dolphin’s Tale (2011). Have you seen the film? This uplifting and inspiring illustration of overcoming difficulties tells the true story of Winter, a three-month-old dolphin that became entangled in a crab trap off the east coast of Florida. The young dolphin was rescued and taken to the aquarium, where it faced a difficult recovery. It had lost its tail and two vertebrae and had to be fitted with an artificial tail so it could swim, but Winter survived against all odds. Winter is a star, attracting thousands of people and turning the aquarium —a non-profit hospital focused on the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine animals— into one of the biggest attractions in the Tampa Bay area.
At last we reach our target: Clearwater Beach. This warm, easygoing coastal town, located less than twenty miles from the Tampa International Airport, is blessed with a long, beautiful white sand beach on the Gulf of México. Suffice it to say that this is one of those places that people fall in love with at first sight. It is a typical summer resort, but it has soul. The town boasts the usual luxury hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, discos, and myriad outdoor activities, but there seems to be just the right balance and everything exists in perfect harmony with the calm ocean and tranquil landscape bathed in incredible sunsets. It is obvious why the town was deemed Florida’s best beach destination by the USA Today newspaper.
We drop our luggage at the hotel and take a short break to savor a cocktail and the ocean view before going to Pier 60 to enjoy the sunset. Pier 60 serves as the town center, and it is where beachgoers meet to buy hand-made souvenirs at the handicrafts fair, fish, or enjoy the free entertainment provided by street musicians and artists every afternoon. We are as exhausted as we are happy, so we go to bed right after an exquisite supper.
We are scheduled to fly home on the third day, but first, our hosts have another surprise for us. They take us to the small city of Tarpon Springs, located about twelve miles from Clearwater. It is the largest Greek community in the United States. A visit here is reminiscent of a jaunt to a seaside town in Greece. The town is known for harvesting sea sponges, an activity that dates back to when the first Greek immigrants arrived here more than 130 years ago. One of the main draws is the shopping along Avenue Dodecanese, where reasonably-priced sponges of all types, sizes, and qualities can be found alongside hand-made soaps. Boat tours that let tourists learn about the process of gathering sponges and the history behind it are quite popular. You cannot leave without trying some Greek food. Our lunch at the Mykonos restaurant was fabulous; it is recorded in my diary as one of the best lunches I have ever eaten. If it were not for the danger of missing the flight home, this reporter would still be there, replete and content.
This article was written with the support of the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau:
How to Get There
Copa Airlines offers four Boeing 737-700 flights to Tampa every week. The flight departs from Panama City Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 6:34 p.m. and arrives at 9:53 p.m. (Tampa time). The return flight leaves Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:02 a.m. and arrives at 10:12 a.m.