What’s there to do after you’ve ridden Dumbo, eaten breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and yucked it up at the Hoop Dee Doo Revue? If you’ve finally gotten “It’s a Small World” out of your head after 10 years of family vacations at the Magic Kingdom, it’s time to leave the kids at home and try another side of the Sunshine State.
St. Petersburg, on Florida’s west coast, is in the midst of a makeover and is still a relatively undiscovered city destination for tourists. Developed during the original Sunshine State land boom in the ‘20’s, the city became a mecca for retirees, earning the less than flattering nickname, “God’s Waiting Room.” It fell on harder times in later decades, known for high crime rates and poverty. Residents, business leaders and politicians united to mount a resurrection and it’s working. With world class beaches, great restaurants and interesting museums, St. Pete’s perfect for an adults-only extended weekend.
“Seven years ago I’d sit in the restaurant and watch newspapers blow across a deserted street,” says local restaurateur Steve Westphal. But the area possessed what every realtor will tell you is the key to success: location, location, location. Westphal notes that St. Pete has preserved its unique string of eleven waterfront parks that run parallel to Beach Drive and is commonly referred to as the city’s “green necklace.” Redevelopment efforts in the city have maximized that asset. Many of the restaurants along the drive feature large sidewalks that function as al fresco patios during nice weather, which, in St. Pete, is nearly year-round. “St. Pete’s off the ledge and on a roll,” says Westphal.
The parks are a great reason to skip a rental car and walk. The city’s extremely pedestrian-friendly with a compact downtown. Consider it your well-deserved liberation after years of renting minivans for family vacations. If your arrival is via Tampa’s International Airport, cabs are available outside the terminal on the baggage claim level. One-way rates are approximately $45. During your stay, an extensive, inexpensive trolley system operates throughout the city with different loops that access St. Pete’s attractions including the Pier, Baywalk and the beaches. The bright red and yellow, open-air trolleys give the city an amusement park feel.
St. Pete has a wide-range of accommodations to choose from, depending on your personal preferences. From a distance the Vinoy Renaissance may look like a pink version of The Tower of Terror. But this grand example of Mediterranean Revival architecture offers the ultimate luxury experience in a full-service resort. The hotel was built as the result of a bet between developer Aymer Vinoy Laughner and famous golfer Walter Hagen. According to author Deborah Frethem in her book Ghost Stories of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas County, Laughner was looking for a site to develop a hotel. Hagen bet him that if he could hit 3 golf balls cleanly off the face of his pocket watch, they’d build a hotel where the balls landed. Hagen won the bet, construction ensued and the hotel opened in 1925.
If you prefer something more intimate, the Beach Drive Inn was Vinoy’s home and the front yard the location of the tee box for the gentlemen’s wager. It’s now a charming, 6-room B&B. Another option is The Pier – St. Pete’s oldest continuously operated hotel and an award-winning restoration project. Its central downtown location makes this unique property a perfect place to stay. It’s not one of Disney’s mega-resorts, but isn’t that the point? Wherever you stay, be sure to enjoy a cocktail and the sweeping view of Tampa Bay on the grand veranda at the Vinoy to transport yourself to the glamor of the Jazz Age. White linen attire not required but definitely encouraged.