I absolutely adore St Petersburg. The last time I visited, back in 2012, we really only had one day there and I was desperate to go back and really explore. I absolutely love its buzzy vibe, the gorgeous beaches and the way the downtown area absolutely comes alive at night, with restaurants, bars and cafés thronging with people. Even as recently as the 90s, Downtown St Pete was really quite unloved. Remember Cocoon? Jeff, our lovely guide told us that the movie was filmed in St Pete in the 1980s, and it was an area known as ‘God’s Waiting Room’, full of retirees and not a lot else. Slowly, though, the locals transformed their beloved neighbourhood, and now it’s such a creative, lively place to visit, with a wonderful arts scene and fabulous shops, restaurants, galleries, stunning museums like the beautiful new Morean Arts Centre and the Dali Museum, and beautiful open spaces.
Our first stop was a quick visit to the deliciously decadent Don CeSar Hotel, known as the ‘pink palace’, the Gatsby era resort – opened in 1928 – has welcomed many famous faces. It reminds me a little of the Disney resort hotels (it’s actually modelled upon the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki), and sits on the white sands of St Pete Beach like a giant millennial pink wedding cake. I absolutely love it. After cocktails and nibbles on the terrace, we reluctantly left to get checked in to our next hotel.
Where we stayed: The Vinoy Renaissance
Talking of millennial pink, The Vinoy Renaissance hotel in downtown St Pete turned out to be another gorgeous salmon and sage green coloured beauty. I love the story of the Vinoy: from its glamorous heyday in the 1920s, to transforming into army barracks during the war, and hosting the rich and famous (Marilyn Monroe was a guest) in the 1950s, the hotel’s had a chequered history. Sadly, the hotel started to fall out of favour in the 60s, and by the 1970s it was completely derelict. The locals (I love these guys!) banded together and fought to get it placed on the Register of Historic Places, saving it from demolition. Finally in the 1990s it was completely restored to its former glory by a developer, to the tune of $93 million (preserving much of the original feeling, if not the actual interiors) only to get to the very edge of bankruptcy again during its first year before being saved by Renaissance Hotels. The interior is classically elegant, with a double height, vaulted lobby dripping with chandeliers and gorgeous galleried veranda overlooking the waterfront, and the pool is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen.
Rooms are sophisticated, if not contemporary. Guests come here for the experience, the wonderful service and the old-world elegance rather than all the mod cons. On arrival, we were offered a chilled glass of champagne by an immaculately liveried hotel porter, and in my room, there were all the accoutrements (fresh) for me to create my very own cocktail. Heavenly, and certainly worth foregoing a few modern touches like USBs (although I really must learn to take my own hairdryer).
Out and about in St Pete
The food scene in St Pete is really buzzy. We popped in to Locale Market to pick up some packed lunches to take to the beach, and ended up staying for over an hour, just exploring with Director Mordechai, who is borderline evangelical about his fresh produce. Locale is 90% organic, and is just one of the nicest food markets I’ve ever encountered. We wandered about, looking at the wonderful selection of wines and cheeses, drooling over the pizza to go (ready in three mins), nibbling delicious morsels of cheese curds, yummy sweet pepper salsa slathered onto fresh bread (made daily in house) and the best spiced chicken wings I’ve ever tasted. There are fresh salads and pasta, a raw bar with oysters, clams and mussels, fresh local honey, a huge range of gluten free and vegan products, including delicious vegan ice cream and vegan pizza , fresh bread made daily. Upstairs there’s a laid back restaurant and bar. Honestly, it’s a destination in itself. I can’t wait to go back.
Don’t miss: the walking mural tour
One of the problems suffered by many cities is graffiti. After finding themselves continually painting over tags and scribbles, the locals noticed that nobody defaced the walls in the alleys that were beginning to be painted with artwork. More and more artists were encouraged to create works of art on the walls around Downtown St Pete, and soon, people were flocking to see the huge works of art springing up all around Central Avenue. It’s now one of the most wonderful collections of urban art, and the walking mural tour is the best way to see as many as possible and hear all about the murals and their creators.
Dining out: The Mill
In the evening, everyone’s out and about on the streets of Downtown St Pete: walking dogs, jogging, sipping cocktails at sidewalk bars, playing shuffleboard at the St Petersburg Shuffleboard Club (the oldest and largest in the world – Friday nights are BYOB and it’s the best fun) and just enjoying the balmy evenings. Recently voted the best new restaurant in Florida, the Mill’s offering includes wonderful craft cocktails and a creative menu described as ‘rustic American with southern and French influences’. Jeff recommended the watermelon and feta starter, and wow, it was an absolute revelation: crisp slices of rustic bread topped with tomato, finely diced watermelon and cucumber, whipped feta, sweet little crunchy bits of pistachio brittle, and a drizzle of agave syrup: a delicious combo of salty, sweet, crisp, soft and fresh. For my main course, I chose a twist on an American classic: meatloaf Wellington, with Taleggio cheese, braised greens, buttermilk mashed potatoes and a sensational smoked mushroom gravy. The food is utterly delicious, the service is warm and welcoming and the surroundings manage to be both cosy and elegant. I’d go back tomorrow.
Before we finally headed back to the airport, we spent our last day lazing in the sun and swimming in the gorgeous clear sea at Fort de Soto Park. It’s a beautiful spot, popular with the locals as well as tourists, and it was so difficult to drag ourselves away. I’ll be back to visit St Pete again very soon, and this time I won’t be leaving it five years!
For more information, visit www.visitstpeteclearwater.com, or check out VisitStPeteClearwaterUK on Facebook. Click here to read more information on flying Norwegian to Orlando, and check out my posts on Celebration, Clearwater and Kissimmee here. Thanks to lovely Jeff, Leroy and Mackenzie at VSPC 🙂