St. Petersburg may have emerged as Florida's Cultural Coast, but it is not called Florida's Beach for nothing: there are 35 miles of beach as well as an array of nature centers. So on one morning, we headed over to Fort DeSoto Park, about 25 minutes drive from the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, the magnificent bayside historic hotel where we were staying.
A special sense of adventure surrounds Fort De Soto Park, which features a fort built in 1898 to protect Tampa Bay during the Spanish-American War (a very nice museum is housed in the former Quartermaster Storehouse). But the fort is just one feature of an incredible 900-acre park with seven miles of white, powder sand beach (voted 7th best beach in the nation in a study), two fishing piers, camping areas (right on the Gulf of New Mexico), and miles of paved path for biking or rollerblading. There are kayak and canoe outfitters which offer trips and rentals. (Accessible by Pinellas Bayway off I-275 and 54th Ave. South, 727-866-2662).
Sunken Gardens, one of the most popular roadside attractions in Florida in the 1930s, has recently been acquired by the city of St. Petersburg. An exotic collection of more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers bloom year-round; the city has added more than 6,000 plants and a butterfly garden. A walk-through aviary features tropical birds of all types and thousands of rare, fragrant orchids are found in the Orchid Arbor (Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $4/adults, $3/seniors, $1/children 3-12; 1825 Fourth Street North, 727-551-3100).
The Boyd Hill Nature Trail (1101 Country Club Way South, 727-893-7326) offers 216 acres of natural beauty with six trails that wind through Florida's various ecosystems; special programs include educational shows, day camps, nature photography classes, bird walks and more (9 a.m. to 5 p.m., dayily; $1/adults, 50c/child).
Sawgrass Lake Park, at 7400 25th St., North, is a 360-acre park with a mile long elevated boardwalk that winds through a maple swamp and an observation tower (Free; open 7 a.m. until sunset daily, 727-527-3814).
If you don't feel like driving, a new Green and Red trolley, which leaves from downtown (Williams Park) takes you to St. Pete Beach, 25 minutes away, where, in addition to one of the most incredible beaches in the world, there is a charter boat center offering two-hour dolphin watch sailing cruises; Shell Island adventure trips (three to four hours) and two-hour Sunset Sails on the Gulf of Mexico for an unobstructed view of the sunset ($25-35). There is also Silas Bayside Market, a shopping village in a tropical setting, with specialty shops and a food court (a great place to watch the sunset); and Starlite Princess Cruises, an authentic paddlewheeler offering luncheon, dinner and sightseeing cruises (727-462-2628).
Save The Pier for the late afternoon, because it is a fabulous attraction as well as evening dining and entertainment place. Notable for its inverted five-story pyramid design, The Pier (which is actually at the end of a half-mile long pier) offers two attractions of particular interest to children (fortunately open until 8 p.m. most nights). Great Explorations The Hands-On Museum lets you touch, move and interact with exhibits that educate and entertain, such as Phenomenal Arts, Explore Galore, Exchange, Think Tank, Touch Tunnel and Body Shop (10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday; children under 3 admitted free; adults/$4, seniors $2; 800 2nd Ave. NE, 3rd Floor, 727-821-8992. There is also a Pier Aquarium (open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.). Some of the fun restaurants are located here, including Cha Cha Coconuts (where there is dancing), Columbia, and Café Lido. There are also harbor cruises, miniature golf, and places to rent bicycles, boats, inline skates and wave runners, and you can fish off the pier. The Pier is also the winter home of the H.M.S. Bounty Exhibition. (The Pier, 727-821-6164, www.stpete-pier.com).
I was frankly amazed at how engaged the children were in the museum exhibitions-particularly the John F. Kennedy collection and the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit at Florida International Museum, the Dali Museum and the Florida Holocaust Museum.
But your family does not have to miss out on the incredible theme parks that Central Florida is so famous for-just 35 minutes away is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay which is pure delight, and a score of family-friendly attractions in Tampa, including the must-see Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), a phenomenal hands-on museum, and Canoe Escape.
What we loved best about St. Petersburg is that it is a real place, with real neighborhoods, and a place that inspires the passions of its residents, such as Fred Getz, who lead the crusade to save the Vinoy from the wrecking ball and instead have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places; or that inspired Margaret Acheson Stuart, who wintered here, to found the Museum of Fine Arts. It is interesting that Salvador Dali had no real connection to St. Petersburg, but this is where the Morses vacationed. Nor did John F. Kennedy have any connection with St. Petersburg, but the fledgling Florida International Museum, hearing of Robert White's interest in creating a museum for his collection, sought it out.
We loved the atmosphere and the petite scale of St. Petersburg. For example, near the Renaissance Vinoy Resort on Beach Road, there is Spark's Dysfunctional Family Restaurant which promises to "put fun back into your dysfunction," and to give "service with a snarl". The shops along Beach Road are swank and high quality, but not pretentious, snobby or overpriced.
Indeed, my last, brief visit to St. Petersburg is remembered best for an image of a gigantic souvenir shop stuffed with pink, plastic flamingos. It was marvelous to stomp out the old stereotype of the destination and to see a cultural Renaissance.
For more information, contact the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-FL-BEACH, www.FloridasBeach.com, or the St. Petersburg Office of Cultural Affairs, 800-874-9007, www.stpete.org. For reservations at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, 501 Fifth Ave., NE, St. Petersburg, 800-HOTELS-1, www.renaissancehotels.com, or Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946.