Renaissance Vinoy, St. Petersburg Are Enchanting Combo on Florida's "Culture Coast" Revial of Grand Hotel, Cultural Highlight Visit
By Karen Rubin
You often are drawn to a place because of a particular resort and the destination, itself, is incidental; other times, it is the destination that is alluring and you look for accommodations that will make the visit possible. Our trip to the Renaissance Vinoy, the pink lady of St. Petersburg, Florida, was an extraordinary opportunity to stay in a grand hotel with all the resort amenities of tennis, golf, spa, pool, and nearby access to some of the greatest beaches in the world, and also explore a fascinating, friendly, surprising destination full of cultural attractions that proved engaging for children as well as adults. This is not your grandfather's St. Petersburg.
Indeed, the name "Renaissance" which the historic Vinoy Park added after being acquired by the Renaissance Hotels and Resorts (part of Marriott Hotels), is most apt, both for the hotel and the city. Both have emerged stunning and mature, as a wealthy dowager after a visit to a skilled surgeon. Visitors will fall under their spell, as we did, departing with great reluctance and a vow to return soon.
We were immediately smitten with the Renaissance Vinoy, its grand entranceway, architectural features, and historic elements softened with coral colors and an ambiance that is welcoming and comfortable for families rather than formal or stiff. Our suite in the new tower, filled with luxurious amenities, had a balcony that overlooked the Vinoy Marina (voted the most popular resort marina, and you can imagine why, with room and valet service and all the other resort amenities at your beck and call), the skyline of St. Petersburg, and The Pier, a hotspot for entertainment. Stocked with every creature-comfort imaginable (like marvelous spa lotions, plush robe, coffee-maker, Playstation and two-line phone), we immediately felt relaxed and content.
Perfect 3-Generational Getaway
The Renaissance Vinoy and St. Petersburg proved a perfect three-generational outing which I specially arranged to mark a milestone birthday for my mother. I wanted a hotel that would be grand yet family-friendly, and a destination which would offer cultural attractions as well as a place for the kids to play and where my mom could pamper herself at the spa, if she chose. The resort and the destination more than delivered.
A key reason why this combination of the Renaissance Vinoy and St. Petersburg is so special is that everything, it turned out, was virtually at our doorstep. Imagine the grandest vacation resort but on the Museum Mile of New York's Fifth Avenue.
Just steps away from the hotel's entrance, the historic district holds many of the fascinating museums and attractions, but the hotel and the city make it amazingly easy to get around to places that may be too far to walk. The Vinoy provides guests with a complimentary limousine service that will take you anywhere within a five-mile radius (you summon the car back using a cell number). There is also an adorable open-air Looper trolley bus that makes a loop of the main attractions for just 50 cents and provides a splendid narrated sightseeing tour, with a pick-up stop just outside the Hotel's entrance.
On our first evening, we strolled from the hotel along Beach Road, to Bay Walk, a relatively new entertainment complex with movie theaters, taverns, shops, restaurants, cafes, and enjoyed a casual dinner at Too Jay's, a delicatessen which will make you think you never left New York.
Back at the Renaissance Vinoy, we eased into the exquisite pool, perfectly heated, ringed with lights edging magnificent architecture of the hotel, and a lighted waterfall you can swim through, very dramatic at night. The pool and Jacuzzi were open until 10 p.m., so we were able to enjoy paddling away under the stars. During the day, there are pool toys available for guests. Just in front of the hotel, beside the marina, there is a marvelous paved path for jogging that extends more than a mile toward The Pier, which beckoned in the morning.
We got to visit this intriguing structure on our second evening in St. Petersburg, after a full day of sightseeing. People love to come and stroll about, ride the elevator to the observation deck, take in the restaurants; there are even two attractions, the Pier Aquarium and Great Explorations The Hands-On Museum, which stay open until 8 p.m. most evenings. There are even whale-watching cruises that leave from The Pier. We were able to return to the hotel in time to take advantage of the nighttime tennis and still get a swim in.
Our room was stocked with delightful amenities, that just make the stay that much more pleasant-things like a coffee maker and Playstation ($5.95/hr); a fax machine; complimentary shoe shine service; television and telephone in the bedroom as well as the bathroom; and plush robes.
Gilded Age Grandeur
With all this grace and good service, it is easy to imagine the gentry of the Gilded Age coming for "the season" and enjoying the routine of afternoon tea and evening dancing in the ballroom (to the music of the famous Paul. Whightman Band), and it is hard to believe, as we luxuriate within this architectural jewel, that it was only saved from the wrecker's ball by the zealousness of a New York City real estate developer, Fred Getz, who energized the city's voters to pass a referendum to save it, and had it included on the National Register of Historic Places (the hotel was subsequently inducted as a member of Historic Hotels of America).
Built by Pennsylvania oilman Aymer Vinoy Laughner, the Vinoy Park Hotel was the grandest of the Boom Era hotels. Built at the lavish cost of $3.5 million, it was at the time the largest construction project in Florida's history. The contractor set a construction record for completing the 375-room hotel in just under 10 months, in time for a grand opening on New Year's Eve 1925, considered good luck for a hotel.
Indeed, the hotel prospered even during the Depression years, and hosted such influential people as Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth, Admiral Byrd, Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Fleischmanns, the Pillsburys, the Biddles of Philadelphia and the Smiths, of Smith Corona. During World War II, the hotel was used by the Army Air Corps. In late 1946, Laughner sold it to Charles Alberding. The hotel continued to thrive during the late 40s and the 50s, but then started a slow decline. By the early 1970s, volleyball games were being played in the run-down ballroom and the rooms were going for $7 a night. It finally was shut down in 1974 and remained closed for 18 years.
Stouffer Hotel Company took over the hotel, spending $93 million and two years to renovate it (the ballroom had been stripped even of its floor boards and paneling and was invaded by pigeons and squatters; one of the workmen said he saw an alligator living in the hotel basement). You would not know it seeing the restoration. Many magnificent features were painstakingly restored, like the glazed quarry tile floor in the lobby (which keeps the area cool), original stenciled pecky cypress beamed ceiling, Italian marble front desk, the stenciled borders on the walls of the exquisite dining room, the ornate plaster castings in the ballroom, the authentic Augusta Block bricks lining the front driveway, the leaded glass windows. The Great Gatsby-era effect today is completed with a sweeping front veranda with wicker chairs, tropical foliage and gently turning paddle fans.
Besides restoring it to its former grandeur, the resort, which reopened in 1992 (Stouffer Hotel Company was acquired by the Renaissance Hotel group in 1993), was enhanced with features to appeal to a contemporary audience: a tennis complex of 12 Har-Tru courts (lighted for night play); two heated outdoor swimming pools and three spas, a fully equipped fitness center, a 74-slip marina. The Vinoy even has bicycles available to rent.
The rooms in the original hotel were enlarged during the renovation, so that today there are 258 rooms in the main building and 102 in a new guest tower. The accommodations are furnished in a tasteful blend of Mediterranean décor, including elegant oak armoires, a writing desk, coffee-maker, television with remote control, three telephones, bedside clock radio. A majority of the rooms have spectacular views of Tampa Bay and every room in the guest tower has a private balcony.
In addition, the resort undertook a $9 million restoration of the Vinoy Golf Club, located 1.5 miles from the resort on Snell Isle (transportation is provided), a par-72 championship golf course designed by Ron Garl. This is far more than a golf course: originally a venture of developer C. Perry Snell built in the early 1920s, the Sunset Golf and Country Club was an ornate collection of Moorish and Spanish Renaissance influences, now known as Mediterranean Revival and included an open-air ballroom, so dancers could see the stars (it has been enclosed).
In celebration of the resort's 75th anniversary, a call went out to collect memorabilia, which are on display. We delighted in looking at old menus, photographs, China, and silver (including a tiny silver creamer which an octogenarian took pains to return after having kept it after a tea party at the hotel in the 1920s and moving about the world with it). One of the most fascinating relics of bygone eras sits outside in the garden, the fascinating Vinoy Solarium. Dating from 1930s, this was a portable unit for sunbathing; a guest would go in alone or with a companion, and a waiter could pass food and drink in through a small opening. The solarium opened at the top and was on wheels so it could be moved to catch the sun.
The hotel now provides history tours (Wednesday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. 1 hr., $7 or you can combine with lunch for $20); and restored the time-honored tradition of afternoon tea (Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday).
Children's Program, Packages
Since few people today travel with their nannies, the resort offers supervised children's activity programs (during summer and major holidays), or can arrange babysitting, so parents can get out and enjoy golf, the spa, or the marvelous cultural attractions which beckon. We had the occasion to meet one of the babysitters who might be called: stepping out onto the trolley one morning, we met Maribeth Beekman, a 32 year-old St. Petersburg native, who provides a licensed babysitting service through her company, Resort Babysitters, Inc (800-788-6689) and was taking one of her charges for a sightseeing trip on the trolley.
Renaissance Vinoy packages include a "Golf Escape," that provides a spacious guest room, one round of golf on the Vinoy's par 72 private championship 18-hole course for two people for each night of the stay, with shared golf cart use and unlimited range balls for the Vinoy driving range along with complimentary bag storage. Discounted replay on the same day may be available. Golfing guests also enjoy a $25 dining or golf pro shop merchandise credit per room, per night. A non-golfing partner may substitute their golf round for a manicure and a mineral spa at the resort's day spa. The rate is $179 from through the end of Sept. 29 and $229, from Sept. 30-Dec. 31.
A "Tennis Escape" package provides luxurious guest room, unlimited court time per day on one of the resort's 12 Har-Tru courts (all lit for night play), a 50% discount on the rental of the resort's ball machine and a complimentary can of resort logo balls. A daily instructional clinic for two is included as well as a $25 dining or tennis pro shop merchandise credit per room, per night (priced from $199 in summer).
Other themed packages include a "Museum Escape," which offers accommodations, a $25 dining credit and admissions for two to two of the following cultural choices: The Florida International Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts or the Salvador Dali Museum, and based on availability, a complimentary history tour of the Vinoy may be available.
Guests can pamper themselves at the Vinoy and add a rejuvenating spa experience to any Escape Package. For $185, guests can enjoy a full menu of services: one-hour Swedish massage, European facial, pedicure, and aromatherapy scalp treatment with shampoo and style.