From Stunning to Surreal: A Stroll along St. Petersburg’s Waterfront

Originally published in VLife, April 2011 •
Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis •

When Cleveland’s Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse were looking for a home for their exquisite collection of works by artist Salvador Dali in the late 1970s, St. Petersburg, Florida, seemed an unlikely choice. Civic leaders, however, saw the opportunity for a museum that would help to establish the mid-sized Florida city as an arts destination and attract attention. The first Dali Museum opened in 1982, and it certainly attracted attention, including mine. I’ve been a Dali fan ever since.

Despite tough economic pressures, St. Petersburg’s arts community came together to build a new ultramodern Dali Museum, which opened this past January. As Michelin’s top-rated museum in the American South, the Dali alone certainly makes a trip to St. Petersburg worthwhile. However, the city has so many world-class museums along the waterfront that one day is hardly enough to see them all. In 2010, American Style magazine named St. Petersburg as America’s number one arts destination for mid-sized cities, and a 20-minute stroll from the historic Vinoy Hotel at the northern end of Beach Drive to the Dali Museum at One Dali Blvd. proves why the city is in the running for the honor again this year.

Business has taken me to St. Pete frequently, and I’ve gotten to know the vibrant city and its many treasures. St. Petersburg is about a two-hour drive from The Villages, and the downtown area is easy to navigate. Once you park, though, take advantage of the St. Pete Trolley that services the downtown loop every 15 minutes. Trolley stops are marked with red and yellow signs. Fares are only 25 cents (10 cents for seniors) but you need correct change. If it’s a beautiful day—and most likely in St. Pete it will be—walking is the way to go because everything is within a one-mile radius. My ideal itinerary begins at the northern end of Beach Drive because parking is a little easier near the stunningly beautiful Vinoy Hotel, which just celebrated its 85th anniversary. Non-guests are welcome to walk through the vintage lobby and read the descriptions of how the elegant hotel sat vacant for nearly 18 years before a $93 million renovation returned it to its Jazz Age glory.

Across the street at 400 Beach Drive is the Chihuly Collection, the only museum solely dedicated to renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work. Designed by architect Albert Alfonso to showcase Chihuly’s unique glass sculptures, the museum seems like a walk through a glass candy store. While the gigantic red icicle chandelier captures most folks’ attention, I was mesmerized by the glass ceiling in a hallway just past Chihuly’s “Float Boat.” The ceiling is filled with stunning pieces of Chihuly’s sculptures, which are colorfully reflected on the floor as well.

To truly appreciate Chihuly’s work, schedule a visit to the Morean Arts Glass Studio and Hot Shop, where artists provide demonstrations and commentaries about glassblowing techniques. You can even experience glassblowing yourself after observing the artists. Combination tickets are available for both the Morean Hot Shop and the Chihuly Collection.

Outdoor cafes dot the area, and one of my favorites is 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, a Florida Trend Top 20 restaurant that is next door to the Chihuly. It’s easy to lose track of time sitting at the outdoor tables overlooking Straub Park. A short-trolley ride away is St. Pete’s iconic Pier, which has several restaurants including the Cuban-inspired Columbia. In fact, a visit to the Pier is a must because it’s scheduled for demolition in 2013 to make way for a newer version.

With the newer arts venues getting so much publicity, it’s easy to overlook the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, at 255 Beach Drive. Open since 1965, the Palladian-style building houses the largest comprehensive art collection on Florida’s west coast, including works by Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, and O’Keefe. A new wing opened in 2008 to house the special exhibition galleries.

If you are visiting St. Pete on a Saturday, don’t miss one of this country’s largest outdoor fresh markets, which is on your trek toward the Dali. Located in the Al Lang Stadium parking lot at 1st Street S. every Saturday from 9am until 2pm through May, the Saturday Morning Market attracts nearly 10,000 people a week. The locals come from miles around for the fresh produce, baked goods, arts and crafts, fresh flowers, and live music. Do what the locals do: pick up a few goodies for a picnic in one of the pristine waterfront parks.

As you leave the market, you’ll see the four-story, geodesic-paneled building that is a testament to Salvador Dali’s surrealistic visions. If you are not familiar with Dali’s works, be sure to sign up for one of the docent-led tours. Even die-hard Dali fans will learn something new from the well-trained volunteers who point out the nuances and symbolism in his paintings that aren’t always apparent to untrained eyes. For instance, his “Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus” contains futuristic references to man’s walk on the moon — something that happened long after Dali finished the 14-foot high painting in 1959.

You’ve had a full day and maybe you’d like to have dinner and listen to some jazz before heading home. The award-winning Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge, just outside the Dali Museum at the small Albert Whitted Airport, is known as a café by day and a bistro at night.

But tomorrow’s another day and you may prefer to start your to start your museum trek on the southern end of downtown St. Pete. After all, the Hangar is noted for its outstanding “mom and pop” breakfasts, and the early morning views from the Dali’s “Glass Enigma,” a room comprised of 1,062 glass triangles, are an inspiring way to start the day.

In whichever direction you decide to stroll, you still can’t see all that St. Pete offers in one day or even one weekend. Many more museums and galleries are awaiting your return and, luckily, you live only two hours away.


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