Destination: St. Petersburg, Florida

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St. Petersburg, Fla., has undergone a metamorphosis, changing from “God’s Waiting Room” for retirees to “The Sunshine City,” where beaches, the arts, six world-class museums, professional sports, and a downtown shopping and dining district compete for the attention of visiting boaters.

St. Petersburg, Fla., has undergone a metamorphosis, changing from “God’s Waiting Room” for retirees to “The Sunshine City,” where beaches, the arts, six world-class museums, professional sports, and a downtown shopping and dining district compete for the attention of visiting boaters.

“I’m totally amazed at all the things going on here,” says Ron Williams, supervisor of St. Petersburg Marina, a destination for many cruising yachts. Williams and his staff can offer suggestions about where to go, what to see, and where — and what — to eat in this Gulf coast city of 250,000.

The St. Petersburg Marina is in the 30-block harborfront park system, within a block or so of downtown attractions or a Looper Trolley stop. The trolley fare is $1.25 a ride (50 cents for seniors), and it circles through the city every half-hour util 5 p.m. It stops at a dozen places, including near the historic St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Renaissance Vinoy Resort Marina, and The Harborage Marina — convenient for cruisers who stay at one of these facilities.

The Museum of Fine Arts is within steps of St. Petersburg Marina, and is known for its French Impressionist paintings and extensive collection of fine art, from antiquity to the present day.

Across the street the Museum of History stands on the approach to The Pier shopping and dining complex. The museum’s Flight One Gallery features St. Petersburg’s place in aviation history. An operational replica of the Benoist airboat that made the first scheduled passenger flight, Jan. 1, 1914, dominates the pavilion.

The museum’s “Walk Through Time” illustrates local history, beginning with pre-Columbian American Indians. They and the 16th-century Spanish explorers were gone by 1888 when Peter Demens ended his Orange Belt Railroad on the site of the present St. Petersburg Pier. The town that John Williams laid out on his farm around the pier prospered in the 1900s when tourists came for the great fishing and warm winter weather. (Demens named the community St. Petersburg after his Russian birthplace.)

Among the museum’s other displays is a 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy the city received in 1921 as payment for a cruise ship debt.

Florida International Museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, has a broader scope. The extensive permanent exhibit on John F. Kennedy includes a re-creation of his Oval Office and a life-size façade of PT 109. One interactive exhibit covers the hour-by-hour details of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, plus a 1960s atomic bomb shelter. Changing exhibits feature artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collections.

Florida Holocaust Museum, among the country’s largest, honors the memory of the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis. The central exhibit is a Polish boxcar that transported people to the World War II death camps.

The Looper Trolley stops at the Salvador Dali Museum, which displays the world’s largest collection of the surrealist painter’s work. The renowned museum draws its exhibits from its 95 oil paintings, 200-plus watercolors and drawings, and more than 1,000 sculptures and objects d’art by Dali.

“It’s Uptown, Downtown” is how BayWalk — the recently renovated $40 million shopping, dining and entertainment complex a block from the waterfront — advertises itself. Johnny Rockets (1950s soda fountain), TooJay’s Gourmet Deli, and a dozen other shops and restaurants surround an open-air courtyard where entertainers perform. After 9 p.m. only those 21 and older can visit the second-floor nightspots. Locals recommend former Miami Dolphins star quarterback Dan Marino’s Town Tavern and The Martini Bar. To say the adjacent Muvico 20-screen movie theater offers a variety of films is an understatement.

Shopping and dining extend beyond BayWalk and the nearby Courtyard Shops, with boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and restaurants that line an easily walkable mile of Central Avenue, waterfront Beach Drive and surrounding streets. Monthly “Get Downtown” block parties and evening Art Walks enliven Central Avenue with music, food and open houses.

Sidewalk plaques along Central Avenue (aka Baseball Boulevard) highlight St. Petersburg’s 90-year love affair with Major League Baseball. Spring training opened here in 1914 with the St. Louis Browns, but the city didn’t obtain a major league team until 1995. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays play at Tropicana Field and conduct spring training a few blocks south of the city marina at Al Lang Field, home of the Class A St. Petersburg Devil Rays. The Suncoast Trolley serves Tropicana Field and surrounding sports pubs on game days.

American Stage, Bayfront Center and Mahaffey Theater for the Performing Arts present live performances, from Broadway shows and the Florida Symphony Orchestra to rock concerts and sporting events.

The chain of waterfront parks offers picnicking, strolling, fishing and inline skating, as well as festivals, concerts and special events. Farther afield are the 100-year old Sunken Gardens featuring 50,000 tropical plants, an aviary and butterfly conservatory. Next door, Great Explorations Hands-on Science Museum offers a fun, educational experience for families.

You’ll enjoy Spa Beach at the entrance to The Pier, though most beach-lovers board the Suncoast Beach Trolley ($3 for the day, daily till 8 p.m., midnight on weekends) that circles from The Pier and BayWalk to the 34-mile-long Gulf of Mexico beach. For more than a century these white-sugar sands have been drawing tourists, as many as 10 million a year. Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman consistently ranks the area’s Gulf beaches among his top 20 in the United States.

You can pick up brochures and a walking guide of St. Petersburg’s historic neighborhoods at the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center on Second Avenue North. Many of the historic downtown buildings date to the 1920s, when St. Petersburg boomed with the rest of Florida. The Great Depression caused a short halt in tourism, but growth has been almost uninterrupted since. n

If you decide to go

St. Petersburg is on the western shore of lower Tampa Bay. From the Gulf of Mexico, the Intracoastal Waterway channel leads through the central span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge into Tampa Bay. Locals say the bay gets choppy.

“The approach is uncomplicated,” says St. Petersburg Marina supervisor Ron Williams. “Watch for the shallows around Pinellas Point, then stay to the west in Tampa Bay.” He says follow the well-marked 20-foot-deep channel along the western shore.

Boaters must avoid the post-Sept. 11 security zones around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge supports and the Coast Guard station, which straddles the entrance to Bayboro Harbor. Speeds are restricted in manatee areas.

Approaching from the south, you’ll first come to Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort Marina on Pinellas Point, (727) 867-1151. It offers transient dockage but is a cab ride from downtown.

Next, about two miles south of downtown, is Salt Creek/Bayboro Harbor, also known as “Sailboat Row.” The Harborage, Morgan’s Landing, St. Petersburg Marine Center, Salt Creek Marina, Sailors Wharf Yacht Yard, other boatyards and facilities offer extensive marine services and full repairs.

Downtown yacht basins are marked by the inverted pyramid structure on the end of The Pier. Just south of The Pier is the entrance to St. Petersburg Marina in the South and Central Yacht Basins, and St. Petersburg Yacht Club in the Central Basin. Between the two basins are Marina Point’s marine sales and service businesses. Renaissance Vinoy Resort Marina fronts on the North Basin, an anchorage.

St. Petersburg Marina and The Harborage Marina (in Bayboro Harbor) both have pumpout, gas, diesel, showers, laundry, lounge and restaurants. Both allow liveaboards for a surcharge. Rates include water and basic cable TV. Enterprise will deliver rental cars.

Cruising boaters may anchor for a maximum of seven 24-hour periods per month in the North Basin after checking in with the harbormaster at St. Petersburg Marina, which offers $5 pumpouts to all boats as an official Florida Clean Marina. “Dinghy to the little beach and tie to a palm tree,” says Williams. “The bottom is muck with a crust. You have to get your anchor through that crust, or an east wind will blow you onto the wall. Best use two anchors.”

Tampa Bay’s tides normally range 18 inches to 2 feet, more on windy days. Williams says a north wind blows the water out, while a southerly blows it in.

A shopping center with supermarket and pharmacy is two to three blocks from the city marina, as is Central Avenue’s Saturday morning Farmer’s Market. St. Petersburg has easy access to Interstate-75, Tampa International Airport, and St. Petersburg/ Clearwater Airport.

NOAA chart 11411 PF, Tampa Bay to Port Richey, covers Tampa Bay and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway approach from the north, 11425, covers the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway approach from the south, and 11416, Tampa Bay, includes St. Petersburg and approaches.

Where to stay

• St. Petersburg Marina, (800) 782-8350, www.stpete.org, VHF channel 16, has dockage for boats to 110 feet LOA in 10-foot depths for $1.65 a foot per night including power. Rates are lower from April 2 to Sept. 30. The marina is in the downtown public park and offers a ship’s store, welcome packet, park, playground and picnic area.

• Renaissance Vinoy Resort, Golf Club and Marina, VHF channels 16 and 72, (727) 824-8022, www.renaissancehotels.com, has dockage for boats to 110 feet LOA in 10-foot depths: $2 a foot per night for boats to 49 feet, $2.25 a foot for larger yachts, including power. The marina is on the On free trolley route and offers pumpout, showers, laundry, use of resort’s amenities and room service, concierge, swimming pools, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, fitness center, day spa, salon, private dining room and pub. Lodgings are on-site.

• The Harborage Marina, (727) 821-6347, www.harboragemarina.com, has dockage for boats to 60 feet LOA in 12-foot depths for $1.85 a foot per night (40 feet and smaller), $2.35 for boats bigger than 40 feet, plus power. The marina is on the trolley route and offers a swimming pool, mail service, 24-hour security, marine store, and engine repairs. It is the home of Offshore Sailing School and Bayboro Yacht Club.

• St. Petersburg Yacht Club, (727) 822-3227, www.spyc.org, offers members of reciprocating yacht clubs dockage and use of its facilities for boats to 125 feet LOA in 7- to 10-foot depths by reservation only.

Information

• St. Petersburg-Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau, (877) 352-3224. www.floridasbeach.com

• St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, (727) 821-4069. www.stpete.com

• City of St. Petersburg, (727) 893-7111. www.stpete.org

• The Pier, (727) 821-6443. www.stpetepier.com

Events

• Nov. 4-7 — Strictly Sail St. Petersburg. (800) 817-7245.

• Nov. 18-21 — St. Petersburg Fall Boat Show, Bayfront Center yacht basin. (800) 940-7642.

• Dec. 4 — Santa Parade and Snowfest. (727) 893-7441.

• Dec. 11 — Lighted Boat Parade from Harborage Marina past The Pier to Vinoy Basin. (727) 821-6443.

• Dec. 31 — First Night, at 28 downtown venues and fireworks at midnight. (727) 823-8906.

• Jan. 16-17 — Martin Luther King Jr. National Festival. (727) 327-0085.

• Feb. 18-20 — Sailing World National Offshore One Design Regatta. (727) 822-3873.

The Pier is the place

Stroll or take the Looper trolley down to The Pier for “five stories of fun.”

The Pier became a waterfront landmark in 1899 when the Orange Belt Railroad from Sanford terminated at St. Petersburg’s half-mile wharf. An Electric Pier replaced the railroad pier building in 1906. The city’s Million Dollar Pier opened in 1926, the present inverted pyramid structure in 1973. Reopened in 1988 after a $12 million 19-month renovation, the city-owned shopping, dining and amusement complex hosts 2 million visitors a year.

On the first floor you can wander through 16 boutiques and specialty food shops offering goodies from fudge and shaved ice, to gourmet coffees and wine tastings. Just Hats, Rain Forest and DD Collectibles offer particularly unusual items. At the waterfront food court you‘ll find burgers, pizza, and Greek and Chinese food. Pick a table inside or on the outside deck where views extend west across Tampa Bay. Captain Al’s, a sit-down restaurant, features live bands Thursday evenings.

The second-floor aquarium is free on Sundays, and focuses on the marine life in Florida waters and reefs. “We teach conservation, for our waters are deteriorating,” says a staff member. A major exhibit, “What you can do to help Tampa Bay,” covers boater awareness, storm-water runoff, beach cleanups, and conservation of the brackish estuary.

An 8-foot, 243-pound tarpon — a Florida record — illustrates the sportfishing in local waters. You’ll see snook, flounder, spadefish and tarpon, all local game fish, as well as colorful reef fish. Youngsters handling the touch tank’s crabs, urchins and horseshoe crabs don’t realize they are learning about the environment.

After viewing the displays about Weedon Island Preserve, you may be tempted to cruise there to explore its Old Florida setting, four miles of canoe trails, mile-long boardwalk, and 50-foot observation tower. Populated by American Indians 10,000 years ago, Weedon Island was the site of an airfield, movie studio, 1920s speakeasy, and garbage dump before being designated a state preserve in 1980. Accessible by road from St. Petersburg, the mangrove island lies about five miles north of The Pier, just south of the U.S. 92 bridge to Tampa.

On the third floor, Project Creo Center for Art and Design supports contemporary artists stretching the envelope in all media.

Locals and visitors recommend the Columbia Restaurant on the fourth floor, which serves savory Cuban and Spanish cuisine with a panoramic view of Tampa Bay.

The fifth floor, home of Cha Cha Coconuts Tropical Bar and Grill, is a gathering place at sundown. From the observation deck tables you can watch daylight fade over the yacht basin as the sun sets behind St. Petersburg’s skyscrapers. Bands entertain Wednesday through Sunday evenings.

And there’s more. A small swimming beach extends north of the entrance, where ecological displays dot the approach. You can rent surrey bicycles built for six — or regular bicycles — drop a fishing line off the wooden walkways and deck, or just sit and watch the water. Brown pelicans regularly roost on The Pier Bait House roof. Whenever the water temperature drops below 65 degrees F volunteers feed the birds, calling each by name. Great blue herons also congregate around the Bait House, but they’re much more skittish.

The Pier’s docks seldom attract visiting cruisers because of their exposed location, but HMS Bounty berthed there last winter. Other tall ships visit during special events.

Other activities at The Pier include Sunset Dances, Saturday Family Fun, Tea Dances, Pier Pals Kids Club, Sunday Music Fest on the Water, and the Aquarium’s weekly hands-on educational programs for all ages.

Contact The Pier at (727) 821-6443. www. stpetepier.com