It’s our first evening in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the prospect of homemade French-Vietnamese spring rolls has spurred us off the Gulf Coast’s white sands to family-owned Café Alesia. Lofty ceilings, polished concrete floors, wooden tables, Technicolor paintings, and a sympatico waiter who skips–yes, skips–across the room as we head to the back patio set the perfect stage for our vacationing party of three.

My husband, teenage daughter, and I fit right in among the handful of others at the outdoor tables under twinkling fairy lights and bougainvillea: date-night couples, friends, a multi-generational extended family. In fact, after devouring the delicate rolls followed by bowls of steaming pho and barbecued sirloin ribs, we’re the last to leave. We’re also on a first-name basis with our skipping waiter, Walter. “When you come here, you turn into a regular,” he says, as we settle up. “There’s something addicting about the food.”

It wasn’t just the food. After five days in and around St. Pete, I felt something mildly addicting about the whole place. Beyond the dreamy beaches I found a stiletto-free, thinking-person’s Florida where glassblowing is art, shuffleboard is cool, mid-century modern lives, local craft beer trumps $15 cocktails, and the sun shines an average of 361 days a year.

Here’s the lowdown.

> The Art Scene

St. Pete’s two main cultural attractions, the Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, are about as similar as Bilbao’s Guggenheim and Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum.

A spiral of colors at the Chihuly Collection (Photograph by cityofstpete, Flickr)

A spiral of colors at the Chihuly Collection (Photograph by cityofstpete, Flickr)

We didn’t connect with the works of Salvador Dali as we’d hoped we would. Maybe it was the rainy day throngs, or the hulking concrete building’s confusing layout.

The Chihuly Collection, on the other hand, inspired us. I’d seen his stunning water lily ceiling installation at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. But here, the master glass sculptor’s work unfolds inside a series of perfect rooms: the massive Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier bristles like a delicate cluster of chili peppers, an ocean floor comes to life in glass, and ikebana flower arrangements are frozen perfection. Our docent guide summed it up best. “Chihuly is the Tiffany of our time.”

To really understand how glass becomes art, catch one of the 30-minute glass blowing demos at the Center’s Glass Studio and Hot Shop. Seated on bleachers in front of the outdoor workshop’s two roaring furnaces, we alternately laughed or held our breath as a highly entertaining (not to mention skilled) duo of artists turned a ball of glowing molten glass into a multicolored vase, sharing tips along the way, like: “the bubble’s gotta be so soft that it falls into the negative space in the mold.” Like my brain on vacation? Seriously, though, I never imagined glass blowing could be suspenseful, even magical.

> Central Avenue Finds

You won’t find any “shoppes” in the pedestrian-friendly Central Avenue district, a reviving historic neighborhood west of downtown. But you will find an eclectic selection of locally owned boutiques, bars, bodegas, and attractions.

From the Chihuly Collection, we drove past a few blocks of vaguely touristy bars and restaurants on Central Avenue to the Saturday St. Pete Indie Market (look for the tepee by the entrance), where we bought yummy handmade strawberry-basil popsicles from mother-daughter entrepreneur team Pop Bandits and browsed home-canned preserves, dream catchers, and painted skateboards.

Cycle Brewing is based out of Peg's Cantina in nearby Gulfport, Florida. (Photograph courtesy St Petersburg Clearwater Tourist Bureau)

Cycle Brewing is based out of Peg’s Cantina in nearby Gulfport, Florida. (Photograph courtesy St Petersburg Clearwater Tourist Bureau)

Afterwards, we grabbed a beer at Cycle Brewing, the newest among a growing crop of craft breweries in the area. I tried The Bench, a refreshing “lime pale ale” that, the bartender said, took 50 pounds of limes to make. I also picked up a flier promoting free Friday night shuffleboard, and noticed Cycle Brewing’s shuffleboard-inspired brew called Tang & Biscuits.

Since shuffleboard and hipster didn’t quite mesh in my mind, I donned my reporter’s hat and learned that a multi-generational revival is underway in St. Pete, where Florida’s oldest and biggest shuffleboard club was established in 1924. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to “send the biscuit” at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, but we heard Friday nights are a ball for all ages, with drinks and live music, and even inspired a new club in Brooklyn. Interesting.

If you only have time for one Central Avenue stop, make it Haslam’s Bookstore. The sprawling self-described “temple to the printed word,” redolent with the scent of old pages and leather bindings, opened in 1933 and is still owned by the same family. The store had a section for everyone in our party. For our daughter, highlights included Teacup and Beowulf, the two fat kitties draped over the cash register, and The Fault In Our Stars, enthusiastically recommended as a “modern classic” by affable manager, Ray.

> Fish and Ice Cream

The best meal of our trip? A seafood feast at family-owned, self-service Mid Peninsula Seafood Market where we inhaled flakey fried slabs of locally fished amberjack, shrimp scampi, and golf ball-sized hushpuppies, all served up in cardboard baskets. We’ll long remember the smiling crab logo, thatched tiki umbrellas, fishing nets and lobster traps, and the friendly local patrons who pointed out their favorite items from the menu as we waited in line.

Another fish standout, closer to the beach, is Ted Peter’s Famous Smoked Fish (a family-owned institution and one of the area’s oldest; since 1951), where we pulled up stools at the outside counter bar one day for a late lunch of red oak-smoked mullet fillets, potato salad, and coleslaw.

Somehow, ice cream always tastes better in a bathing suit and T-shirt. Especially in St. Pete, where we learned it’s hard to get a bad cone, thanks to local wholesaler Working Cow Homemade Ice Cream, the supplier of choice for most regional establishments. So, along the main beach drag, Gulf Boulevard, we shunned places like Beer Belly’s Beach Bar in favor of an ice cream smack down.

Our favorite was Scoops, a diner-like storefront with scores of Working Cow flavors that “taste so good because they’re made with 14 percent milk fat,” according to adorable, gray-braided Micki Goodman who, with her husband, is living her retirement fantasy: ice cream parlor owner. In second place is Florida favorite Twistee Treat, a walk-up and drive-in stand shaped like an ice cream cone (needless to say, you can’t miss it).

Finally, it wouldn’t be a Florida vacation without a soft-serve orange ice cream cone from a citrus stand. The closest one I found, about a half hour drive north of St. Pete Beach, in Largo, is called Yellow Banks Grove and worth the trip.

> Retro Revival Room and Board

For those who seek a sense of place through lodging, St. Pete offers many options.

The elaborate Don Cesars Hotel (Photograph by fabiomiami, Flickr)

The elaborate Don Cesar Hotel (Photograph by fabiomiami, Flickr)

There’s the bubblegum pink Don Cesar Hotel, an impeccable Gatsby-era resort with deep community roots that rises like a turreted wedding cake from the pearly sand. “The Don” is perfect for families; or anyone, really, looking for vacation-friendly amenities like two pools, spa, kids club, great food, game room, and superb service.

Motels like the stylishly updated boutique motel Postcard Inn harken back to the days when folks piled into the station wagon and headed south. With its lively beach bar, palm-shaded pool, vintage rattan vibe, and spare, clean rooms, this is a happening place for those who don’t need to get to bed early.

Just north of St. Pete Beach, the midcentury motel atmosphere thickens in Treasure Island, anchored by iconic spots like the Thunderbird Beach Resort and many other smaller motels from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s even a benevolent flower child vibe, I heard, along Treasure Island’s wide beach during the weekly Sunday sunset drum circle.

——

When I was exploring, I kept thinking that if St. Pete weren’t so genuine, it would seem cheesy. But it’s the lack of irony, the simple friendliness of those we met, and the cool urban vibe of Central Avenue that will keep us coming back. It’s Midwest meets Brooklyn along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Who could ask for more?

Ceil Miller Bouchet is a travel/wine writer and the author of a forthcoming memoir, The Bordeaux Diaries, about her year studying wine at the University of Bordeaux. Follow her on Twitter@CeilBouchet.

Comments

  1. Mike Beegle
    York, PA
    August 26, 2:43 pm

    Too bad it’s not possible to reply directly to these comments. The very first one from “Miami Rules” went like this:
    “All of you are on drugs if you think a mini town that is extremely boring will have more to offer than Miami.
    The article is a sad portrait of the need this little town needs visitors.” Funny, I thought it was Miami where everyone’s on drugs. I was born in St. Pete but graduated from Coral Gables High so I feel qualified to compare the two. So, St. Pete is Miami without all the drugs and thugs. I loved Miami back in the 60′s but now St. Pete Rules. Sorry. St. Pete was chosen as a true cultural center for cities of it’s size, it is no longer “nature’s waiting room” with an upside down age triangle. I’m guess that “Miami Rules” has never been to St. Pete. Good. Stay there.

  2. Miami Rules
    Miami
    June 27, 9:01 am

    All of you are on drugs if you think a mini town that is extremely boring will have more to offer than Miami.
    The article is a sad portrait of the need this little town needs visitors.

  3. Alexa
    June 16, 10:26 pm

    I really appreciate this review and it’s true St. Petersburg has all the potential of a great vacation spot and even more so cultural destination. I wonder if why your waiter was so gracious and fun is because he’s one of the many intelligent and highly skilled hire-able people in St. Petersburg that can’t find careers other than in the service industry, which, don’t get me wrong, isn’t a bad place to start but the people who choose to make this their home in St. Pete have so much more to offer beyond being waiters and bartenders. What would really enhance St. Petersburg is if tech companies, creative companies etc would move their locations here, like they have done in places like Boulder or Portland. St. Petersburg offers such a good mix of low cost of living and quality of life it is a wonder that more businesses have not swarmed here.

  4. Marianne Wysocki
    Gulfport, Florida
    June 12, 8:07 am

    Also to be mentioned: Shapiro’s Gallery on Beach Drive:
    Locally owned and still family owned, since 1998, and continuing to support Handmade in America.
    http://www.shapirosgallery.com/#!about/cnj8

  5. Donna
    Saratoga New York
    June 10, 4:15 pm

    Love this place. My son attended Ericked Collage and we got to know this area very well. In 2008 we decided to buy a place in Tierra Verde. Now we spend the whole winter there and wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. Love all the places you mentioned in your article. My son, who now lives in DC will be getting married at the Don Cesare Hotel in October. It doesn’t get much better then that. Nice to see St. Pete get the recognition it deserves. Yes Move Over Miami!!!

  6. Radeba
    Poland
    June 10, 7:13 am

    I wonder what the origin of St.Petersburg name is. Russian settlers?
    http://radeba.manifo.com

  7. Savannah
    June 8, 11:43 pm

    I understand your love for St. Pete. I grew up and lived there my entire life until college. It was such an amazing place to live and I hope to go back someday to be with my family :)

  8. Marcus Glenn
    Ellicott City, MD
    June 8, 10:47 pm

    A very nice article, but I am surprised that the Museum of Fine Arts was not mentioned. Besides the wonderful collections of art there, they support the community through various outreach programs. They are a great resource to the community as well as the region.

  9. Martha Glenn
    United States
    June 8, 10:05 pm

    I am truly surprised that there is no mention in the article of the Museum of Fine Arts located in St. Petersburg (on the Bay side). This is a fabulous museum with so much to see on display – not to mention the “cafe” area which serves wonderful meals – especially brunch on Saturdays. They also have an educational program for school children including activities they can participate in. It is a WONDERFUL place!

  10. Shawn
    St.Pete
    June 8, 12:06 am

    Ice Cream smack down? You don’t go to the beach and not get the best ice cream in the 727, Candy Kitchen! A little brick building that has been a staple on Maderia Beach since the 50′s! All homemade ice cream, lines down the street in the winter…this is where the real ice cream is. Scoops? Twistee Treat? They don’t even compare.

  11. Michele Tuegel
    St. Petersburg, FL
    June 7, 10:26 pm

    Thank you for such an enthusiastic travel piece on St. Petersburg! Wish you had made it a few blocks east on Central Ave. to have popped into my gallery, Michele Tuegel Contemporary — but maybe next time! You really covered a lot of territory! A few unmentioned gems for your next visit: The Renaissance Vinoy Hotel downtown, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, American Stage Theatre, Rowdies Soccer, the Downtown “Looper” Trolley, Fort de Soto Park, 5 burgeoning visual art districts/neighborhoods, Historic Kenwood neighborhood (dynamic Craftsman revival homes!) and The Craftsman House Gallery, a renovated turn-of-century gem housing a gallery, ceramic studio, and cafe. I grew up in Miami and Florida’s west coast just rolls at a friendlier pace. Kudos to you and please come visit again! – Michele Tuegel http://www.mtcontempo.com

  12. Linda Biltz
    St. Petersburg
    June 7, 3:07 pm

    It’s easy to take this great place for granted. Nice to read that “non-residents” find our little burg charming as well. There are hundreds of other amazing things to do, if you have the time!

  13. Helena Catherine
    St. Pete
    June 7, 10:40 am

    Born and raised in St. Pete and couldn’t agree more!

  14. Eva
    St. Pete
    June 7, 9:04 am

    Ceil, sounds like you had a full St. Pete experience, it was fun to read your article and see you made it to the Indie Mart teepee, etc!

    I agree with you about the Dali Museum – everyone here seems all jazzed about the new Dali building and how much more money it’s making now but i wish you could have seen the old Dali building. You could see the art as soon as you walked in the door, the staff was smaller, and the display layout was vast and roomy and had a nice continual flow that made viewing his work way more fun. Now it’s all contained in these tight rows and sections, all hidden away on the second floor and it’s all about that glass bulbous heaving growth that wraps around the building and less about Dali’s work…definitely not the same feel! Business is business, I guess.

  15. Laurie Robeck
    St. Petersburg
    June 7, 8:31 am

    Thank you for this beautifully written article! We are so proud of our city.

  16. Lisa Roberts
    St Petersburg
    June 7, 1:04 am

    You must not have had a docent at the Dali museum…BIG mistake! You would have connected to the 90% you’re sure to miss if you go it alone.
    The locals are who fills up Beach Drive at night, the early shift for us over 40 then around 11pm the younger stiletto crowd fill the streets.
    Next time try my favorite Thai-Mex restaurant, Nitally. The chorizo fried rice is to die for!

  17. Gail Fore
    Atlanta, GA
    June 6, 10:41 pm

    So loved this article. I was raised (genuine is the word, and great place to learn what matters in life) in St. Pete and recently returned (following 46 years in Atl.GA) for a weekend, to celebrate 50 years since HS graduation with many sharp classmates. It was too short a stay and I loved the vibe!
    My mother, born in Brooklyn and I in Chicago (Dad from
    Mississippi), kinda emphasizes your closing line. I just
    LIKED this site to keep the images in view; and am now
    considering buying some property there, for occasional trips to see old friends, and spend time with big sky, the beach and glorious sunsets. Thanks again! PS. Many found memories of Ted Peter’s and The Don!

  18. Erin James
    St. Petersburg, Fl
    June 6, 6:17 pm

    As a St. Pete native, I love a well-written love note about my city. I wonder if you didn’t visit the wonderful Museum of Fine Art which is just a block or two south of the Chihuly. The MFA is a wonderful museum with an extensive collection.

  19. Priscilla Nystrom
    Safety Harbor, Fl
    June 6, 3:03 pm

    I was born and raised in Bradenton, Fl. My husband and I have lived in St. Petersburg, St. Pete Bch., and now Safety Harbor! We raised our kids pretty much on the beach almost every weekend in the summer! We still go down St Pete Bch and another beach our favorite Pass-A-Grille just south of the Don Cesar Hotel, and sometime on Indian Rocks Bch.
    I am very proud to say we Love our home town and glad you found to your liking and thank you for your great write-up !
    Priscilla

  20. MAC
    St. Petersburg
    June 6, 2:08 pm

    Very nice article with the exception of the misstated Central Street, it is Central Avenue. Unfortunate because people will be searching for Central Street.

  21. Sally
    St. Petersburg, FL
    June 6, 1:58 pm

    Please, it’s “Central Avenue”, if you send folks to look for Central Street, it will be very confusing. Thank you.

    • Leslie Trew Magraw
      June 9, 10:25 am

      Thanks for the correction, Sally! We’ve updated the piece :)