Tag Archives: St. Petersburg

Already Planning to Go Back

While I’ve focused almost entirely on the fun stuff, our days were largely spent studying at the famous journalism school, the Poynter Institute. We heard programs on everything from topic trends to useful software. This cartoon hung on the wall at Poynter reminded us that, while writing is a serious business, it’s good to see the lighter side of it.

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Definitely worthwhile, but it meant we saw a lot less than if we were on vacation.

The conference kept me too busy to get to the Sunken Gardens, which were the first thing suggested by just about everyone I asked for recommendations. I also missed the Dali Museum, which got rave reviews. I never got to the beach, and I learned too late that there is still a place in St. Pete that serves smoked mullet.

Plus there are all the other delights of the area. I’m determined to dine someday at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. I want a full meal, and not just a snack, at Columbia. Plus I want to visit again some of the places from long ago—the Ringling Estate, Tarpon Springs, Fort De Soto.

And I’m certain that when I check out sites such as Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay, I’ll find even more things to lure me back to the area.

So farewell for now, Tampa Bay. I’ll definitely be looking for an opportunity to return.

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Tampa Bay Bridges

One of the things worth noting is that it would be impossible to get around the area without bridges. On the St. Pete side of Tampa Bay, there are strings of islands that can only be reached by bridges. If you want to travel from St. Pete to Tampa, if you don’t want to spend hours driving around the end of the bay, you’ll need to cross one of Old Tampa Bay’s long bridges. (If you’re flying into Tampa Airport, you’ll see these from the air as you approach.)

Happily, crossing the bridges is quite wonderful. It offers splendid views of the water and whichever city you’re approaching. Depending on the light, it can be absolutely magical.

As with any city, rush hour can be frustrating—but if you’re on vacation, just plan around rush hour. (And if you’re from somewhere like LA, Chicago, or NYC, you probably won’t even recognize Tampa Bay’s rush hour as actually being an issue.)

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge


The view from the bridge

The view from the bridge

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Locale Market

St. Petersburg’s Locale Market was astonishing in every way. Shelves were lined with glorious packaged foods and confections. Glass cases showcased glorious meat, fish, house-made sausages. Various prep kitchens were bustling with cooks creating dishes that could be eaten on the patio outside or taken home. A glass wall offered a view of handsome slabs of beef dry aging in a salt-lined vault, while the meat counter displays gorgeous cuts ready to be taken home. Wines, coffees, and teas were on offer, packaged or for consuming on the spot.

The dazzling, two-story market also has a farm-to-table restaurant on the premises, mostly outdoors, but under cover, so the weather won’t limit dining opportunities. If you love food and happen to find yourself in St. Pete, this is absolutely worth visiting. Here are a few photos, to help you envision the offerings here (and the whimsy of those displaying the foods).

Locale Market and its outdoor dining areas

Locale Market and its outdoor dining areas


Black Grouper is an iconic dish in this area.

Black Grouper is an iconic dish in this area.


One of the kitchens is visible behind this display of exceptional beef.

One of the kitchens is visible behind this display of exceptional beef.


A touch of whimsy: alligator "guards" alligator andouille.

A touch of whimsy: alligator “guards” alligator andouille.

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St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive

From Sea Salt, we walked eastward, toward the water and Beach Drive. As it would turn out, this would just be our first visit to this waterfront roadway—and in fact this proved to be a good opportunity to note the locations of some of the places we hoped to visit later in the week. This first night, we wandered northward up the drive, stopping at a place that had been recommended to one of the other writers: 400 Beach. We sat outside, enjoying the sea breeze after a steamy day, and worked on getting to know other conference goers.

We all ordered something from the sea. I opted for the fish tacos, which were amazing and were served with a mango and papaya salad. This was actually listed as an appetizer, but I can’t imagine eating anything after these two impressively generous tacos. We all agreed that this place was definitely a good suggestion.
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Across the street, we could see the Museum of Fine Arts, to which I returned the next night. Impressive collection for a small town, with many familiar names in the galleries of paintings, plus some very nice antiques, artifacts from around the world, sculpture, decorative arts, and an entire room brought from somewhere in Europe.

Farther down on Beach Drive, was the Dali Museum, which I didn’t see on this trip but heard great reports from those who did.

Strolling back toward the hotel, we passed Birchwood, to which we would return in a few nights for the awards banquet. Impressive food there, as well. So if you are in doubt as to what to do in St. Pete, between the museums and the restaurants, not to mention the views of the parks, marina, and bay, it seems that heading for Beach Drive would be a safe bet.

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Finding Our Way Around St. Petersburg

An important thing to know in St. Petersburg is that streets go north and south, while avenues go east and west. For example, our hotel was at the corner of 3rd and 4th – which you could only possibly find if you know that it’s 3rd Avenue and 4th Street. There are a few streets with names: Martin Luther King, Jr. Street (which, being a street, runs north and south), Beach Drive, Central Avenue (and yes, east and west). But mostly, it will be numbers—plus you need to notice whether a street is north or south, as there is, for example, a 9th Avenue S and a 9th Avenue N, Central Avenue being the dividing line for avenues.

This sounds insanely complicated, but in fact, if you keep in mind the directions that streets and avenues run, all you need to be able to do to know where you are is count.

Downtown St. Petersburg is quite walkable, and so those of us who showed up early for the conference accepted the recommendation of one of the event planners and hiked the three blocks to Sea Salt (on 2nd Avenue N).
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It was a great choice. Fresh seafood is not all they offer, but it was abundant and caught the attention of many of those in our group, which grew steadily as the evening progressed. (Name tags made it easy to figure out who the other conference-goers were, as people kept arriving.)

Fresh fish, different kinds of salt, and good olive oil great customers at the entrance.

Fresh fish, different kinds of salt, and good olive oil greet customers at the entrance.

Lots of folks went for the raw oyster platters. I ordered the seared sea scallops with sautéed leeks and Tasso ham in truffle cream sauce, and I was in paradise. It was just an appetizer, but my fellow writers had started talking about going out for dinner, so I figured that was where I’d stop.

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Tampa Bay: My, How You’ve Changed

My dad was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. As a result, while I was growing up, our family spent a lot of summer vacations visiting dad’s relatives down south. This was long before Walt Disney had even considered building anything in Orlando. We loved the beaches, and I became a world-class shell collector, combing the beaches in the early morning with my dad. But there was always a lot more than just the beaches to enjoy.

A few favorite food memories are associated with these trips. Warm-water lobster was cheap enough that you could feed it to kids. Smoked mullet was one of the best foods imaginable, and they sold it from stands along the road, which made it even more fun. And black bean soup, tostones, and flan at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City were definite favorites, as well.

On top of the dining, beaches, and relatives, there were wonderful things to see and do on the Gulf side of Florida. We examined raw sponges and the brass-helmeted diving gear of Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, watched entertainers at the Kapok Tree in Clearwater, got fresh seafood in Pass-a-Grille, explored Fort De Soto down on Mullet Key, and delighted in the remarkable museums on the Ringling estate in Sarasota.

Then life got busy, relatives died, other destinations called, and I didn’t get to the Tampa Bay area for decades. I’d been to Miami on business and to Key West with friends, but not to the place where I’d spent so much time growing up–until last month. A writers conference offered an opportunity to find out what had changed and what was the same in the destination of my youth.

The palm trees, banyans, and birds of paradise still made me smile. The red-tiled roofs of older buildings led me to wonder if the reason I fell in love so quickly with Southern California was because of the similarities of architecture and plants that were so familiar to me. I learned that Tarpon Springs was still Greek, Columbia Restaurant still had black bean soup, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota was still a destination, and Pass-a-Grille was still good for seafood–but there were a lot of changes. Roadside stands selling smoked mullet had vanished. In St. Pete, small, old-Florida architecture shared the streets with modern high-rises.

While I missed a few things, I quickly learned that there were new delights, from excellent museums to sensational dining options, mixed in with the old delights of tropical ambiance and lovely beaches. There are a lot more people–but also more air conditioning, which is a good thing.

The conference kept me busy most of the time, but I still managed to fit in a bit of exploring and a fair bit of excellent dining. As a result, it will take a few posts to share all that I experienced.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

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