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In 1996 when I made my first trip to Florida with my then partner, we planned to travel through the whole state with a rented car for 3 weeks, stopping wherever we had interest and ending the journey with a few days on the beach, to recover from all these new impressions.
For these few days of beach holiday we had been recommended to go to Clearwater Beach. Upon our arrival we realized , that this was far from the quiet location we had dreamt about.
After a quick cup of coffee in a Cafe overlooking the very lively beach we decided to search for something more quiet and returned to our car to continue our journey on highway 699, which lead us straight to St Petersburg Beach.
As we were nearing land's end at Pass-a-Grille Beach we had a closer look around, liked what we saw and stayed for the remaining time of the holiday.
Now while the relationship didn't last much longer after the holiday, my enthusiasm for trips through the USA and St. Petersburg remained the same.
I returned several times since and always managed to add these few last days in St. Pete, as it is called by the locals.
Where exactly is St Petersburg ?
St.Pete is about 15 miles south east of Tampa, located on a peninsula in between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.
The nearest international airport is the Tampa International, from which you can reach St Pete within a short drive on the highway 276 over Howard Frankland Bridge.
Some historical background
Since around 900 AD the tribe of the Tocobago Indians lived in the area of Tampa Bay.
The Tocobago are known to have settled usually near water and their main source for food were fish and shellfish, nuts and berries, but they were also cultivating corn. As corn doesn't naturally occur in this region, it is assumed that they traded with the tribes further north.
The area is rich in small game and they were also skilled huntsmen.
The Tocobago knew how to make pottery and they are especially famous for the construction of ceremonial and burial mounds.
In 1513 the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon arrived in the area and others followed. With them they brought the diseases of Europe and until 1760 nearly all of the Tocobago had been extinguished. The few surviving ones are believed to have moved to a Spanish mission near St Augustine, where the missionaries tried to shelter them, as they got caught up in the middle of the war between the British and the Spanish. When in 1763 the Spanish ceded Florida to the British, the last remaining few Tocobago Indians were relocated to Cuba.
All that remembers today that they did once exist in the area of Tampa Bay is a burial mount that can be visited in Philippe Park, which is situated in Tampa's Safety Harbour.
In 1876 John C. Williams bought the land where St Petersburg can be found, with the vision to establish a new town here. In 1888 Peter Demens, a Russian noble aristocrat, came to his help by, bringing the railway there.
I have been told that the two men flipped a coin to decide who could name the new town and Peter Demens won. His place of birth was St Petersburg in Russia, hence the name of the town. I cannot guarantee for the accuracy of this little anecdote, but I quite like it.
In the meantime St Petersburg has grown to be the fourth largest city in Florida with around 250.000 inhabitants.
The Beaches & Weather
The beaches are located on the keys which are situated on the west side of the town, facing the Gulf of Mexico.
The keys are interconnected with each other and the peninsula through several bridges, so getting there is really easy.
St Peteresburg Beach stretches over nearly 8 miles, which is more then enough for me, and is just stunning.
What you can find there is very fine, powdery sand, so white, that it nearly hurts the eyes in the sunlight. It is extremely well looked after, I never found it dirty and, surprisingly, it isn't busy.
Weekdays you might find yourself often in the lucky position to claim a 100 metre stretch or so to yourself, whereas it does naturally get more busy on the weekend, when the people from the city have some time off.
But even then I found it never be unnervingly full and always had enough space in between my towel and the surrounding sunbathers ones, without being forced to listen to their conversations.
As for the weather, well this is Florida, so you can expect it to be warm, but would you have thought that the St Petersburg boasts a whopping 361 days a year of sunshine ?
There are of course plenty of Hotels and Motels in the city and on the keys, which cater for every budget.
The most famous one and a landmark for St Petersburg Beach is the Don CeSar Beach Resort.
It is also known as Floridas "Pink Palace", and this is exactly what it looks like.
A Disney-style castle with plenty of little towers, completely in pink. If you go to St Pete Beach you'll find it hard to miss, not with that colour...
If the look doesn't scare you away, then you'll find a luxury hotel with every amenity you can wish for and quite some history.
In the 1930's it was the playground of the famous and infamous, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Al Capone.
Keeping in style with it's past, you might remember it from the Film "once upon a time in America". Remember the scene where Max and Noodles sit at the beach, when they receive the news that the abolition is over ? There it was used as a background, as pink as ever.
Today's guest-list still reads like a who's who? and it wasn't the idea to find myself in the same Hotel as Robert de Niro ( wouldn't mind at all ), but the prices per room, which start from as little as $170 (off season), that put me a little bit off.
But as a special treat, especially for a honey-moon or an anniversary, I would say this place with all it's "kitsch" could be the perfect setting.
I always go to the same place, just a few minutes away from the Don CeSar, a small family owned motel that is called Plaza Beach.
The rooms are spacious, all fitted with kitchenettes (huge American style fridge to store drinks), twin beds, sitting area and 100 or so TV channels. I've found the rooms always very clean and there's a daily maid-service, never obtrusively although, so you won't be kicked out by the cleaner 9 am after a long night out.
They have a few suites, which are great if travelling with small children, as there is the separate bed-room.
The staff is very friendly and helpful and the hotel has direct access to the
Rooms are around $ 55.
There is the chance to do all kinds of water-sports, the equipment can be hired along the beach.
Opposite from the Plaza Beach Motel is the Dolphin Village Shopping Mall, another reason why l prefer this place. There are several shops, restaurants/bars, a bookshop, hairdressers and the only supermarket on St Pete Beach.
No need to take the car, just cross the road. Which is something not to be taken for granted in this part of the world, where the next shop sometimes can be miles away.
The supermarket has a big salad buffet, which comes handy for a light take-away lunch.
If you decide to take a hotel further up the key, then the supermarket might be a bit further, but there are still plenty of small shops to spend your holiday money.
Restaurants, Cafes, Fast-food places and take-aways can be reached from everywhere on the key easily, depending on what you are looking for.
To be honest, during my first holiday there I haven't seen anything and haven't even thought about going near the city, as the beach was all that I'd come for.
Back home I had the chance to study my tourist-guide, to find out what I had missed, while watching my suntan fade away.
I still haven't seen many attractions in St Petersburg, some because they are just not interesting to me, some because I just couldn't make it, as the beach there always seems to make me a bit lazy.
What I have seen :
St Petersburg Pier :
This is the place where you will be sent first, if you are asking the locals about places to go. It is situated off Bayshore Drive on the Tampa bay side of St Pete.
On the pier you can find an up-side down pyramid structure, in which there are several shops, restaurants and an aquarium. There are also activities like water shows, concerts and dance teas.
Parking is provided, but might be full and you'll have to check the surrounding areas for other possibilities and walk a bit.
You can hire boats from here to go dolphin watching or fishing.
All in all I quite enjoyed it, especially the aquarium, which will probably appeal to all families with young children, but there are certainly better shopping facilities in the malls and shopping outlets of the area then the pier.
The Sunken Gardens :
Already when approaching the parking in front of the entrance, it will be hart to miss what this place is all about. The walls surrounding the gardens are overgrown with tropical plants, such as strikingly colourful Bougainvillea.
After paying your $ 5 admission you'll be able to enter an oasis of quietness, apart from the tropical birds, scents and colours, not for from Tampa Bay, right next to a major road.
The Sunken Gardens offer you an area of 4 acres, filled with tropical plants and flowers, more then 50.000 have been counted, belonging to around 500 species. All beautifully arranged with little artificial lakes, creeks and the obligatory wooden bridge to cross, waterfalls and matching animals, such as tortoises, flamingos and parrots.
The lush variety of tropical flowers and the vast amounts of butterflies create an atmosphere, that just invites to sit down and forget about the rest of the world for a while.
Now, nothing is as perfect as it seems and your act of contemplation might be abruptly disturbed by the arrival of a wedding party, planning to have their photos taken, including all the humdrum this includes.
There is, of course, also a souvenir shop, with a quite good variety of items.
Fort de Soto Park :
This park consists of 5 islands, that can be reached over the Pinellas Bayway (toll) , which is located at the end of St Petersburg Beach.
Here you'll find 900 acres of nature preserve, including 7 miles of wild - means undeveloped - beaches.
If this is not enough for you to spend a day, then you can always visit the old fort, or, if you can't get enough, then you can spend the night on the campsite. Mind the mosquitoes...
Haslam's Book Store ;
This family business dates back into the years of the Depression, when it's founders John and Mary Haslam, both book-lovers, wanted to find a way to make it affordable for people to buy books. They came up with the idea to sell used books and magazines for cheap.
Their business became soon that popular, that they were able to expand.
The business is still owned and managed by the Haslam family, I don't know in which generation, but they are selling now from a shop that measures a modest 30.000 square feet.
For me this is always one of my first stops when arriving in St Pete, as I like to read on the beach. Even the prices are very cheap, I still manage to leave a quite respectable amount at the tills and in the meantime they have new books too.
2025 Central Avenue, free parking provided
There are, of course, further museums and attractions in St Petersburg, such as the largest Dali collection outside of Europe in the Salvador Dali Museum, but as I haven't seen them myself, I don't see any point in mentioning them as a pure listing.
With Tampa as a neighbour, the possibilities for trips and sightseeing are even bigger, for example Bush Gardens is not far.
Now, this is another place I have so far managed to avoid. The theme parks in Orlando have probably cured my curiosity forever when it comes to finding out how high or how fast a roller-coaster can go and our children are still too small to insist on going there.
One place that is perfect for a day out, especially if travelling with small children, would be the Lowry Park Zoo.
This Zoo is divided into sections, which they call domains, such as the Asian domain, the Wallaroo Station, the Safari Africa, Florida Manatee & Aquatic centre, Primate World,...
Each domain shows the animals in a setting that is as close to their natural habitat as possible.
They are rated as a mid-sized zoo, but in my understanding, the Lowry Park is more then big enough, certainly bigger then what our kids can take in, and you can calculate a full day there.
There are "rides" which can be taken, such as a Pony Trek, Camel Caravan Ride and a Treetop Safari, the later being undertaken via a cable-railway.
Directions : North Boulevard at Sligh, Tampa, 1 mile west of I-275
With Orlando only a bit more then 100 miles away, St Petersburg offers the perfect opportunity to combine a trip to Disney with the beach. Of course you can also do the same as I've done now a few times and rent a car and explore Florida (which can be quite exhausting for a holiday) and then just go there to relax for a few days.
Some Trivia :
- One third of Ian Flemmings "007- Live and let die" is set in St Petersburg
- St Petersburg holds the Guiness World Record for the most consecutive days of sunshine in a row : 768 days starting in 1967
Thanks for reading this, Sandra
This review has also been published on Ciao