By: Lance Van Auken
This is the second in a series of articles on my semi-retired travels with my wife, Robin, who is not retired, but works remotely.
Today is a sunny day. Yesterday was, too. And the day before that, and…well, you get it.
Florida has a lot of those—and this time of year, it’s blast-furnace hot, too. Having spent my childhood here in the pre-air conditioning olden days, I’d forgotten how humid it can get in the summertime.
Before I go much further, this edition of my blog is going to focus on one Saturday in downtown St. Petersburg, near where I grew up. A few weeks have passed since we ended our Auto Train trip from Virginia, and events have forced a change in our plans—but more about that later.
Anyway, it was like a big wet towel hit my face when we de-trained in Sanford, near Orlando. Then we headed to Miami for a few days. It’s even more humid there.
We’d visited the Hemingway House a few times in the past, and our daughter loved it so much as a teenager, she wanted to get married there someday. So she did. The wedding and all the events attached to it went off without a hitch, so to speak.
We, and the rest of the wedding party, stayed at the lovely Kimpton Lighthouse Hotel across Whitehead Street from the home that Hemingway owned in the 1930s. Mid-1800s buildings take up a half-block at the boutique Lighthouse Hotel in an arty, somewhat less commercial, part of Key West.
After the wedding, we headed north to visit family in Pinellas County—Seminole specifically—which is where I’m writing this. I grew up and spent the first 36 years of my life here, and remember it fondly. The population has grown tremendously over that time, so traffic is a bother.
But the county’s largest city, St. Petersburg, on the southern end of the peninsula, is a wonderful place to visit now. We spent a Saturday there, and loved it.
I remember St. Pete back in the 1980s, as a sleepy, somewhat decrepit old town that was stuck in the 1950s. It catered to retirees from the Northern states, and I echoed the derisive “God’s Waiting Room” moniker more than once. As a retiree, I regret that now.
But others agreed. The Tampa Tribune, clarion of the across-the-bay rivalry, once ridiculed the groundbreaking site of a new domed baseball stadium in downtown St. Pete as “…a particularly pinched Albanian village.”
It hurt when I read that editorial in 1988, since I was a sportswriter for the nearby Clearwater Sun at the time. I later wrote for the Tribune. Both papers eventually ceased to exist, like so many have in the recent past. That’s a depressing subject for a different post.
The domed stadium, now known as Tropicana Field, is still there, home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. We catch a game or two when we visit in the summer. It’s not the best stadium for watching a ballgame but I feel a great sense of hometown pride anyway. St. Petersburg tried for many years to lure an MLB team to the city, and the Devil Rays (the name was shortened later) played their first season there in 1998.
In fact, the night before our Saturday visit to downtown St. Pete, we caught a Rays’ playoff game at the invitation of my brother Calvin, and his wife Pamela. Unfortunately, the Rays lost to the Boston Red Sox.
A few blocks away is Al Lang Stadium, home of Spring Training teams for decades. It’s now the home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies pro soccer team. We didn’t see a game there on our current visit, but we did visit the excellent Saturday Morning Market in the Al Lang parking lot. There’s vendors hawking smoothies, vegan dishes, pulled pork, hats, fruits and veggies, and lots more. It’s also pet friendly, so we got to see dozens of pooches, and one little leashed pig that drew the attention of kids wherever it went.
A nearby site that’s been reborn several times is the St. Pete Pier. Jutting out of Second Avenue North into Tampa Bay, it has attracted visitors for decades in its various forms.
The current iteration is excellent, consisting of 26 acres with little landscaped parks along its length, five restaurants, a playground, an environmental education center, and interesting artwork. When we visited on that sunny (what else?) Saturday afternoon, thousands of people were enjoying it, including hundreds of young families enjoying a fall-themed festival. There’s no admission fee, making it one of the finest public spaces around.
The restaurant on the upper level at the end of the pier was crowded, mostly with people younger than us, but still welcoming. “Pier Teaki” was a great spot for drinks and tapas while watching the sun set over the city.
A short walk to the south is the Salvador Dalí Museum. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, but I was the Executive Director of the World of Little League Museum for eight years, and we’ve been to more museums than I can even recall.
The Dalí was one of the best we’ve ever visited. As one of those unfortunate people who can barely remember dreams, to see Dalí’s dreams on canvas and try to interpret them in my own way was a joy, yet impossible. The excellent guide who pointed out the many Easter eggs we missed in some of Dalí’s works helped tremendously.
Just around the corner from the Dalí Museum is the small Albert Whitted Airport, catering to general aviation and sightseeing excursions. The Hangar restaurant there is great for a quick lunch or dinner, along with great views of Tampa Bay.
All of these—the Saturday Morning Market, the Dalí Museum, the St. Pete Pier, and the Albert Whitted Airport—are a few walking minutes from each other. All-day parking in a downtown garage near Al Lang Stadium was $5.
That’s not to say the St. Petersburg area is only worth a one-day visit. Fort DeSoto Park and its outstanding beaches, on the southern end of Pinellas County, should not be missed, and it’s only 10 minutes from downtown. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is 40 minutes away. The Tarpon Springs sponge docks—and excellent Greek food—can be found at the northern end of the county. Each of those make great day trips, and Disney World is less than 90 minutes away.
Now, about those plans I discussed in the last post…
Our trip to the United Kingdom is still on for December. In the meantime, we’ll spend some more time in Florida, and maybe meander up north for the fall colors.
However, Cunard decided to cancel our ocean crossing in December—something about needing more time to get the Queen Mary 2 ready for the rigors of open ocean, having been idled for the pandemic.
It’s not a huge bother to change plans this far out, but it is hugely disappointing. I mean, what could go wrong in the North Atlantic on a huge ship that’s not quite ready, right?
I wish there was a word for “huge” that was more descriptive.
So we’re flying over instead, and taking the QM2 back to the states in February. We plan to spend a month in London, and a month in Cornwall. It’s kind of a city mouse/country mouse thing, like that book I read when very young.
Until then, safe travels to you, and we’ll let the wind take us where it wants to go. As long as there’s good wifi.
About the Author
Lance Van Auken retired in 2020 from Little League Baseball and Softball in Williamsport, PA, where he served as Vice President. While at Little League, he was liaison to The White House during President George W. Bush’s Tee Ball on the South Lawn initiative. As spokesman for Little League, he has been interviewed on the Today Show, Good Morning America, ESPN, MSNBC, PBS, and in hundreds of newspapers. Lance also served for 12 years in the U.S. Army Reserve as a Military Policeman and Journalist. He now enjoys traveling with his wife, Robin, and writing about it. Oh, and golf. He likes golf, but isn’t very good at it.