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.
Our daughter’s wedding in Key West was magical. It rained, at least a little, every single day for about 30 days before the wedding at the Ernest Hemingway House. But on the big day, not a drop.
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.
Here we are at Tropicana Field, watching the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Boston Red Sox. I wore my Williamsport Crosscutters jersey, bought south from our home field in Pennsylvania, while Robin wore her Rays t-shirt.
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.
Site lines for the Tropicana Field seats are good in most places, even in the upper deck where we were. But concessions are out of view of the field, unlike today’s more modern parks. Tickets for this playoff game were $55 each, but regular season tickets for single games are much more reasonable.
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.
The Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Petersburg is more than just a place to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s also food that’s not-so-good for you, which we sampled of course. Musical acts perform, usually something bluesy. In the fall, winter, and spring, it’s located in the parking lot of Al Lang Stadium. In summer, it moves to a park nearby.
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 new St. Pete Pier reaches out from downtown on its south side. The latest iteration of many that came before is terrific for walking, with much to do and see along the way. The north side of the pier has great views of the Vinoy Basin, where yachts big and small ply the waters. At one point, Robin and I dreamed of having a sailboat here.
Believe it or not, this lovely mini-park with lake, fountain, and lush landscaping, is halfway down the south side of the St. Pete Pier. The city has managed to seamlessly tie the pier into the many parks and greenspaces in the downtown area.
The old pier basically went from “point A” on the land to “point B” at the end, with little to do or see along the way except parking spaces. The new version requires wayfinding signs, as it features a childrens’ discovery center, playground, performance spaces, and much more. A free trolley makes constant loops from land’s end to water’s end, and all the stops in between.
The St. Pete Pier ends in Tampa Bay with a striking four-story building, featuring plenty of food choices. It even has a bait shop for those who try their luck with fishing poles.
The St. Pete Pier includes several types of public art. This net sculpture (76 feet at its highest point, 428 feet wide at its widest, weighing 5,330 pounds with 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine), covers a large portion above the public space. Catching the light to create mesmerizing shapes in the breeze, it is the work of internationally renowned artist Janet Echelman. She named it “Bending Arc,” referring to these hopeful works by Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Years ago (70s and 80s), Spa Beach on the north shore of the pier was not used much. With all the fun things to do and see, just a minute’s walk away, it can actually get a little crowded at times.
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.
Downtown St. Petersburg is great for walking. The Salvador Dalí Museum is one of the jewels of the entire Tampa Bay Area. With the exception of the museum Dalí himself created in Spain, “The Dalí” in St. Pete has the world’s most extensive collection of his works. Regular admission (we’re not seniors yet on their plan) was $25.
El Torero Alucinógeno (The Hallucinogenic Toreador) is one of Dalí’s amazing large masterworks exhibited at the St. Petersburg museum. As explained by the guide while we were there, the giant painting exhibited Dalí’s ability to put his artistic range on display.
The helical staircase at the Salvador Dalí Museum is an architectural reference to Dalí’s obsession with spirals and the double helix DNA molecule that show up in many of his works.
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.
Alberts is a welcoming and bright bar at The Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport — another walking-distance spot in downtown St. Petersburg. It’s a great place to cool off on a hot day. You can watch small planes and helicopters take off and land all day, while sailboats drift by on 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.
Featured image via Unsplash.