Thursday, February 20, 2014


Finding A Good Hotel In The Land of Snowbirds Proved To Be A Bit Of A Challenge

Dateline - Saint Petersburg, Florida. Back in the day, like so much of old Florida, Saint Pete, where I lived and worked for five years in the early 2000's, was getting long in the tooth. Then, in the early 1990's, a renaissance began and brought this small enclave of condos, marinas and foot friendly parks and walkways into the twenty first century. When we lived there, we enjoyed the weather, great music and entertainment venues and the best airport on the planet.
Living in God's Country here in North Florida gets very tedious around January and February. Overcast skies, rain, cold and absolutely nothing to do makes one antsy at best and ornery at worst. So, it's only natural that any vagabond worth his or her salt would long for warmer climes and something - anything - to do. For some time now, we have talked about revisiting one of the few places we have lived to see the new DALI Museum and, this time of year, enjoy the always great weather in the little city by the bay. So, we decided to pack a few things and head south to our old stomping grounds for a little culture, some great food and warmer temperatures. The three day road trip did not disappoint.

As I started planning our trip to see the father of surrealism, eat some great food and bask in the warmth of the Florida sun, finding a hotel became a challenge. First, this time of year is very busy due to the snowbirds, with money to burn, coming south from Minneapolis, Newark and Buffalo to enjoy spring baseball and great weather. People from that part of the country are a demanding lot and tend to play a significant role in the cultural clash between know it all "Yankees" and people who just don't get in much of a hurry. One guest in the lobby of our hotel could not understand why the parking valet did not automatically take his one bag to his room. Kind of pushy and kind of a pain. As Georgia native Lewis Grizzard, the author of such classics as "Elvis is Dead and I'm Not Feelin' Too Good Myself" said - "We don't mind you eating our food or dating our women, we just don't wanna to know how you do it in Cleveland". Second, while Saint Pete is a beautiful small city, complete with repurposed buildings of many vintages, many green spaces and parks and numerous great restaurants, its selection of hotels leaves a bit to be desired.

My original plan was to stay in the renovated Vinoy, a Mediterranean Revival hotel originally built in 1925 and completely renovated in the 1990's for the princely sum of $93 million. It is now a Marriott property. However, when I went to check for reservations, I was stunned at the price of $369 per night. As a true vagabond and lover of small hotels, I just couldn't bring myself to pay that much for a room at a Marriott. So, I kept looking and found a much more reasonable room at - close your ears - the Downtown Hampton Inn. That's right, this blogger of all things great and small in hotels - this loather of chains - actually stayed in the Hampton Inn on Beach Boulevard in little ole Saint Pete. Before you say shame on me, consider this - the Hampton is Trip Advisor's No. 1  rated hotel in Saint Pete. In addition, it is in a great location with 40-50 restaurants within easy walking distance and, with 92 rooms, it has all the things you expect in a high quality, small hotel. A decent, well outfitted lobby greets guests. Our room boasted a nice subtle interior color scheme, an ample sitting area with a small couch and easy chair, a small in-room bar with sink and fridge, a great bed and a  balcony to enjoy the weather. The staff was excellent and the price was not earth shattering. One exception - chain food is chain food. We just couldn't bring ourselves to chow down on the corporate microwaved munchies at breakfast.

 Nomads Must Have Great Food To Make A Thing Go Right
Not only does Saint Pete have fabulous weather, it also has more quality restaurants per capita than any small city I have ever lived in or visited. Seafood, steaks, fusion, Italian - even tapas - you name it - Saint Pete has something for every taste and pocketbook. For serious foodies, the following places will get you started on the road to culinary delights:

Moscato's Bella Cucina: Very diverse menu and a great wine list. It was packed on a Sunday night! This place is a keeper for Italian food lovers.

Cassis American Brassiere and Bakery: Great breakfast, great bakery and ridiculous gourmet ice cream. The peach will set you free!

Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant: A great way to test your palette with a menu of everything. Excellent choices for munching dozens of different foods from egg plant to stuffed pork. The interior is elegant old school too with excellent tile work and metal sculpture.

Saint Pete Has Always Had Great Weather - Now It Has A World Class Museum

The primary reason for our sojourn to Saint Pete was the newly constructed Salvador Dali Museum. Since our hotel was centrally located, we walked the few blocks to the building which houses the largest collection of works by the famed surrealist outside of his native Spain. The story of how the City of Saint Petersburg came to be the gate keeper of this large collection of Dali paintings is one of the most improbable in the world of fine art.
The story goes that A. Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse, from Cleveland, Ohio, bought their first Dali in 1943 and continued buying works over a forty year period, amassing an impressive collection of over 1,400 works by the father of surrealism, which they displayed in their home. By the late 1970s, realizing that the collection needed a more permanent home, they decided to donate the collection to a museum. The only caveat was that individual works could never be sold and the entire collection had to remain intact. This stipulation caused many museums to take a pass. However, the City of Saint Petersburg saw the possibilities of housing this great collection of world class art and renovated a warehouse to house the collection. How's that for vision? The collection remained there until January, 2011, when it was moved into new digs and is now permanently housed in an amazing building worthy of one of the most visionary artists of the twentieth century. According to the museum's web site, the building is indeed an architectural tribute to the master:
"Designed by architect Yann Weymouth of HOK, the new building combines the rational with the fantastical: a simple rectangle with 18-inch thick hurricane-proof walls out of which erupts a large free-form geodesic glass bubble known as the "enigma". The "enigma", which is made up of 1,062 triangular pieces of glass, stands 75 feet at its tallest point, a twenty-first century homage to the dome that adorns Dali's museum in Spain. Inside, the Dali houses another unique architectural feature - a helical staircase - recalling Dali's obsession with spirals and the double helical shape of the DNA molecule."

The Dali, a cutting edge building housing some of the most thought provoking, masterfully created paintings, sketches and water colors ever created, reminds us of the life enhancing power of great architecture, the mother art, and other great works of art. From the massive Hallucinogenic Toreador, full of personal symbolism, to the religious vision of St. James of Compostela to the many smaller works by this master surrealist technician, you realize why we must have the true creative adventurers lead us to make our own vision brighter and more profound. In addition to the great works of Dali, the museum also featured a small show of works by Andy Warhol, proving that modest talent, great marketing and timing can take you places in the art world.  If Warhol had been a pop song writer instead of a pop artist, he would have been know for having "great hooks", lyrics and music that pull you into a song, but, don't necessarily affect you on any meaningful level. I don't care how many varieties of soup cans Warhol painted, Dali he aint'!! But it was an interesting counterpoint to the genius displayed in the main galleries.
So, if you need a breather from the low temps, unending rain or snow and boredom of late winter, head down I-75 to Tampa Bay and check out the cool little city of Saint Petersburg, the Dali and one of the truly great collections of art in the world. You will be a Blue Nomad No More.
Best Get Busy My Fellow Vagabonds - Time Is Slip, Sliding Away
Me encanta el arte
Travel Quote of The Week - "One certainty when you travel is the moment you arrive in a foreign country, the American dollar will fall like a stone". Erma Bombeck
Video Artist of The Week -  Hot Chicks Playing Hot Strings - BOND. This quartet of classically trained fiddlers brings a new approach to classical music with infusions of rock, jazz and pop. I saw this unique group perform at the famous Mahaffey Theatre in Saint Pete, considered by many to be Florida's most acoustically perfect performance venue. Another good reason to visit the little city by the bay.



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