Travel

Florida Glamour at the Vinoy, St. Petersburg’s Grande Dame

by Robert Israel
Contributor
Sunday Nov 27, 2011
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The morning sun sparkled on the water while the leafy palmettos lining St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive rustled in the warm breeze off Tampa Bay. The azure sky erased all memories of the October nor’easter that wreaked havoc from the Mid-Atlantic States to New England; soon, pesky memories of power outages and all-too-early snowfall melted in the bright Florida sunshine.

As I strolled along the waterfront on this mid-November morning, joggers and bikers streamed past. There were walkers straining to hold onto leashes attached to yip-yap dogs, while others, their exercise routines completed, headed to nearby Barwood Park or to the al fresco restaurants along the drive.

St. Pete is enjoying a reawakening. There are new high rise condominiums, art galleries and museums, renovated performance halls, theatre troupes competing for audiences, new (and funky) stores and restaurants along Central Avenue, a visible gay community, and outdoor festivals galore.

There’s a lot more work to be done. Uptown from Beach Drive are pockets of despair, buildings visibly neglected, and vacant storefronts aplenty.


But St. Pete’s has made progress to bounce back from an economic malaise. There is an abundance of city pride and a sense among residents and investors to further transform the city into an even greater mecca for the arts.

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club can be credited with spearheading much of St. Pete’s urban renewal.

The hotel was built in 1925 for migrating snowbirds and the well-heeled, including vacationing Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, baseball great Babe Ruth, and many other luminaries.

During its heyday, guests danced by moonlight in the grand ballroom, played canasta at card tables in the mezzanine, and rolled up their knickerbockers before teeing off at its golf course abutting Tampa Bay.

But like so many grand hotels from that era, the Vinoy fell into decline. It housed troops during World War II, became a home for vagrants in the 1960s, and was finally shuttered in 1974. Before a chain-link fence barred visitors from entering the property and grounds, many of its original furnishings were sold at auction.


Renaissance Vinoy Hotel

Fast forward 18 years later: the Marriott folks purchased the property, and since then have pumped $93 million into its restoration. Today the property shines, the original tile floor has been polished and repaired, the ballrooms re-opened, and the gardens adjacent to the property are verdant and picturesque.

"We’re not through with renovations and improvements," said Russell C. Bond, Vinoy’s general manager. "Next year we’re building a smaller pool for youngsters and a new restaurant."

The following year, he said, there are plans to expand the spa, which offers outstanding health treatments but is now hampered by a cramped lime-greenish facility down the corridor from a gleaming and well-equipped health club.

The hotel also has numerous restaurants: Marchand’s Bar and Grill which serves tasty American fare (brunch is served daily, but the Sunday menu, with multiple serving stations, is astonishing); Fred’s Steakhouse, reserved for Vinoy Club members; Alfresco’s for pool-site luncheons; and the Clubhouse, where one dines overlooking the fairway.

The rooms are spacious, tastefully modernized, and the windows look out onto the vast expanse of Tampa Bay and the towers of downtown. Location is what matters most here: amble out the front door of the hotel down the steps past the veranda and gardens, and minutes later you are walking down a street that leads to several outstanding museums, restaurants, and shops.


Morean Arts Center and Dali Museum

Dale Chihuly, a native of Seattle, Washington, is an artistic citizen of the world. His original glass works, found in museums around the world, are explosions of color and light. They mimic shapes found in the natural world: multi-colored stalagmites, explosions of crystals, swirling petals, fronds, fins and seaweed elongations that seem to have been yanked from the forest or ocean floors.

The Vinoy commissioned him to produce a chandelier that is the centerpiece of the grand ballroom where it towers above the floor in a milky reverie.

There is more Chihuly artwork on exhibit at the Morean Arts Center (moreanartscenter.org), where you can wander through galleries that have been privately acquired and are now housed permanently in St. Petersburg.

A few minutes walk from the Morean is the St. Petersburg Museum of Art. Continuing along the harbor is the Dali Museum (thedali.org), a new facility devoted to the work of the late Spanish surrealist painter and sculptor Salvador Dali. Like the Chihuly collection, almost all the pieces in the museum were once privately owned and later donated.

The Dali building is a work of art in and of itself, and it abuts a performance center, Tampa Bay, and a small commercial airport, just minutes from the center of town.

Wandering the Dali’s galleries, I was taken by the smaller canvases he painted which impressed me more than the larger ones that occupy their own corners of the museum. These smaller, intense, accessible canvasses - a painting of a basket of bread, for example, or one that erotically depicts two boys naked on a beach (one lying with his legs splayed apart, the other standing, faceless, staring at the cloudy sky), are remarkable for their restraint and classical rendering of the human anatomy. Another painting shows a rural town square at noon, with a sundial marking time in the painting’s center. All these paintings reveal Dali to be a master of nuance, and an artist who used color to communicate the many moods of the human condition.

A short walk uptown, past the funky shops of Central Ave., is the Morean’s Glass Studio and Hot Shop. For a modest entrance fee, one can watch glass being blown live and in living color. The retail store is adjacent to where the furnaces roar their hell fires and the artists, wired for sound, explain the step-by-step process of creating original works of glass art. There is also a center for clay located at St. Pete’s historic former railroad freight depot, which I was unable to visit.


Gay St. Pete

According to Gay St. Pete, www.gaystpete.com, the city has been named one of "50 Fabulous Gay Places to Live." The authors of the website boast that it is an accessible city that does not define any of its neighborhoods as "gay ghettos," but rather, is a city that encourages diversity, acceptance and an "expanding culture."

Events for the gay community include scheduled gallery walks, square dancing, pride bowling, political discussions at Stonewall Democrats, and other social groups. There are a number of gay bars. A popular night spot, where the hamburgers are legendary, is Georgie’s Alibi (www.georgiesalibi.com), a short cab-ride away from the center of town. Georgie’s also has locations in Ft. Lauderdale and in Palm Springs, California.


Where to dine

I wandered into the open and inviting Ale and the Witch (http://www.thealeandthewitch.com/), a pub that serves too many micro-beers to count, and I imbibed a Florida-brewed pilsner made from orange blossoms and honey that finishes with just a hint of sweetness and glows in the glass like a Florida sunset. I also dined at Parkshore Grill (http://www.parkshoregrill.com/) that served oysters on the half-shell and very tasty wines from their ample wine cellar.

The Dali Museum has a cafĂ© attached to it that is worth exploring, and they invite visitors to sit in their courtyard for lunch and espresso. And along Central Ave., heading north from the Beach Drive, there are at least a dozen thriving restaurants and taverns serving patrons curbside, where you will find everything from Thai, Mexican, American, and other variations, all at very affordable prices. It’s an outdoor culture, and folks spill into the streets; many places also feature live entertainment nightly.


Poolside visions

While St. Petersburg is not close to a beach (Clearwater is a half hour’s drive away), the Vinoy compensates by inviting you to relax by a pool, complete with waterfalls and spirited children who jump off the shallow end and purposefully land close to where you are bathing.

It’s all in good fun: the youngsters compete for attention with the glow of the setting sun seen against the nearby pink stucco buildings.

At the close of the last day of my visit, I soaked in the Vinoy’s outdoor hot tub. I had just emerged from the spa where I enjoyed a vigorous rub down that made me feel as if I were turning into pulp. Steam and bubbles swirled around me. I envisioned the works of Salvador Dali and Dale Chihuly, artists who encourage viewers to lose themselves in color and whimsy.

But you really don’t get lost: every image these artists created conspires to sharpen your senses and imagination. You emerge more keenly aware, cajoled by the warm winds from Tampa Bay and the tall palmettos that grace St. Petersburg’s streets.

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Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

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