Far away from the Baltic, there is another St Petersburg – and it’s a darn sight warmer than the original.
What St Petersburg in Florida does share with its Russian namesake is culture, and in no small measure.
It might not have been there as long, but what it lacks in antiquity it is making up for with home-grown heritage and a love for art in as many forms as you can imagine, from almost-cliche clapboard houses and eye-popping graffiti in a thriving and growing arts district, to museums and collections which can rival any in the world.
It has to be said right away that St Petersburg itself is on Tampa Bay, while popular holiday spot St Pete Beach is way over on the Gulf of Mexico and the two are miles apart physically – and worlds apart when it comes to style, despite some good (and very good) eateries near the beach as well as the wonderful pink icing extravaganza of the Loews Don CeSar hotel, which is an up-market masterpiece of kitsch, with great facilities.
While St Pete Beach is more young, brash and bouncing, it’s just one of 26 distinct communities making up the St Petersburg/Clearwater area, which rejoices in a corresponding 26 miles of fabulous white beaches, and among them, there’s pretty well something for everyone, whatever age or preference when it comes to enjoying a holiday.
But staying in downtown St Pete, with a classy waterfront on Tampa Bay rather than the Gulf itself, there really is a feast for the senses. There’s plenty of scope for foodies as well as culture vultures, with cracking restaurants from Cuban fast food outlets like Bodega on Central, in the bustling Edge District, to the Birch and Vine in the Birchwood Hotel on Beach Drive, which also boasts the Canopy Rooftop Lounge, described as one of the area’s hottest hangouts, with superb views over the Bay and Straub Park.
Look the other way along the waterfront from the park and you see what has to be the jewel in the crown of St Pete, which began as my Number One reason to be there – The Dali Museum.
This striking avant-garde building houses an astonishing total of more than 2,000 works from surrealist Salvador Dalí, with 96 oil paintings, more than 100 watercolours and drawings and 1,300 prints, photos, sculptures, objets d’art and an archive of documents. The collection, the largest outside Dalí’s native Spain, was started by wealthy businessman and philanthropist Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor when they married in the 1940s, and they only bought works they were in love with, even after they became firm friends with Dalí and his wife Gala and the artist suggested other items.
They bought some of his very early work as well as later, huge epic paintings, and many other examples from the 1920s and 30s, when many consider Dalí was at his best. The couple insisted that their collection should never be broken up and after struggling to find a permanent home when the taxman pounced, they gave it to the city of St Pete to be housed in a converted marine equipment warehouse, which opened in 1982. What started as a gamble has more than paid off, and now the permanent exhibition in the breathtaking new hurricane-proof building on the waterfront is a superb tribute to the artist and the couple who loved him and his controversial work.
Morse himself died in 2000, aged 85, and his wife died at the age of 97 in 2010, just months before the official opening of the new museum.
Thankfully, their unique collection never has been split, and it continues to be expanded, which would no doubt delight the inspired Morse, who once famously said after buying three early Dalís within a year: “We plunged instead of hedging, and after a while I was becoming known as the nut who was backing a dark horse. Or vice versa.”
His first purchase, ‘Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope!’ cost a (then) pretty steep $1,250 and by the time their collection was pretty well complete in 1979, it was appraised at $35m. It’s now valued at well into the hundreds of millions, and is worth an emotional fortune to art lovers who can get close enough to see every marvellous brush stroke.
Distance is important, too, when you look at the original of his famous double-image masterpiece ‘Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko)’.
If you stand as far back as you can, and know what you’re looking for, you can indeed make out the legendary president, especially with a touch of peripheral vision, but it’s not easy. All becomes clear when you look through a camera viewfinder, with its increased perspective; and a woman who glanced over my shoulder as I lined up a photo yelped in excitement as the penny dropped – and I was quickly surrounded by a crowd who marvelled at Dali’s amazing 121-pixel image on the gallery wall. Magic – and a joy to share it!
Another unexpected joy was a special exhibition featuring more than 130 on-loan works by Dutch graphic artist M C Escher, whose masterful visual illusions were an ideal complement to Dalí, sharing superb draughtsmanship and the gift of both delighting and puzzling visitors.
If you want to stay on the arty side and ‘do’ more culture in St Pete, head for the Chihuly Collection, just a short walk away on Beach Drive, to see unique glass artwork by artist Dale Chihuly in a setting specially designed by architect Albert Alfonso.
And still within walking distance on Beach Drive is the Museum of Fine Arts, which boats important works by Cézanne, Monet, Morisot, Gauguin and Renoir, among other prime attractions, along with regular visiting exhibitions.
Throw in the St Petersburg Museum of History and more galleries and art shops than you can shake a hand-crafted stick at, and you have an amazing choice that you might not expect in a Florida holiday centre.
Then add some splendid food and drink to the equation, with more trendy restaurants and craft breweries opening almost by the week, and you realise that there’s a lot more to St Pete than the beaches in the brochures, beautiful though they are – and I’m already planning the next trip.
David Graham visited St Pete as part of an extended trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida, flying from Manchester to Tampa, via Atlanta, by Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta, and driving to several favourite spots from his base in Sarasota – with more blogs to follow.