St. Petersburg, Florida – Saying hello to Dali and Strolling the Sunken Gardens

Genie Davis September 15, 2011 No Comments

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If you can tear yourself away from the beautiful gulf coast beach of St. Petersburg long enough to head into town, you’ll find old-school tourist attractions, a collection of interesting restaurants and cafes, and the Dali Museum, the only major collection of surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s work outside of Spain.

Surprised to see a stellar collection of art such as this outside a major metropolitan center such as New York? We were, too. This collection, comprised mainly of pieces procured by art patrons A Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse, was searching for a permanent home when St. Petersburg resident James W. Martin brought the community together to house Dali’s work, which includes ninety-six oil paintings as well as many water colors, drawings, graphics, photos and art objects in the permanent collection. The collection contains works from the years ranging from 1925 to 1970, and includes impressionist and cubist work as well as some of his most famous surrealist art. While the paintings may be challenging for adult viewers to comprehend, my children took to the work, drawn to its vibrancy, color, and unusual images. The museum building itself is quite striking, looking like a giant blue diamond is inserted into the modern facade. The new museum just opened this year, and it incorporates elements of Dali’s surrealist work into the architecture. Kids love the structure which seems like an artistic amusement park ride from the outside, and has a fascinating ‘floating’ staircase on the inside. You can easily spend hours here, but if the children get restive, the museum is so well laid out that a short visit will suffice to whet adult artistic interest and keep the kids happy.

Dali Museum St. Pete

Dali Museum St. Pete

The Dali museum is only a short walk to the iconic St. Petersburg Pier, due for a modernization face lift soon. Along with some lovely ocean views and a nice sea breeze-infused walk, the pier area also houses a small aquarium. The friendly staff is geared to children, with feeding time participation offered and encouraged. Kids can feed sharks, watch sea horses and jellies, and touch sea stars, sea urchins, and cowries. Gift shops in the pier buildings are tourist-driven and not particularly upscale, but its a fine place to secure tee shirts and post cards.

Heading inland, the brilliant shining new modernism of the Dali museum is quite a contrast to the hundred year old “living museum” of St. Petersburg’s botanical attraction, the Sunken Gardens. Four acres of tropical plants, among the oldest in Florida, waterfalls, exotic flowers, and winding paths make this a great walk for kids of all ages. There are over five hundred species of plants and plenty of shade. The attraction opened in 1903 and there’s a certain kitsch factor to the gardens, with signage looking as if dated from the 1950′s. Why is it sunken? Creator George Turner bought the site when it included a shallow lake ten feet lower than sea level. He drained it, using the fertile soil to cultivate a private garden. He started out selling fruits and veggies from the site, and made it a full fledged tourist attraction fifteen years later. Unfortunately for us, there are no longer any fresh produce sold here, and we were hungry.

We greatly enjoyed strolling through the fragrant tropical plants in the Sunken Gardens.

A great stop for an early dinner – and also the location of my daughter’s music performance that evening – is The Hideaway Cafe. This music cafe and production studio serves exceptional thin crust pizzas, salads, and sandwiches in a relaxing living room ambiance. If you stick around for an evening performance – quiet children allowed – you can hear touring artists and local bands presented in a similar style to the PBS television series Austin City Limits. We had a wonderful vegan vegetable sandwich and a crisp margherita pizza.

The perfect end to a perfect day - shell gathering on the beach.

The Hideaway is located on Central Avenue, an area known as the Grand Central District, with an eclectic collection of small cafes, galleries, and shops that are great for browsing. Taco Bus with its funky outside seating was a great surprise for dining, with fresh, vegetarian friendly Mexican cooking, highlighting dishes you don’t always see on a Mexican menu, from quinoa to butternut squash. Best of all it’s open twenty-four hours and makes a great before-the-beach breakfast stop, or in our case, a perfect stop for a late night snack after my daughter’s gig.  We were always searching for a midnight treat as our west-coast bodies never quite adjusted to the eastern seaboard, and this was a delightful, gourmet-to-go find. Central Avenue stretches all the way to the waterfront Yacht club and makes a very pleasant stroll.

We took our stroll on the beach across the causeway in St. Pete Beach, browsing for seashells along the shore line. Bring a flashlight and it makes a lovely evening walk – stars above, shells below, warm gulf waters to splash our feet in. A day of culture, an evening of music and food with excellent organic ingredients at reasonable prices, and a night listening to the lap of the sea on the shore – St. Petersburg offered a perfect mix of outdoor and indoor delights for the whole family.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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