St Petersburg, Florida December 31, 2009 – February 28, 2010
After bringing our bikes by shuttle to Tampa, we biked around Tampa only a little, while we set to work finding a more permanent residence in the area than our hotel. We found rental houses on Craigslist for under $1000 per month and chose nine to visit. Several were acceptable, but we settled for a small four room separate house in the suburbs north of the town of St Petersburg.
It’s easy to find nice things to say about St Petersburg, and I plan to do so in just a bit. But first, I must tell you that our one problem with St Petersburg, and much of Florida during our two month stay, was the weather. It was uncomfortably cold too much of the time, as low as 32F a few days after we arrived. I usually wore both a cashmere sweater and an Alaska down parka at the same time—especially needing it when we were riding the bikes in 35-45 degree weather. The publicity about Florida’s temperature was often downright deceptive. They just don’t want you to know how cold it was. When given evidence of the cold, all residents would shrug it off as an outlier, assuring us that it would get warm, too warm soon. It never did, not for the two months. As we left Florida, I to Miami, and Bob to Hawaii (to officially retire,) the pilot said on the Miami landing that the temperature was 70 degrees. A lie! Not even close. All of this nonsense goes on because tourism is such a big part of Florida’s economy, but to attempt to keep the temperature a secret is just not right. So, although the rest of what I (Marilyn) have to say is favorable, you won’t get me going back soon.
I’ll talk about our house, the neighborhood, the museums, the restaurants, the Wine Cellar, and my favorite, number one place in St Petersburg, Crescent Park.
Our house was small but comfortable with four rooms and a DOUBLE bed. Can you imagine? I couldn’t, but we made do. And guess what? We’ve got a double bed in Buenos Aires too. (After Buenos Aires we’re on to a six week cruise where we WILL have more than a double bed.) Our St Petersburg house had a large yard with pretty landscaping including lots of fruit trees. These trees were the highlight of the rental. Three of them were oranges, one grapefruit, and two lemons. One other tangerine tree had finished fruiting so we never tasted them. Bob would jog most mornings, and I so enjoyed watching him come in with fresh picked fruit. We had a juicer, so Bob would make fresh juice most mornings—orange for him and grapefruit for me. Can you imagine how wonderful it is to freshly pick, then juice, then drinking the fruit? A delight!
The area we lived in was very quiet with pleasant neighbors. As we were starting on a ride, one of the neighbors invited us into his home to see his stained glass windows. He had been taking pictures of large black birds with his telephoto lens and Bob asked him what they were because he had seen them here and in Central America. They were turkey vultures. They could always be seen overhead circling at more than 200 feet up. In the mornings, Bob frequently saw them while jogging in a flock of several dozen as they left their roost and sorted out the territories for the day. It turned out that another neighbor went to the same school (Punahou) as our children. We had an easy chat, and later had dinner with them.
Our landlords were just delightful people. They felt so badly about us biking in the cold weather that they often lent one of their cars to us–a Lexus no less! We used a car to visit distant restaurants at night and to go to the movies because we don’t like to ride the bikes after dark. After nearly two weeks with the cold weather I had it and we rented a car for a long weekend, and then every other weekend of our stay.
Our landlords are good people. We found out that they help people who need it, giving scholarships to children to get them on a successful path, and even invite children to spend the summer with them. They organized a party on our behalf soon after we visited, giving us the opportunity to meet a few dozen of their friends. One couple, the wife actually, is from Buenos Aires and gave us useful advice on our move to Argentina. Based on that discussion, we chose to live in Palermo in Buenos Aires. More on Palermo in the Buenos Aires section. (It was WARM the whole time in Buenos Aires. It rained a few days, but it was warm.)
Usually we biked every day beginning at 1030am and getting back around 5pm. The rides ranged from 12 to 30 miles.
St Petersburg has an extensive bike trail system along its streets and in special parks. One trip we often took was the 7 mile ride into town along the water.
Here, we saw a Manatee once, pelicans in great numbers every day, eagles and turkey vultures circling in the sky, ospreys catching and carrying fish, cormorants fishing, gulls working along the beaches, sailboats and kayaks and fishing boats galore, and many friendly interesting people.
Many people bike in St Petersburg, but we were surprised how many used no helmet. I also saw many people using wheelchair vehicles powered by their arms. I believe some of the people I saw had no disability but used this vehicle for additional exercise. One complete circular trail includes the beach trail we rode but adds other trails which cross into a very high-priced area called Snell Isle. As a matter of fact, our landlords lived here. Another trail took us north toward the causeways leading to Tampa past a greyhound racing track and then into a large wildlife preserve along Tampa Bay which also houses a power plant. We happened upon this route on the day a planned burn occurred next to the preserve. We watched the fire trucks as they modified the fire’s path so nearby homes would not be damaged.
We found that a lot of drivers honk at bicyclists. Although Bob thought they were just being polite to warn us that they were passing, I know that many of them just didn’t like bicyclists on their roads because they said so to me as they passed!
St Petersburg is having many problems with the recession. The unemployment rate in the area is the highest in the US, around 12%. Home foreclosures and short sales are everywhere, and housing prices are one third of their former prices in many areas. Many stores and restaurants were closed. The tourist business is well off its peak and the cold weather wasn’t helping. There is a lot of old money around, but many of the young people are really hurting. The region is building a new education industry with University of South Florida. But we still saw many people begging along the road and looking for places to sleep in the parks.
We were amazed at how much of the business caters to well off older tourists. Every block had a veterinarian and a pet store catering to visiting animals. I have never seen so many fortune telling shops and massage therapy shops, usually one on every other block. And the specialist doctors catering to gerontological problems were everywhere with large billboards—joint specialists, plastic surgeons, diabetes clinics, and many more. St Petersburg is very animal friendly. Nearly everyone has a dog. We encountered people walking their dogs on almost every block all day long during our rides. Many are special pedigreed dogs of astonishing variety. It would appear that many of the snowbirds, the winter visitors, bring their dogs, and that the local businesses accommodate their needs. I even saw a few animal rehabilitation clinic.
Although we planned on visiting a bunch of museums, we wound up visiting only three—the Florida Holocaust Museum, St. Peterburg’s History Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts. On a bike ride early into the St Petersburg visit we happened on the Holocaust Museum. Any of you who have visited such a museum understand that it’s a tough couple of hours, but one that we’re obliged to experience. The horrendous pictures of death, pictures of those responsible for the catastrophe smiling at their trial, and standing in the same room with one of the death cars makes for a sober time. I read that there also is a holocaust museum on our upcoming cruise.
I learned that St Petersburg developed as a railroad town started by a gent from Russia. By a coin flip with his partner, he got to name it and he chose to name it after a town in Russia he liked. This might explain why we found so many people from Russia here, although I bet they came in the most recent migration after the fall of the Soviet Union. There is also a heavy Greek influence with many of the restaurants serving Greek food and being owned and operated by Greeks. This probably comes from the influence of the fishermen who came here. We found many stores and restaurants run by people from the Balkans. Latinos and Cubans have a strong representation here too. Our first meal was in a Cuban restaurant which closed two days later. This was a shame for us because we really liked the food.
St. Petersburg’s History Museum looks at the development of St Petersburg, giving special attention to the role Florida, and the south, initially played in discriminating against blacks. The museum initially lets you know about the discrimination, but then quickly talks about coming around to the demand for an integrated society. (I sense that the segregationist time is an embarrassment with the exhibit trying to turn the corner on the behavior.) One of their exhibits includes original Florida Highwaymen paintings, 26 black artists who drew the Florida landscape on inexpensive Upson boards from their garages and back yards from 1950s – 1980s, selling the pictures for $25. These paintings are now worth $5,000 or more. In 2004 the original 26 artists were inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. Early in the history of St Petersburg, a trip to Tampa took several days to cover the 100 miles back up the peninsula and around to Tampa. There were no causeways across the bay. It was a big deal in the period just before WWI when a barnstorming pilot built a seaplane and took the first passenger directly to Tampa. In this case it was the mayor himself who was a great advocate of flying. Since then, St Petersburg has been close to the airline industry and the museum has a section on that history. We admired a replica of the first St Petersburg-Tampa airboat which flew from St Petersburg to Tampa in 1914. Our timing was perfect as we happened on one of the builders of the replica, spending nearly an hour talking with him about the import of and development of the plane. The plane had been lowered to the floor and we could see and touch features of the plane as he talked about it. We learned later that this was a hugely unusual opportunity and most residents have never seen the plane anywhere other than high up near the 30 foot high ceiling.
The museum also highlighted the association of the town with boating, showing photos from the St Petersburg Yacht Club over the past 100 years. A fun afternoon! The last museum we visited was the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s a local museum, which also exhibited some of Fernando Botero’s work. Botero, a Latin American painter, sculptor and draftsman, created outsized figures. Rather odd, actually. I was curious on his sizing of people, working at finding what turned out to be a current picture of the downright slim painter. Regardless, in a recent museum visit in Palermo I quickly spotted some of his works.
We also planned to visit baseball spring training, but found that our information that training began 2 Feb was off by three weeks. We never got a chance to see the players.
Eating out is my favorite form of entertainment! (I’m very careful of the amount that I eat, but I/we do eat well.) We’re ready to spend money on good food either at a restaurant or in our home. Let me clarify that eating well doesn’t equate, in my book, with spending a bunch of money on “fine dining” although now and then it’s ok to splurge for the setting. We found several places to eat in St Petersburg where we enjoyed it enough to want to go back at least a second time. The only restaurant that was a disappointment was Yummy Mammas, a Russian restaurant that just didn’t work. As part of the restaurant Yummy Mammas had a grocery store which sold items. We ordered two appetizers. The waiter went into the grocery store, took out a few frozen items from the frozen section of the grocery department. These items were not homemade by the restaurant. They steamed then served the frozen pastries. We also ordered lamb shanks. We got a shish-ka-bob that was very tough. We never went back. Our favorite place to eat breakfast, and sometimes even dinner was Tick Tock. More than descent service, and good tasting. Tick Tock is a nice diner. The prices are right. The portions are huge.
Special places to eat included Ceviche, a super tapas place. Ceviche also has a nice Sunday brunch. Sunday brunches (and in some cases both Saturday and Sunday) are readily available. We also enjoyed both evening meals and brunches at Red Mesa (yummy upscale-type Mexican food and great hot chocolate at the brunch—only at the brunch), L’ Moe’s (eclectic), Pepin (Spanish) and Bowled (a fusion-style restaurant). L’Moe’s promotes their orange cake (remember Florida oranges?), while we especially enjoyed Pepin’s whole pompano baked in salt. Bowled offers a varied brunch menu, but their coffee is no good. (I tried it three times!) Order tea. If you’re into Italian food, try Gigi’s. Bob enjoyed their antipasto, while I favored angel hair pasta with red clam sauce. Truly yummy! We also ate twice at The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant , part of a chain. This particular restaurant is known for its wine list, but the fondues were excellent, especially the dessert chocolate fondues. We were advised to try a Chinese restaurant nearby in a strip mall, ABC Seafood. We ranked this among the best Chinese restaurants we’ve found anywhere. They serve fish from live fish tanks. It is usually filled with local Asian families and the few non-Asians who have learned the secret. In visiting downtown St Petersburg you probably also want to visit The Pier, a pleasant enough touristy area that includes a few restaurants and a few fast food places. The best, we thought, was The Columbia restaurant which serves decent Spanish tapas. A favorite drink item on most of the restaurants throughout St Petersburg is sangria. We’ve had various styles (made with red wine, white wine, sparkling white wine and kava) finding them quite nice actually. Kava sangria is my favorite. (See Pan era Bread in the crescent park section.) Finally, we found a synagogue in Gulfport, 15 miles to the south of our house, which welcomed us. Nearby was a Gulfport staple seafood restaurant which we visited several Fridays. The owner was very friendly, the food very good, and the experience memorable. Be sure to go early to accommodate the wait for the early bird special customers to finish, seating you in time to still attend services.
Soon after moving to St Petersburg we happened on the Wine Warehouse, a wine store within walking distance to our house. We bought Malbec, wanting to taste a wine generally grown in Argentina. The owners invited us to their twice weekly wine tastings on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. For a $3 donation you got to taste 5 different wines, but after a few visits we realized that people came to more than taste. Getting together at the Wine Warehouse was a social event, like going to the movies. People would buy a bottle of wine to share among those at the tasting who also bought a bottle to share. Soon after our arrival we began to regularly attend Saturday afternoon tastings and Friday night services. Temple Beth-El, a reform synagogue on Pasadena avenue was just right for us. Temple Beth-El’s congregation was friendly, seemingly active and offered nice onegs! The combination of at least these two activities make it clear to us that we could easily develop a ready social network were we interested in staying longer.
I love animals. When we left Hawaii we ensured that seven of our eight cats were properly taken care of (Friends for Life), with the eight cat holding forth in our son and daughter-in-law’s. For that I am eternally grateful. I miss the cats and I have a hard time making sense of my day without access to animals. We stopped by Panera Bread, an upscale fast food type place that served sandwiches, salads and soups. We visited this place at least a dozen times. The second time Bob noticed a nearby park, suggesting we visit. Crescent Park was my refuge in cold weather. Here was my refuge in nice weather, and most importantly here was my refuge for lack of cats. The birds that frequented the park included ibis’, two kinds of gulls, great, small and snowy egrets, great and small blue herons, cormorants, osprey, bald eagles, black vultures, pelicans, storks, moorhens, crows and anhinga (which swim with their body under water and only their neck above water.)
And, my special friends, the squirrels! The animals and the people who visit have such a wonderful relationship based on respect and trust. The birds and squirrels walk ever so close to you to be fed. The parks natural inhabitants seem only to fear dogs that walk with their owners. Crescent Park is a natural tranquilizer. A perfect place to meditate!