Surprising St. Petersburg is alive with arts and sun

By Joseph Cuniffe

St. Petersburg, FL, is one of the sunniest places in the country.  They say that the sun shines 361 days a year!  But in this, my first visit, it proved to be one of the most walkable towns I’ve ever experienced—so many of the attractions are just a few blocks apart.  And, if you don’t feel like walking, there’s a little trolley called “the Looper” that takes you all around.  The cost for a senior?  Just 25 cents!

Quite comfy, St. Petersburg is a city of about 250,000, the 5th largest in Florida.  One of the founders was a man from Russia, hence the name.  Located right by Tampa Bay are the top theaters, concert halls, art museums and restaurants.

One of the most famous destinations of St. Petersburg is the Dali Museum, which people had been remarking to me about for years.  But I long had a limited enthusiasm about this artist.  I remember Salvador Dali when he was alive.  I had read about his flamboyant publicity stunts, and I was of course aware of his famous melting clocks and so forth.  But, I must say that the Dali Museum completely changed my attitude and opened my mind about this artist.  He was amazing, and could do everything from the most photographic realism to colorful impressionism, to astonishing fantasies.  One painting by Dali can have so many things to look at and wonder about.  The fantastic Salvador Dali Museum, housing the largest collection of his works outside of Europe, opened on the waterfront in 2011 at 1 Dali Boulevard.  Call 727-823-3767.

Right next door is the Mahaffey Theater, a fine, modern, 2,000-seat concert hall with European box-style seating.  There, I saw the Florida Orchestra and their charming new British conductor Michael Francis perform an all-French program.  One evening, I walked two blocks from my little hotel to the Palladium at St. Petersburg College, built in 1925 in the Romanesque Revival style and patterned on a 15th century building in Florence by Brunelleschi.  I enjoyed a rollicking performance by the St. Petersburg Opera Company of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.”  Mark Sforzini vigorously and expertly conducted a 30-person orchestra and a wonderful cast of Gabriel Preisser (Figaro), Blake Friedman (Count Almaviva), Megan Marino (Rosina), Tony Dillon (Dr. Bartolo), Todd Donovan (Basilio), and Alison Buchanan (Berta).  The St Petersburg Opera Company can be reached at 727-823-2040.

Another highlight of my trip was another nearby spot on the waterfront, which I strolled to:  The St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.  I loved their appealing collection, which includes a Corot, a Renoir, three Monets, some Georgia O’Keeffe, some Old Masters, strong photography and more.  One of my favorite paintings was by an artist with whom I was unfamiliar:  Richard Hall, who was born in Finland and became a naturalized French citizen.  His strikingly naturalistic “Gathering at a Church Entrance” winningly shows different people exiting a Paris church.  They also have a refreshing sculpture garden, under a huge tree that is filled with bird song.  Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the museum is hosting “Monet to Matisse:  On the French Coast,” a small but rewarding show, which includes some disarming work by Dufy and the on-loan “The Custom House at Varengeville” by Monet from the Art Institute of Chicago.  (That one was like visiting an old friend).  “Monet to Matisse: On the French Coast” runs through May 31 at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Art, 255 Beach Drive NE; call 727-896-2667.

Another evening, I walked three blocks to the American Stage, often called one of the area’s best professional theaters.  I saw August Wilson’s Radio Golf, directed by Mark Clayton Southers with a marvelous set by Steve Mitchell.  I very much liked the professional cast (Alan Bomar Jones, Kim Sullivan, Chrystal Bates, Anthony Chisholm, and the actor known as “ranney,” with a lower-case “r.”)  The play has much to recommend it, but at 90 minutes, the first act was too long and needs a trim.  The American Stage can be reached at 727-823-7529.

I stayed at America’s Best Inn in downtown St. Pete, a 22-room hotel that would remind you of a European-style bed-and-breakfast.  Complete with a free continental breakfast, and a nice happy hour each evening at 5:00 with beer, wine and peanuts, plus free parking, the friendly hotel is run by a young couple, Brian and Stephanie, with Bill, a helpful former Navy man, at night.  Highly rated by Tripadvisor.com, America’s Best Inn is at 342 3rd Avenue North.  Call 727-894-3248.

Lively but never frenetic, sunny and filled with strolling, relaxed people of all ages, St. Petersburg was well-described by my trolley guide, Terrence, as “a place that makes all people feel younger.”—and invigorated.  For more on St. Pete, call 727-464-7200.

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