Getaway: St. Petersburg, Florida
Enjoy gorgeous beaches, island wildlife preserves, art, history, culture and attractions with an international flair
If you’re traveling to St. Petersburg, Florida, or St. Pete as it’s often called, you might want to start with Fort De Soto Park at the southern tip of the Pinellas County peninsula. The massive park, made up of five interconnected islands, offers a scenic, tranquil setting where sightings of pelicans, egrets, sea turtles and dolphins are part of everyday life. You’ll find an award-winning beach, a campground with 151 RV sites and partial hookups, fishing piers, bike and kayak rentals, and numerous nature and fitness trails. History buffs can explore remnants of fort buildings and artillery holds built during the Spanish-American War to help defend Tampa Bay against an invasion.
From Fort De Soto, if you’re up for an excursion to a deserted island you can catch a ferry to nearby Egmont Key. The island, accessible only by boat, features a working lighthouse built in 1858. You’ll also find fort ruins built during the early 1900s. No one lives on the island today, which is a National Wildlife Refuge.
Captain Jeff Stewart has piloted the ferry for 12 years and still enjoys taking people to see Egmont Key for the first time. On the short ride from Fort De Soto he shares historical trivia, interesting facts about the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and lists the protected wildlife visitors can expect to see, such as some of the more than 2,000 tortoises that roam the island.
“People love to see the turtles,” he says with a smile. “They’re not used to seeing those.”
But the most amazing sights are reserved for those who snorkel and explore some of the old fort ruins that, due to erosion, have long since slipped beneath the clear Gulf waters.
“We find sharks, we find manatees, we find big fish, little fish,” Stewart explains. “We find sea turtles. One year there was a big sea turtle living in the fort,” he said, stretching out his arms. “We find rays like crazy, sting rays, manta rays, spotted eagle rays, cownose rays and there are a lot of little bat rays that swim here.”
On the return trip to Fort De Soto, if there’s time, Stewart may offer to search for dolphins. On one recent trip, Lani Grano, who served as Stewart’s first mate, pointed to a mother and baby dolphin jumping up out of the water, then back down, over and over again.
“The babies stay right with the mom. They’re going to mimic her,” says Grano. “The mom and the babies are tight. If it’s a boy dolphin, he’s going to leave the mom around, oh about six years. But the girls are going to stay with mom and her pod pretty much through their whole lives. They’re a lot like us. A daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life, a son’s a son until he takes a wife, right?” she said, shrugging her shoulders and laughing.
After leaving Fort De Soto, as you head north up the coast, you’ll pass a number of well-known beaches like St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach. Each boasts its own characteristics, but all have “sand like sugar and aqua waters,” something that makes beaches here so attractive. They are warm and welcoming places to spend the day.
When you’re ready for a break from the water, downtown St. Petersburg is home to several top-notch museums. For art lovers, there’s the famous Dali Museum. The museum houses the largest collection of the surrealist artist’s work outside his native Spain and attracts many European visitors, like Allen Hansen from Denmark. “It was very interesting to see his early work and when he shifted to be more surreal,” Hansen says referring to Dali. “This is very good museum experience.”
The Florida Holocaust Museum, one of the largest such museums in the United States, honors the millions killed in Nazi Germany during World War II. Their stories are told through photographs, interpretive panels, documents, film clips, artifacts and an old boxcar from Nazi-occupied Poland. Many of the artifacts here were donated by local survivors, making the stories all the more personal.
In addition to permanent exhibits, the museum brings in other, often high-profile collections from around the country every three months.
One recent exhibit (Fabric of Survival: The Art of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz), featured the story of Esther Krinitz, a Polish girl who was 12 when the Nazis came to her small town. She escaped with her sister, but never saw her family again. Many years later, Krinitz used pieces of fabric to create detailed and vivid fabric tapestries to tell her harrowing and very moving story, and depict the people and events throughout her life.
While the museum honors those whose lives were lost in the Holocaust, it goes beyond simply marking a dark and horrible time in history. It does that through programs, tours and school education. Tour manager Sandy Mermelstein says they try to focus on teaching and encourage not just tolerance, but acceptance.
“I think the importance of it all is that we need to embrace our differences and all human beings have value. Every single life has value.”
The museum has even worked to use the lessons of the Holocaust to teach modern-day lessons to children about the dangers of bullying.
During your trip to this part of Florida, be sure to visit Tarpon Springs. This established Greek community dates back to the early 1900s when divers came from Greece to work in the sponge industry. As you walk along the waterfront, you’ll often hear those who live and work here speaking Greek. A small museum shows a short film about natural sponges and how they’re gathered, processed and used. The sponge industry has had ebbs and flows over the years, but many, like Frank Notte, still make a living at it. He admits, it’s not an easy life.
“You spend at least 20 days a month out at sea, if you want to be productive,” he says, offering a rundown of what the job entails. “You dive with a bag and a knife. You wear a wet suit, some sort of boot, a construction boot so you get some traction. You walk the bottom, you’re looking for specific species actually, out of several thousand. You really have to know what you’re looking for.”
The sponges grow on hard, rocky surfaces and have to be cut away with a knife. Divers cut them one by one, adding them to a sack they carry with them.
When he’s not at sea, Notte takes tourists out on a boat for an exhibition dive, wearing the heavy, weighted gear used by sponge divers in the old days.
“It’s actually one of the longest-running attractions in the state of Florida,” he says referring to the exhibition dive. “It’s been going since 1924.”
During the trip, he shares some of the history, shows how the diving is done, and even brings a live sponge back to the boat to show what they really look like before they’re processed.
After learning about the sponge industry, a good meal at a nearby authentic Greek restaurant might sound appealing. Local fare includes Greek favorites like souvlaki, moussaka or fresh seafood like fried calamari, broiled octopus, or grilled fish caught in the reefs offshore. Greek bakeries offer a variety of pastries for dessert. To round out the Greek experience, there is the historical St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The church, built with authentic Greek marble, was patterned after the St. Sophia Cathedral (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). There are nearly two dozen elaborate stained-glass windows and numerous icons cover the walls inside, including one, the icon of St. Nicholas, that is said to shed real tears. A woman cleaning the church in 1970 was the first to notice the drops of moisture. Since then, thousands have visited the church to view the weeping icon.
While the beaches are definitely one of St. Petersburg’s shining attractions, there’s a lot more to the city and surrounding Pinellas County to keep visitors interested and entertained. There’s definitely something for everybody.
St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau