Tuesday, March 12, 2013

St. Petersburg and the Ringling Museums

January 28 - February 3, 2013

OK, here we are again, long past St. Petersburg but still remembering it fondly.

I always had an image of St. Petersburg as an old people’s city. Of course my definition of “old people” has changed a bit over the years. But we were surprised to find St. Pete a youthful and vibrant city, with lots going on and a good bit of it right along the waterfront.  It’s a great place for visiting boaters! There are good restaurants, shops, parks, museums, theaters, movies – all within an easy walk of the marina.  In fact, it reminded us of a mini-Chicago, with so much to do along the waterfront, against a backdrop of attractive high-rise condos.  There is even a small airport right on the water, similar to Chicago’s old Meigs Field.

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It’s also a very dog-friendly city. Most of the restaurants have sidewalk seating where dogs are welcome, and a few even offer dog menus! Our first night we ate on board, but then took a walk with the dogs and ended up having a glass of wine an an outdoor cafĂ©.  As usual, the dogs got lots of attention from passersby.

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One morning we had an exceptionally good breakfast at Cassis, one of the sidewalk cafes, and then walked to the Salvador Dali Museum. This museum holds the largest collection of Dali works outside his hometown in Spain. Why St. Petersburg, you might ask? Good question. As far as I was able to learn, Dali never set foot in St. Pete. Apparently a couple from Ohio (of all places!) amassed a huge collection of Dali’s paintings during his lifetime and built a small museum somewhere in Ohio.  Eventually it was moved to St. Petersburg, and then relocated just two years ago to the brand new, very eye-catching building that is its home today.  Anyway, his art is a tad eccentric for our tastes, but it was interesting to see, and the building itself worth the trip.

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After visiting the museum, we went for lunch at The Hangar, a fun and popular restaurant in the terminal of the little Albert Whitted Airport next to the marina. I’ll bet you didn’t know that St. Petersburg was the home of the world’s first regularly scheduled passenger flights in history – in 1914, from St. Pete to Tampa. The old National Airlines was originally home-based out of Albert Whitted. Today it handles only small planes and helicopters, but seems pretty busy.  We enjoyed our window seat at lunch, watching the planes coming and going.

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Another day we visited the St. Petersburg Museum of History, also across the street from the marina. It’s small, but as we have found with the many local museums we have visited on the Loop, it told quite a few interesting stories.


Just inside the entry, there is a huge scale model of the impressive, proposed new St. Pete Pier, which would replace the “upside-down” pyramid that currently marks the entrance to the harbor. We discovered that there is a great deal of controversy about the scheduled demolition of the old pier and the building of the new one. The docent at the history museum didn’t equivocate.  He made it clear he has hated the pyramid since it was built in the early 70’s and it can’t be replaced quickly enough.  Others, of course, have different opinions. Every city has some version of this debate – just fill in the blanks.


The museum also had a nice display honoring the WWII WAVES, which Craig especially appreciated, as his mom served as a WAVE during the war. There was also a model of the plane that made that first regularly scheduled flight. You can see why that venture was never profitable.  The plane wasn’t big enough to carry many passengers or cargo.

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One day we drove to Sarasota with Stephen, Charlotte and their visiting daughter Kate (Jackets II) and spent a full day at the Ringling Museums. It’s almost more than you can take in in just one day.  There are two buildings dedicated to the circus, the ornate Venetian-style home of John and Mable Ringling, and the unbelievable art museum, which houses their private collection and is now the State Art Museum of Florida – all set in 66 acres of landscaped gardens. We had a wonderful time.  Don’t miss it if you are anywhere near Sarasota!

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The circus museums included a huge miniature circus (is that an oxymoron?). The detail was incredible. It gave a good sense of the immense logistical challenge of moving so many people, animals, supplies and equipment from town to town all over America.

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We also enjoyed seeing the Ringlings’ private railroad car.

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The house, Ca d’Zan, was Mable’s dream. It was based on the elaborate designs she saw on their travels in Italy, especially Venice.

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But for us, the art museum was the most impressive.  To think that this was the private collection of two people! There was something represented of many of the great masters dating back to the Renaissance. We learned that although John Ringling was once one of the wealthiest men in America, toward the end of his life he ran low on liquid assets. He was encouraged to sell his vast art collection, but following the death of his beloved Mable, he determined to complete the museum and preserve their collection intact. What a gift to us today that he did so, and that this collection wasn’t scattered to private collectors and museums everywhere.

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Another special treat during our stay in St. Pete was a short visit by Gold Looper friends Tom and Patsy Conrad.  We had lunch with them and made plans to connect again further down the waterway.

Our last day in St. Pete we were able to visit the weekly farmers market, which really has to be seen to be believed. “Farmers market” is probably a bit of a misnomer, although there were a few fruit and vegetable booths. Mostly it was an acre or so of prepared food vendors, representing just about any domestic or international cuisine you can think of. And it was packed! To think that this small city puts this on every Saturday!  We had a great lunch, and brought some produce and interesting cheeses back to the boat.

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On our last night in St. Pete, we went out to dinner with Stephen and Charlotte, as the next morning we would be parting ways for a week or so. We went to a really good Mexican restaurant and then made a return trip to the gelato store.  If you think it sounds like we mostly ate our way through the week in St. Pete, you’d be about right.  So what’s wrong with that?!

We loved our stay here. Our Looper friend Cathryn on Next To Me says she thinks she could live in St. Pete. I think we might agree!

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Next, beginning the “Glendale Tour” segment: visiting friends in Longboat Key and Venice.

(Real time update: As of March 12, we are in Ft. Lauderdale.)

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