Out of Town: St. Petersburg's Renaissance

by Andrew Collins

Although Florida's fourth-largest city has seen a minimal increase in population over the past 30 years, this sunny metropolis on a peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico has changed a great deal demographically. Once unflatteringly dubbed "God's Waiting Room" for its predominant retirement-age population, the city and surrounding beach towns have become dramatically more youthful and vibrant of late, and this extends to the region's gay community, which has grown significantly. St. Petersburg now hosts the state's largest gay pride march (in late June), and the region is home to dozens of LGBT-owned businesses.

Greater St. Petersburg is made up of numerous distinct neighborhoods and municipalities, from downtown - which fringes Tampa Bay - to the many beach towns that extend south to north some 50 miles from Fort De Soto State Park (which regularly notches awards for having one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches in the country) to Clearwater, Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. Much of the region's emerging gay scene is focused on downtown, a historic mid-city neighborhood called Kenwood, and the small town of Gulfport, which lies just across lovely Boca Ciega Bay from St. Pete Beach and the Gulf of Mexico. All of these areas have been integral in St. Petersburg's steady renaissance, increased hipster appeal and continued popularity with LGBT visitors.

Downtown St. Petersburg is home to several noteworthy hotels as well as a bumper crop of trendy restaurants and boutiques, many of these located in the upscale, open-air BayWalk shopping center. What's particularly special about downtown is the wealth of internationally renowned arts and cultural attractions. The one receiving the most attention right now is the iconic Salvador Dali Museum, which has been a fixture in St. Petersburg since the early 1980s but is slated to reopen in a dramatic new waterfront space on the south edge of downtown in January 2011 - right beside the impressive Mahaffey Theater performing arts complex.

Another must is the acclaimed Museum of Fine Arts, which has a sterling permanent collection and also mounts important traveling shows. Steps away is the striking Chihuly Collection, opened in summer 2010 and containing works by seminal glass artist Dale Chihuly. Both attractions are along leafy Beach and Bay Shore drives, which straddle a lush park and overlook Tampa Bay. From here it's a short stroll along 2nd Avenue out to St. Petersburg Pier, which is presently anchored by a kitschy-looking inverted-pyramid with touristy shops and an aquarium (it's currently slated to be razed and replaced with a new building in a few years).

Head just a couple of miles west of downtown to reach the Grand Central District, the commercial center of historic Kenwood and home to the highest concentration of gay-owned businesses in the city, not to mention dozens of impressively restored Craftsman bungalows. About four miles southwest, funky and historic Gulfport is notable for its offbeat cafes and galleries, and for hosting a popular Art Walk the first Friday and third Saturday of each month.

Continue west across the Highway 682 causeway to reach the string of barrier islands that hold the region's beach communities - turn left (south) to reach pristine Fort De Soto State Park and the charming town of Pass-A-Grille, or turn right (north) to visit tony St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach. In Treasure Island, you'll find the most gay-identified of the region's beaches, the so-called "Bedrocks Beach." It's a little tricky to find - when you cross the bridge from St. Pete Beach onto Treasure Island, turn left at the 7-Eleven onto West Gulf Boulevard and follow it south for a mile to the parking area just north of the Mansions by the Sea condo tower. Follow the boardwalk over the short span of dunes, and you'll typically find plenty of gays and lesbians tanning their hides along the beautiful beachfront.

Head a bit north up the coast and you'll come to the resort city of Clearwater, which has a lively, somewhat up-market beachfront separated from downtown by a picturesque harbor. And still a bit farther north is the funky little town of Dunedin, which has a charming, gay-friendly cluster of shops, boutiques and restaurants along its historic downtown Main Street.

St. Petersburg has seen an influx of notable restaurants in recent years. One of the city's classics is Marchand's Bar & Grill http://www.marchandsbarandgrill.com, a refined venue inside the historic Renaissance Vinoy Resort - for a special occasion, this is one of the top spots in town, whether for dinner or Sunday brunch. Overlooking the marina at the foot of the pier, Fresco's Waterfront Bistro http://site.chefjasonesposito.com pulls in a festive happy-hour crowd, serves mouthwatering haddock po'boys, and provides lovely views of the waterfront.

A relative newcomer, Cassis http://www.cassisab.com serves reliably good French bistro fare in an urbane setting - choose a table on the sidewalk when the weather is nice. A few blocks north, Hooker Tea Company http://hookertea.com is a cheery option for gelato, pastries and toothsome breakfast fare. Drop by slick and arty Kahwa Coffee http://www.kahwacoffee.com for first-rate espresso and drip coffee. Bella Brava http://www.bellabrava.com and Ceviche Tapas Bar http://www.ceviche.com are two additional downtown notables, each cultivating a fairly trendy crowd. And the see-and-be-seen Independent http://www.independentbeer.com attracts a stylish, arty crowd for hard-to-find imported beers, fine wines by the glass and live music.

In Gulfport, head to Habana Cafe http://www.habanacafe-usa.com for authentic Cuban fare (including delicious drunken shrimp with garlic and mojo sauce); and La Fogata Churrascaria http://www.lafogataonline.com for well-prepared seafood, steaks, tapas and elegant cocktails. MadFish http://www.madfishonline.com is a slick spot set inside a shimmering stainless-steel diner in St. Pete Beach - the kitchen here turns out creative contemporary fare. At nearby Wildwood BBQ & Burger http://www.brguestrestaurants.com/restaurants/wildwood_bbq you can feast on tasty comfort food - note the impressive list of small-batch bourbons.

Tiny downtown Dunedin has several good restaurants, including Pan y Vino http://www.panyvino.com, for brick-oven pizzas and a nice selection of wines by the glass; and the gay-popular Mexican restaurant Casa Tina http://www.casatinas.com.

St. Petersburg's Grand Central District has a few good restaurants, one of which, the stylish Queen's Head http://www.thequeensheadbar.com, is also one of the city's top LGBT nightlife options. Sip cocktails in one of the outdoor cabanas or inside the slick bar and dining area, where you might enjoy a dinner of pan-roasted skate with truffle-mash carrots, beetroot-vanilla chutney and lemon oil. A few blocks away is arguably the most gay bar in the city, Georgie's Alibihttp://www.georgiesalibi.com, which pulls in a youthful, see-and-be-seen crowd.

Other good bets along the Grand Central corridor include Gemini Lounge http://www.myspace.com/gemini_lounge, which books fun live bands; Detour, a laid-back watering hole; quirky Lucky Star Lounge http://www.myspace.com/luckystarlounge28, which is tucked behind a liquor store; and Beak's Old Florida, an inviting tavern and grill that has a popular following with straights and gays.

You'll find a few other neighborhood bars around the city, such as Haymarket Pub, a low-keyed dive bar on the north side of the city - it's next door to the Hideaway, which bills itself the longest-running lesbian bar in the United States. Gulfport gay lounges include the Oar House Bar and Pepperz Lounge, both of which are a bit down at the heels. You may have a better experience strolling along the community's main drag, Beach Boulevard, and stopping by any of the many gay-friendly bars and eateries - Peg's http://www.pegscantina.com is a particular standout, known for terrific hand-crafted ales with a kitchen serving fresh and well-prepared in Mexican food.

In downtown Clearwater, the convivial Pro Shop Pub http://www.proshoppub.us is one of the oldest gay bars in the state and has a popular following at happy hour. Just north in downtown Dunedin, the Kelly's/Blur http://www.kellyschicaboom.com complex comprises an LGBT-friendly nightclub, showbar, martini lounge and casual American restaurant.

St. Petersburg is home to one of the largest gay resorts in the country, the Flamingo http://www.flamingofla.com, which in addition to being a popular LGBT nightlife venue has a large central pool, a good restaurant and 130 simply but pleasantly furnished - and reasonably priced - hotel rooms.

The city's grandest and most famous hotel is the swell-elegant Renaissance Vinoy Resort http://www.marriott.com, which has long been a friend to the gay community. This pink palace overlooks the downtown waterfront, comprising both a historic main building, which opened in 1927, and a newer wing with roomier accommodations but a still-classic color scheme and design. Amenities include an impressive health club and spa, golf at the resort's private course a couple of miles away, and excellent dining at three different restaurants.

There are also several excellent, mid-priced chain properties downtown, including the Courtyard Marriott http://www.marriott.com, the Hampton Inn and Suites http://www.stpetehamptonsuites.com and the hip, lime-hued Hotel Indigo http://www.hotelindigo.com - all are just a few minutes' walk from Tampa Bay and major museums. You'll also find few gay-friendly and very charming B&Bs in the Old Northeast Historic District, which flanks downtown and is a pleasant walk from shops and restaurants. Among these, the gay-owned Dickens House http://www.dickenshouse.com is a stunning example of Arts and Crafts architecture with plush, beautifully furnished accommodations. Also consider the Mansion House B&B http://www.mansionbandb.com, with its glorious full-size pool; and the Beach Drive Inn http://www.beachdriveinn.com, which is across from the famed Renaissance Vinoy Hotel.

The well-priced and popular clothing-optional GayStPete House http://www.gaystpetehouse.com is an excellent base for proximity to the bars and restaurants of the Grand Central District, and in Gulfport, consider the marvelous Sea Breeze Manor Bed & Breakfast http://www.seabreezemanor.com, a historic Tudor-style 1920s house that overlooks Boca Ciega Bay and has spacious, warmly appointed rooms.

Across the bay in St. Pete Beach you'll find the area's other famous grande dame, the Loews Don Cesar Resort http://www.loewshotels.com, an opulent, pink wedding-cake of a hotel that's hosted countless celebrities and appeared in such prominent films as Health and Once Upon a Time in America. Nearby, the circa-1957 Postcard Inn on the Beach http://www.postcardinn.com is a sleek, surfer-chic boutique hotel on the water that's steadily developed a gay following - book a poolside cabana room for optimum swank factor.

For easy access to Clearwater and a location in the heart of charming downtown Dunedin, look no further than the stylish Meranova Guest Inn http://www.meranova.com, which has eight tastefully furnished rooms, each with private entrances.

Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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