The New Vibe of St. Petersburg: Florida’s Paradise

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Sunset at Rumfish Beach Resort in St.Petersburg- photo by Debra Evans
Sunset at Rumfish Beach Resort in St.Petersburg- photo by Debra Evans

St. Petersburg is My Forever Paradise

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

It had been many years since I’d visited St. Petersburg. This Florida west coast city is situated at the southern tip of the Pinellas Peninsula about 20 miles from Tampa.

A lot has changed in this Gulf Coast destination since that trip. Once a sleepy coastal town with a huge retirement community, St. Petersburg has blossomed, attracting artists, entrepreneurs, beach lovers, and creatives. Millennials and Gen-Exers have played a huge role in invigorating and revitalizing this west coast treasure.

Rumfish Beach View
View from My Balcony at Rumfish Beach Resort in St Petersburg, FL. Noreen Kompanik photos

Exploring St. Pete (as the locals call it) and its environs was a sheer delightful experience with a group of friends who are as adventurous as me.

We all love the outdoors and St. Petersburg has truly re-imagined and rebranded itself as an outdoor lover’s paradise as well. Add in its incredible museums, hook-to-table fresh seafood, an eclectic blend of cultures, and stunning beaches, and the stage was set for one unforgettable girls’ weekend getaway.

Our Stay at Rumfish Beach Resort

Even the name is totally cool. And this oceanfront resort set on one of the U.S. top-ranked beaches is magnificent. The resort is quintessential Gulf Coast Florida – unpretentious, laid-back, relaxing, and colorful with a magical vibe.

Guests who stay here also have access to its connecting sister resort, Island Grand, 60 flip-flop steps from Rumfish.

This added bonus doubles the fun and amenities. The tiki beach bar had some great tropical cocktails and we loved the Adirondack chairs surrounding the outdoor firepits.

We loved our Gulf front villas that included a separate living area and a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door offering breathtaking views of the sugar-sand beach and radiant sunsets. As we said more than one time “Now THIS is paradise!”

Life is good on the award-winning beaches of St. Petersburg- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Life is good on the award-winning beaches of St. Petersburg.

It’s like dining under the sea. Rumfish Grill, the resort’s signature restaurant not only serves up some fabulous seafood dishes, but the main draw of the eatery is its massive 33,500-gallon aquarium encompassing an entire dining room wall.

The tank was crafted by Animal Planet’s hit series Tanked. Sting rays, an eel, and other multi-hued tropical fish glided by as we enjoyed our drinks and dinner at this beautiful tropical eatery.

Exploring St. Petersburg’s Vibrant Downtown

One of the biggest surprises of our visit to this area was seeing the impressive transformation of this once sleepy and somewhat seedy downtown area. Now filled with fascinating museums, galleries, restaurants, boutiques, and a bustling picturesque pier and waterfront district, St. Petersburg delivers a lot to explore.

We especially appreciated the thoughtful blending of its renovated historic structures with new buildings sporting innovative designs.

Though the downtown and pier areas are extremely walkable, the city offers free trolleys traveling westbound to St. Petersburg Beach and eastbound to downtown with loops and stops throughout the city. This added benefit truly expands visitors’ accessibility to all that St. Pete has to offer.

The Story of the Murals

One of hundreds of murals located in downtown St. Petersburg-photo by Noreen Kompanik
One of the hundreds of murals located in downtown St. Petersburg.

You can’t miss all the murals decorating the buildings throughout St. Petersburg. They are everywhere! The best way to see them is by taking a Walking Street Art Tour.

We were fortunate to learn about the history of these impressive works of art promoted by SHINE St. Petersburg who, for the past seven years each October has sponsored the internationally recognized St. Petersburg Art Festival.

This line-up of some of the world’s best mural artists (including some very talented locals) ignites the streets with 16 new murals each year painted on structures throughout the art districts. The murals are themed, some fun and fanciful, and others with powerful economic, ecological, historical, and human-interest messages.

Just strolling through these districts, getting to know the background of each artist, and seeing their creative works was an absolute treat.

Visiting those Oh-So-Amazing Museums

You have to wonder how one place can have so many top-notch museums. Well, St. Petersburg does, and they are impressive. They are a must-do for visitors, inspiring wonder and amazement with their artistry. Though it was impossible to see all the museums during our visit, the ones we explored were quite impressive.

James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- photo by Michael Kompanik
James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art- photo by Michael Kompanik

Likely the grand dame of St. Pete museums, the Dalí Museum overlooking the waterfront celebrates the life and work of the late Spanish surrealist, Salvadore Dalí. The collection includes over 2,400 works and the museum also hosts rotating exhibits.

For the real inside scoop on the life of Dalí, his artistic creations, and inspirations, look for a docent who will provide expert and entertaining information on this most fascinating world-renowned painter.

The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is one a friend told us about, calling it a “must-see.” This gallery houses the personal collection of Tom and Mary James portraying subjects of American Western history, Native American cultures, and wildlife from around the world. Pieces include sculptures, paintings, murals, and artifacts that pay homage to an iconic era of American history.

The Imagine Museum of Contemporary Glass Art housed in an iconic blue building in the Grand Central District takes visitors on an intriguing and immersive journey through its collection of glass masterpieces that bring intricate shapes to life and magically transform light and color. It’s a stunning collection of beautiful studio glass and artistic expression.

Recreation on the St. Petersburg Waterfront

Shell Key Preserve beaches are so pristine- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Shell Key Preserve beaches are so pristine- photo by Noreen Kompanik

One of the most visited parks in St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront, Vinoy Park has some of the most scenic views in the city, but is also a popular fitness place due to its recreation trails along the harbor and waterfront attracting walkers, runners, and bikers. The trails are also ideal for a Segway tour.

We found the well-maintained 12-acre park with a two-mile stretch of picturesque waterfront to be perfect for an early morning walk/run or evening sunset stroll.

Keep your eyes open for dolphins, manatees, and lots of birds and other wildlife along this parkway. The park also provides a welcoming canopy of shade on hot sunny days. It’s a lovely and relaxing part of the city and an ideal place for a picnic.

Kayaking Through Shell Key Preserve

We all couldn’t wait to get out on the water on a steamy Florida afternoon to take in some of the area’s natural beauty in an 1,800-acre preserve known as Shell Key. The preserve protects sensitive marine habitats and includes one of Pinellas County’s largest undeveloped barrier islands, extensive mangroves, and expansive seagrass beds.

Collecting sand dollars on Shell Beach- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Collecting sand dollars on Shell Beach- photo by Noreen Kompanik

As luck would have it, we were arriving at low tide to join our expert guide from Get Up and Go Kayaking for a two-and-a-half-hour eco-tour through the preserve. What this meant was seeing a host of shore birds, sea turtles, manatees, crabs, conch, and other sea life while paddling in clear kayaks through dense mangrove tunnels and crystal-clear waters.

Our guide, Ben, was just as excited as we were at seeing and experiencing so much wildlife on the trip, like the rarer Roseate Spoonbills, Snowy Egrets, and Great White and Blue Herons. Then to really put the icing on the cake, when we arrived at Shell Key, we found huge conchs, a myriad of smaller shells, and my favorite, those delicate ivory-colored sand dollars.

This was a magical and unforgettable day on the water and a highly recommended experience for those visiting the area. We were tired at the end, but all agreed it was well worth the trip!

Venturing out to Tarpon Springs

There wasn’t a chance we’d be in the area without heading to one of the most fascinating nearby towns on Florida’s Gulf Coast – Tarpon Springs, named for the huge Tarpon fish that frolic in its bayou waters.

Known as the ‘Sponge Capital of the World,’ this coastal community located along the Anclote River attracted a huge Greek population after the discovery of natural sponge beds in the early 1900s. Greek sponge divers arrived in Tarpon Springs in droves to establish their famous sponge industry.

Sponges off the boat at Tarpon Springs- photo by Debra Evans
Sponges off the boat at Tarpon Springs. Debra Evans photo.

Today, boats still line the Sponge Docks with their sun-bronzed Greek captains and crew working on deck. The town boasts the largest percentage of Greek-Americans of any other U.S. city. As the oldest town in Pinellas County, Tarpon Springs was also referred to as the ‘Venice of the South’ due to the multitude of serene house-lined waterways flowing in and around the city.

Restaurants and shops of no surprise, feature Greek food and merchandise, including the valuable sponges still very much prized by high-end cosmetic companies and bath boutiques.

Diving Into St. Petersburg’s Best Greek Cuisine

When you’re in a Greek town, you eat Greek. Though restaurants feature other choices of cuisine, we were here for the real deal. And the real deal it was. Dimitri’s On the Water is owned by Demetrios Salivaris, also the restaurant’s executive chef.

As the son of Greek immigrants who were also in the restaurant business, Demetrios loved the art of cooking from childhood.

He opened his waterfront restaurant which quickly became a favorite of townsfolk and visitors alike. Locals can even dock their boats at the restaurant and come in to dine. But dining here is more than just about incredible food – Dimitri’s is about the experience.

Flaming Saganaki at Dimitri's Restaurant in Tarpon Springs- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Flaming Saganaki at Dimitri’s Restaurant in Tarpon Springs- photo by Noreen Kompanik

Thanks to being with friends who love the foodie and wine-sharing experience, we began our meal with a Greek spread sampler and pita bread along with the showstopping Saganaki, a flaming Greek sheep’s milk cheese, topped with brandy, then set ablaze.

“Opa!” we excitedly declared as we clinked our glasses filled with Greek wine. The charbroiled octopus was another big winner, but then, so was everything else.

Hellas Restaurant and Bakery is a purveyor of fine Greek pastries and specialty desserts, including Baklava, the sinfully sweet and irresistibly flaky treat. Don’t even go into this bakery if you’re trying to resist or watch your figure. You will lose.

The scent of baked goods alone draws one like a moth to a flame.

When you think about your next Florida visit, seriously consider adding St. Petersburg to your plans. Whether you’re a first-timer or someone like me who hadn’t visited in a while, guaranteed you’ll delight in the many changes and aspects that make this and its surrounding areas a piece of Gulf Coast paradise.

I know we can’t wait to return. St. Petersburg has so much to offer, it’s impossible to get it done all in one visit. We will definitely be back to see more of its museums and bask in its award-winning pristine beaches and waterways.

The gals celebrating an amazing day on our St. Petersburg trip- photo by Noreen Kompanik
The gals celebrating an amazing day on our St. Petersburg trip- photo by Noreen Kompanik

The author’s trip to the Rumfish resort was sponsored, but the opinions are hers alone.