Though Tampa has a lot to see and do, you'll find some of the best attractions in surrounding communities as far north as Tarpon Springs.
For a different perspective on the Gulf Coast, take a hot-air balloon ride with 18th Century Aviation and ride the breezes over subtropical Florida for $179 per person. (www.18thcenturyaviation.com)
Named the healthiest place in the country, Saint Petersburg, located 20 miles from Tampa on the eastern edge of the Pinellas peninsula, attracted the recuperating and the retired to its subtropical climate as early as 1885. By the mid-twentieth century, the city placed 5,000 green benches along its streets so the elderly would have a place to rest. It's no wonder it became the setting for the hit film Cocoon. But that's all changed, as the average age has fallen to thirty-something.
And though Saint Petersburg became known as a retirement mecca, it's perfect for a family vacation, with beaches on three sides and subtropical keys nearby. Like Tampa, it remained sparsely populated for over 100 years until entrepreneur Hamilton Disston founded Disston City, which is now Gulfport, on the peninsula's southern tip. In 1887, Russian émigré Peter Demens and two partners ran their Orange Belt Railroad to Disston City, naming one of the stops along the way Saint Petersburg in honor of Demens's home in Russia.
By the time Henry Plant took over Demens's Orange Belt Railroad, severely hurt financially in the citrus freeze of 1893, Saint Petersburg had grown to a village of 300 inhabitants. After several real-estate booms, the town became a center for retirees and the most popular location for baseball Spring Training camps. Troops trained there during World War II, something the area had already experienced when Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel became a training center for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. After the war, Saint Petersburg developed its aerospace industry, which continues today.
The center of the action in Saint Petersburg is The Pier, a quarter-mile-long pedestrian extension of Second Avenue. To see what the city looked like in the past, visit the Saint Petersburg Historical Museum at its foot, where exhibits with photos and memorabilia tell you about Spring Training and the green benches. There's also a 3,000-year-old mummy given to the city in the 1920s by a ship's captain in exchange for port fees, plus a working model of the Benoist Airboat. Admission is $5 per adult, $3 per child. (Open Monday through Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday noon–5 P.M., 813-894-1052, www.spmoh.org)
Aviation pioneer Tony Jannus flew the Benoist Airboat from Saint Petersburg to Tampa on New Year's Day, 1914, marking the world's first scheduled passenger flight. Saint Petersburg's mayor was the passenger and paid $400 for his ticket. And you thought air travel was expensive today!
Restaurants and fast-food outlets, shops, and an observation deck pack an entertainment complex on the Saint Petersburg Pier. The complex of various restaurants and entertainment venues is known simply as the Saint Petersburg Pier. Be sure to take in the view of the city and bay from here, especially at night. (813-821-6164)
A group of Mediterranean Revival buildings houses the Saint Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, in which you can view works by Renoir, Gauguin, Monet, and other masters. The museum also contains pre-Columbian pieces, art glass, ceramics, and antiquities from Europe and Asia, plus drawings by Kandinsky and works by Georgia O'Keeffe and George Luks. Take the free guided tours offered Tuesday through Friday at 11 A.M. and 2 P.M. and weekends at 2 P.M. Admission is $8 per adult, $4 per child. (Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday 1–5 P.M., 727-896-2667, www.fine-arts.org)
If you're not that interested in art but like gardening, you'll enjoy the jungle-like atmosphere of the Sunken Gardens, a mile north of the museum. In 1903, George Turner drained a sinkhole and began planting thousands of tropical trees and plants that now make up these sweet-scented gardens. Read the plaques along the way describing the plants to truly understand South Florida's tropical environment. As you descend through sweet-smelling hibiscus, bougainvillea, and lush staghorn ferns, monkeys and rare birds flitter about. Admission is $8 per adult, $4 per child. (Open Monday through Saturday 10 A.M.–4:30 P.M., 727-551-3100, www.stpete.org/fun/parks/sunken)
With so many theme parks and other tourist sites, you'll be surprised to know that Saint Petersburg is also the home of the Salvador Dali Museum, which stores and exhibits more than 1,000 works by the Spanish surrealist, including 93 oils created between 1914 and 1980. The works came from the collection of a Cleveland industrialist who became friends with Dali in the 1940s. He bought lots of Dali's paintings and ran out of space to show them, so he built this museum in 1982 to house them. Take one of the free guided tours to truly understand Dali's genius. Beginning with his early experiments in Impressionism and Cubism, then moving on to his classic period in the 1940s, you see a chronological representation of Dali's life's work. Some of his works, such as the awesome Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, are so large they're hung in a special section of the gallery. A new museum is currently under construction. Admission is $5. (Open Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M.–5 P.M., Sunday noon–5 P.M., 727-823-3767, www.salvadordalimuseum.org)
Tarpon Springs, 10 miles north of Clearwater, owes its beginnings to real estate businessman John Cheyney, who invested in sponge harvesting here around 1900. Greek sponge buyer John Corcoris and his two brothers were the first of several thousand Greek sponge fishermen who helped Tarpon Springs become “the Sponge Capital of the World” by 1936.
It was originally founded by a few early settlers, who named their village Tarpon Springs because they thought that tarpon spawned in Spring Bayou, a crescent-shaped lake nearby. But it wasn't until 1905, when 2,000 Greek sponge fishermen, driven out by protectionist-minded residents, emigrated from Key West, that Tarpon Springs' sponge industry really began. The Greeks stuccoed over the turn-of-the-century bungalows in the old sponge dock area on Athens and Hope streets, which today have been converted to antique shops, cafés, art studios and galleries, and souvenir shops. Tree-lined brick sidewalks, banners, and old-fashioned street lamps brighten Tarpon Springs' downtown streets.
You can climb aboard the Mediterranean-style sponge boat Saint Nicholas VI along Dodecanese Boulevard for a thirty-minute cruise and sponge demonstration. You'll witness a diver twist on his heavy helmet, have his suit pumped up with air, and slowly be lowered to the sea floor where he tediously spears the sponges, puts them in a basket, and passes it up to the waiting boat.
Back at the dock, boats unload bundles of sponges from giant green nets into bins on the dock as the heady aroma of garlic wafts over from a nearby restaurant, telling you that delicious Greek food — fried squid, pickled octopus, moussaka, shrimp in garlic, and ever-so-sweet baklava for dessert — isn't far away.
You can learn more about Tarpon Springs and the perils of sponge diving at the Sponge Factory, a shop with a special Spongerama museum, which traces the roots and growth of Tarpon Springs' Greek sponge divers and the primitive techniques used in the industry. (Open daily 10 A.M.–6 P.M., 727-938-5366)
The beautiful Byzantine Revival Saint Nicolas Orthodox Cathedral stands as the symbol of this close-knit Greek community, partly funded by a half-percent levy on local sponge sales and finished in 1943. Beautifully painted icons and sculptured Greek marble adorn the cathedral's interior, and the intense aroma from slow-burning incense creates an atmosphere of reverence. (Open daily 9 A.M.–5 P.M., 727-937-3540)
After visiting the cathedral, stop into the neighboring Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, housed in the former City Hall from 1915. Imaginative exhibitions show Tarpon Springs when Tarpon Avenue was a bustling commercial strip with shops of butchers and bakers.
The Tsalickis family built the Shrine of Saint Michael in 1939 as a result of a miracle they supposedly experienced. Their son, Steven, almost died from a childhood illness. While praying to Saint Michael, Steven received divine instructions to have his mother build a shrine to him. She did, and Steven was healed.
Walking west along Tarpon Avenue leads downhill to Spring Bayou, the body of water around which many early residents built their homes. As you stroll along the lakeside path, you'll see the gabled roofs, shady verandas, and latticework of these late nineteenth-century houses. George Innes, the noted American landscape painter, rented one of them. His son, George Jr., himself a famous artist, purchased it. Inspired by the tropical landscape around him, he painted some of his best works here. When a hurricane blew out the stained-glass windows of the nearby Universalist Church, George Jr. created six mural-sized paintings showing Florida flora and biblical scenes to replace them (open for tours Tuesday through Sunday 2–5 P.M., November through April). Not far from the Universalist Church, you'll come upon the Shrine of Saint Michael Taxiarchis, a small Greek Orthodox chapel with beautiful stained-glass windows, religious portraits, and a simple altar.
In the middle of the Pinellas peninsula, in the town of Largo, stands Pinewood Cultural Park, a complex of museums dedicated to history and the arts. Heritage Village is a village of twenty historic structures gathered from around Pinellas County. Furnishings of the appropriate period fill all but two. The oldest is the McMullen-Coachman log house from 1852, but most date from around 1900, when the first settlers arrived via Plant's railroad. You'll also see a Victorian gazebo, bandstand, barn, and a train depot with a 1926 caboose parked in front. (727-582-2123)
The complex also includes the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, with nine permanent collections and galleries featuring artwork by Florida artists, along with sculpture gardens. Admission is $8 for adults, $4 for children (open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 A.M.–4 P.M., Sunday noon–4 P.M., 727-518-6833, www.gulfcoastmuseum.org).