St. Petersburg, Florida is on a peninsula west of Tampa, which is better known for the Busch Gardens theme park. If you’re tired of theme parks and looking for other things to do, there’s a beautiful, scenic canoe trail (downstream with pickup!) on the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa, about an hour’s drive from Disney. Fort De Soto Park, a natural beach area (no condos!), was named America’s #1 Beach in 2005 by “Dr. Beach,” and is found at the southern tip of the peninsula. If you’re into the arts, the Dali Museum and the Chihuly Collection (glass sculpture) are on the St. Petersburg waterfront, and there’s a small arts shopping district in downtown St. Petersburg. The waterfront along Tampa Bay is also very scenic, with a marina and wide open, green parks where we saw, at different times, LARPers (Live Action Role Players in costume with swords), a wedding, and live bands with people dancing. The whole area is wonderful for being outdoors, and we sampled a number of good restaurants that we walked to from our bed and breakfast.
Brooker Creek Preserve, Tarpon Springs, FL
Brooker Creek Preserve is a tranquil, quiet park north of Clearwater and east of Tarpon Springs. We got there very late in the day (traffic out here is pretty bad) and were only able to walk a part of the main Education Center trail, which was on an elevated boardwalk. The path and park are well maintained, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone in the area. The problem is, because of traffic, it’s not really a short drive from either Tampa or St. Petersburg. But we found the park very relaxing and saw wild turkeys and other birds, and Brooker Creek itself looks untouched by man here: swampy wetlands with cypress knees and birds in their natural habitat. We even saw a bird dive into the water and swim away. Yes, some birds can swim underwater!
Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde, FL
I loved Fort De Soto Park—it reminded me of Hawaii because of all the trees in the area, providing shade to all the pavilions. There were also no condos anywhere along these beaches, giving it a very natural feel. We drove out to North Beach, the furthest beach from the entrance, and had lunch there at a picnic table. While we were eating, this giant, nearly 4-foot tall bird appeared, watching us eat. When we were done, my husband and I both got up, and the paper bag containing our trash was still on the table. My husband went to fiddle with the nearest trashcan, figuring out how to open the secure lid, and I had stepped away from the table, getting the camera out. This bird, seeing that neither of us was actually at the picnic table anymore, started making a beeline for the empty bag. Boy, talk about aggressive birds! Of course, I moved in and got the trash bag off the table, put it in the trash, and the bird walked away. So if you do plan to eat here, please quickly dispose of your trash!
Our second stop was the long pier, where we got some great bird pictures. We also saw some dolphins swimming right off the pier. We later walked the Barrier-Free Natural Trail near Headquarters, which really wasn’t much to see. Finally, we drove to East Beach, which gives you a nice view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Bradenton/Sarasota. Fort De Soto Park is a very relaxing beach, and you could spend an entire day here without getting sunburned because of all the available shade trees. We would definitely come back.
Canoeing the Hillsborough River near Thonotosassa, Florida
Canoeing can be tiring if you are constantly paddling, but it can also be relaxing—if your trip is downstream all the way under a canopy of trees, with a pickup at the end! Our canoe trip down the Hillsborough River, between Sargeant Park and Morris Bridge Park, was the highlight of our trip. Canoe Escape is the outfit in Sargeant Park in Thonotosassa, Florida that we rented the canoes from. They gave us paddling instructions (pay attention—you do need to know how to steer!) before sending us on our way, and then picked us up on the other end three hours later.
I’ve only been on one other canoe trip, which was also beautiful and canopied—but only for 20 minutes. After that, we had to paddle in the open sun for hours before reaching our destination. You have that option with this trip too—if we did not pull out where we did, we could’ve continued paddling down the Hillsborough River, which would have eventually put us in the open sun. There are two additional pullout points, so it’s possible to spend an entire day paddling, if you choose. But really, the first leg we did is the most scenic and relaxing, and you can enjoy a beautiful, canopied canoe run for almost three hours if you take your time, or two hours if you paddle.
There is only one way downstream, so you can’t get lost. We were told to paddle about 5 minutes down the canal from the park until we reached an intersection. At that point, we could turn left and continue for 2-3 hours down the river in our canoe. Or, we could turn right at the intersection and go into Flint Creek for a bit, where we’d see a lot of wildlife. In retelling our trip to others, I refer to Flint Creek as “Alligator Alley” because that’s what we saw a lot of! This area was a like a big, open lake in full sun, with birds and trees on the perimeter, and LOTS and I mean lots of alligators everywhere. This area looked so natural, completely untouched by man, and the first thing we saw was a large bird with a 4-foot wingspan flying by and landing on a tree branch ahead. There was one point where a row of alligators about 3 feet apart had their snouts sticking up in the water, like an alligator gate, and we were coming right at them. I’m assuming they just rest standing up, and were touching the bottom, cause they surely don’t tread water, do they? Anyway, our canoe was not going to fit between two of them, nor was there anyway to go around them, since they were all in a row. I got a little panicky, thinking we might hit one of them—that wouldn’t be a good thing, would it? But just as we got close enough, a couple of them submerged, like a gate opening, so our canoe went right on through. Whew!
We then paddled back to the intersection where we had turned right before, only this time continued straight through, starting the actual downstream trip. OMG! It was so beautiful. We were now out of the full sun and under a canopy of trees that lined either side of the river. For the most part, we floated downstream for a couple of hours, and only paddled when we had to steer around another log in our path. Even though some parts of the river were very low (6 inches deep?), we never had to get out and haul the canoe over anything. By going slowly, we were able to steer the canoe through every opening successfully, and felt like we had completed an Amazing Race task with flying colors!
What did we see? Turtles sunning themselves on logs, gators, a variety of different birds perched on tree limbs above us, and fish. (See slideshow at the bottom for more pictures.) It was so green and peaceful, and we often had the whole river to ourselves when we did this canoe trip in early March, though we did see a few other people in kayaks. It’s a very relaxing trip, because it’s just you out on a canoe, with no sign of civilization, no traffic noise, and surrounded by water, animals, and a shady forest of trees. We would do it again in a heartbeat.
Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL
Salvador Dali was a Spanish surrealist painter. Some of his works are described as bizarre, and at the museum, I heard one woman whisper to another, “but it’s just so WEIRD.” I was not familiar with Dali’s work, so also had the same impression. If you like Dali, this is a large collection, and worth a visit. If not, the Dali Museum is architecturally beautiful, with a very abstract glass exterior, and the gardens outside in the back are pretty.
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, FL
St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts is conveniently located along the waterfront, next to the parks and marina. We caught their Art in Bloom show–artistic floral displays throughout the museum, which were on display that weekend only.
The Pier, St. Petersburg, FL
The Pier, which juts out into Tampa Bay, will give you a great view of the city of St. Petersburg from the water. It’s kind of touristy with shops and restaurants, and the weekend we were there, there was a water ski show and a band. There’s even a free trolley that will take you all the way in and back, in case you don’t feel like walking.
Shopping in St. Petersburg, FL
Central Avenue runs through downtown St. Petersburg and is known as the Central Arts District. There are restaurants, galleries, and some interesting shops. I bought a pair of artsy earrings from one gallery, and some coconut balsamic vinegar from the Kalamazoo Olive Company. They have an interesting selection of unique flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars that are hard to resist. It’s worth a stop.
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, Tampa, FL
The Gasparilla Festival of the Arts is a major outdoor fine arts festival held every spring in downtown Tampa, Florida. There is live music, food, a children’s area, and some serious fine art. As usual, it did not disappoint, and I bought some artsy earrings.
An unexpected bonus was the free admission to the adjacent Tampa Museum of Art that weekend. We had a very nice Sunday brunch there after finishing the art show, complete with gelato for dessert.
Dining in St. Petersburg, FL
What I loved most about our stay in St. Petersburg was that we could walk to dinner every night. That’s not something you can do in many cities. And at night, all the trees light up in the beautiful park along Tampa Bay with elegant white lights. It just makes for a beautiful evening walk to and from dinner. We had some good meals at Moon Under Water (Shepherd’s Pie and Fish & Chips), Red Mesa Cantina (new age Mexican, mofongo), and Ceviche (tapas galore). When you walk back, you’ll pass Paciugo on Beach Drive, which serves the most amazing gelato I’ve ever had. They advertise it as made fresh daily, with no artificial ingredients, and maybe that’s why it tastes phenomenal. In any case, I’m not the only one that feels their gelato is to die for, because there’s a line out the door on busy nights. We had their gelato three times in 24 hours!
The best word to describe the flavor is potent. Yes, I’ve had raspberry sorbet before, but somehow, theirs is SO raspberry tasting. You can’t help but audibly say mmmm after the first bite. The only way I got this picture was by stopping by on the Sunday morning before we left. Normally, you can’t even see the glass case, because there’s a crowd in front of it!
All in all, we loved the St. Petersburg area and thought it was a nice change of pace from the theme parks, which we’d already done a number of times since we live in Florida.