Anna Smith heads to St. Petersburg and Clearwater the home of Dolphin Tale movies, located on a peninsula on Florida’s Gulf coast, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.
As a film and travel writer, St Petersburg and Clearwater first came to my attention in the film Dolphin Tale. An amiable family movie starring Harry Connick Jr and Morgan Freeman, it told the story of the area’s real-life rescue dolphin, Winter, who was the recipient of the first prosthetic dolphin tail (see what they did there?). With Dolphin Tale 2 coming up and tourism set to boom, I was keen to check out what the region had to offer besides these charming aquatic creatures (or ‘fish’, as Morgan Freeman’s character insists on referring to them in the film).
We start our trip at Clearwater, a seaside suburb of the relatively bustling metropolis of St Petersburg, known affectionally as St Pete. The long, sandy Clearwater Beach is the kind of place where the rich have huge holiday homes they call ‘cottages’, fit locals jog every morning and tourists lie back on classy looking sun loungers, drinking it all in. The pier hosts sunset fairs with music and stalls – fine, but a bit touristy – while surfy shops sell stylish, casual summer garb. Slightly inland, cheerful roadside diners do a brisk trade while more modest sized houses vary from the white picket fence type to arty villas showing off original backyard art.
Dolphins are never far away of course: there are statues of them in the street and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot them in the sea or on a boat trip. Of course, you’re guaranteed a sighting at Clearwater Marine Aquarium home of Winter and her co-star in the sequel, Hope. As families clamoured for a glimpse of the dolphins, we enjoyed a close-up look at the resident turtles through the underwater viewing windows. All the animals are rescue creatures that are rehabilitated and, where appropriate, released back into the wild. It’s good to see the centre’s work recognised by the fame the films have brought: renovation and expansion works continue.
Right, time for a drink. Clearwater has begun to embrace the micro-brewery trend, with an impressive menu of ales and a lively atmosphere at watery haunts such as The Bait House Bar, where we bonded with locals and watched a dramatic storm coming in (the rest of the trip was beautifully sunny: historically, the area boasts an average of 361 days of sunshine a year). Food wise, we found amazing burgers at Caretta on the Gulf, a AAA Four-Diamond restaurant at the nearby Sand Pearl resort. Among many other things, they also serve an extremely tasty American Cob salad.
For culture lovers, St Petersburg is half an hour’s drive away and a fun place to spend a day or three. As well as having a stunning beach and hip micro breweries, it’s a surprisingly cultural hotspot. Our heads were spinning after a trip to the Chilhuly Collection, a stunningly colourful permanent exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s imaginative glass works. Our guide raved about Mr Chihuly in a slightly smitten fashion, explaining that a wealthy local family had decided to set up the museum as fans of his work.
Another – albeit posthumous – beneficiary of local wealth is Salvador Dali. Yes, St Pete has a museum dedicated to the Spanish artist, housed in a stylish building with an impressive collection including eight of his ‘masterworks’, bought by an American couple who befriended the artist. Look out for a special exhibition bringing Picasso into the picture in November. http://thedali.org/home.php
St Petersburg also hosts an annual film festival in October (http://www.sunscreenfilmfestival.com), attended by the likes of John Travolta, who – like Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone – has a palatial abode nearby.
It seems you don’t have to be a dolphin to be a film star in St Pete/Clearwater – but it helps.
All images (c) VISIT FLORIDA
I really want to go to St Petersburg. How do I get there?
British Airways runs regular flights to Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Return flights from Gatwick to Orlando cost from £518, including all taxes, fees and charges, while return flights to Tampa cost from £518, Virgin Atlantic also runs regular services to Miami and Orlando.