Dali, Hogfish and a Century-Old Grand Hotel: Three Days on FLA’s Glorious Gulf Coast

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The Dali Museum

 

Winter weather makes everything harder, especially in New York where, even at the best of times, the simple act of getting around town just isn’t that simple. Add freezing temps, slippery subway stairs, and some of the grumpiest people in existence, and the world becomes a Sisyphean nightmare. So the chance for an escape to Florida’s sunny Gulf Coast was not just welcome, but imperative.

Simplicity in all forms abounded throughout our quick three-day getaway, except, ironically, when it came to pronouncing the name of the town in which we were staying. First settled by Scottish explorers in the 1850s, Dunedin is a dialectical interpretation of their beloved Edinburgh. So, just for the record, it’s…Doo-Need-in.

 

The Fenway Hotel

 

Our home base was the Fenway Hotel. Originally built in the 1920s, its storied history includes time as a radio station and a school; but for the last decade or so it sat dormant, a grand dame in quiet disrepair. A few years ago, it was snapped up by the Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA, who hoped to turn it into their headquarters. But that idea proved too ambitious; so a partnership with a major developer resulted in the subsequent relaunch of the hotel…and it’s quite the attention grabber. Surrounded by palm trees and lush greenery and overlooking the Gulf, the Fenway is a decidedly grandiose presence.

Our arrival coincided with one of most important times of the day in Western Florida: sunset! And the Fenway boasts the perfect viewing platform in its Hi-Fi Rooftop Bar, where we sampled signature Mai-Tai’s and did indeed mark the fiery star’s descent into the waves, before heading downstairs for dinner at the hotel’s HEW Parlor & Chophouse. The light and airy space features an open kitchen with a 22 seat ‘chef’s bar’ in front, where we indulged in locally inspired signature dishes including crab soup, and seared scallops with barbecued pork belly and parsnip & apple salad.

 

Hew Parlor & Chophouse

 

The following day we headed out to explore Dunedin, and the neighboring Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands. One of the more practical and scenic attractions of the area is the 40-mile long Pinellas Trail, a fastidious walking and biking path which we took up-and-down the coast on surprisingly fun electric bikes, courtesy of Pedego. We can’t overestimate the sheer joy we experienced when hitting the throttle, which would rev the bikes up to 20 mph. (OK, not quite the same as our vintage Triumph).

After parking the bikes we took a short ferry ride, during which we were followed by an inquisitive dolphin, to Caladesi Island State Park – we were lucky enough to have it almost entirely to ourselves. Its miles of pristine sand and shallow sandbars meant we could walk hundreds of yards out to sea without messing up our hair for out next Instagram post. Taking a break from the beach, we rented a kayak for a mesmerizing paddle through the neighboring mangroves. Across the sound was Honeymoon Island, whose lush vegetation we biked through, all the while on the lookout for some of the numerous species of birds of prey that call the place home. Seeing a swooping kestrel with lunch in its talons was a fascinatingly gruesome highlight.

 

Caladesi Island

 

Later that day we found ourselves bar-and-restaurant hopping in the vicinity of Dunedin’s Main Street. After lunch at Hog Island Fish Camp, where we did in fact sample fried hogfish (land bound hog was also on the menu), we strolled the picturesque streets of Dunedin, stopping to quaff a few handcrafted specialties at Dunedin Brewery, as well as the quaint, dog friendly 7venth Sun Brewing, and Woodwright Brewing, which is also part wood shop, minus the hipstery pretensions.

That evening’s dinner was at the enormous and wildly entertaininCasa Tina, whose authentic take on traditional Mexican cuisine was in danger of being overshadowed by its Aztec décor, and its floor shows of hula hoop twirling acrobats…but not quite. The dearth of great Mexican in NYC means that we know the real deal (sublime chiles en nogada, and arroz cabezon) when we taste it.

After a long day of exploring, the Fenway’s smart and cozy rooms were a delight to come back to.

 

Casa Tina

 

A trip to neighboring St. Pete was on the agenda for day three. An easy 45-minute drive south of Dunedin, it’s the area’s cosmopolitan city – although at a third of the size of San Francisco, still very much like a town.

After breakfast at the waterfront farmers market we explored the hallucinatory Dali Museum, which houses the largest collection of the surrealist master’s work outside of his native Spain, and left us with a much deeper appreciation of his genius; indeed, it’s not all about the melting clocks. Lunch was at FarmTable Cucina, inside the fabulous gourmet food hall Locale Market, which bills itself as a curated grocery market experience. FarmTable’s family-style Italian menu also included a delectable signature burger of 30-day dry aged beef, and a Florida grouper BLT.

In the merciless Florida sun, we clung to the shady side of the street while on a tour of local street art, which, in part due to a beautification initiative to transform the once gritty streets, is plentiful in St Pete. Local artist Derek Donnelly led us down alleyways while pointing out some of the city’s more influential murals, including a few of his own.

 

The Dali Museum

 

Continuing our downtown explorations, we strolled St. Pete’s Central Avenue of hipness, stopping to browse through the vinyl racks at 30 year old music mecca Daddy Kool, and the paperback racks at Florida’s largest bookstore, Haslams, before motoring west for a pint at the amazing bar-cum-canine-park Dog Bar, which is indeed a mashup of both. Gives a whole new meaning to “hair of the dog.”

Back at the Fenway we dressed for dinner and set off across the peninsula to quaint the Safety Harbor, on the Tampa Bay side, for our final repast. At Pizzeria Gregario we met with owner Greg Seymour, who fascinated us with an explanation of the process he uses to create the amazing biodynamic sourdough, wood-fired pizzas they specialize in – with the bottom line being you don’t feel like a stuffed hog after eating one. They are sublime.

We were up early the next day for a walk along the beach and simple breakfast at the Fenway, before heading back on the easiest of Delta flights to LGA, where we immediately missed the laid back attitude we’d just spent three days cultivating.

 

Dunedin Marina