“Are you sure you don’t need a map?” The woman behind the counter asks, handing me the keys to my rental car.
“No”, I answer, as she passes me back my California driver license.
“Are you going to Disney World?” She asks. Small talk must be part of her job description. “People love Disney World”, she adds for no apparent reason. When I don’t answer she points me on my way and chirps, “Enjoy your vacation!”
I’m not on vacation. This trip to Florida is a sort of homecoming. Though I consider myself a Californian, whenever someone asks, “Where are you from?” I always answer Florida, St. Petersburg, Florida. Most of the time I’ll just say St. Pete.
I get in the car and crank the AC. It’s easy to forget about the heat and humidity of Florida, but I’ll never forget the smell. Florida has a smell that’s hard to describe. It’s a pleasant floral aroma, with an earthy background of mildew and sulfur. It’s a sensation I’m never quite prepared for.
Once on the road I immediately regret not taking the map. The Tampa airport has changed, or maybe it’s just the road to the airport that has changed– I can’t quite tell. However, the 13-mile stretch of the Howard Frankland Bridge that connects Tampa to St. Pete has definitely changed. I eventually find the entrance, and begin my journey home.
It’s been decades since I escaped this part of Florida, with my high school diploma clenched in my fist, and a youthful vow never to return clenched in my teeth.
That vow was soon forgotten. After all, I was a good kid with a good family. The young rogue I imagined myself to be got lonely easily. So, I found myself back here again and again. It’s a trip I still make at least once a year.
As I cross the bridge seagull poop splatters the windshield. It’s a familiar occurrence on Tampa Bay, and it doesn’t startle me. I simply look past it to the sparkling water whizzing by on both sides of the car. The causeway sits low, giving the sensation that you are driving on water.
Water is everywhere in St. Pete. It’s a peninsula with a big bay on one side, and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. There’s also water in the air. It’s either humid or rainy, or maybe there’s a sprinkler running somewhere, but the feeling of moisture is what I most associate with my hometown.
Well, that and the blinding light that comes off the impossibly white sand of the Gulf beaches. Nowhere in the world is the sand quite so spectacular. These beaches are like family to me, and are one of the many familiar things that keeps me coming back.
My father lives in a condo at the fabulously refurbished Vinoy Park Hotel. It’s a swank place. A pink stucco masterpiece sitting on the water’s edge of Beach Drive and 5th Ave. Built in 1926 on a whim, and a bet between Aymer Vinoy Laughner, a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, and famed golfer Walter Hagen. It’s quite a story and the details can be found here.
This destination had seen a lot. The Great Depression led to war and the Vinoy Park Hotel lost some of its grandeur as it became a barracks of sorts for the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII. It was difficult, but the hotel survived. Sadly, it was America’s love of the auto that finally killed this old beauty. Air conditioning became the norm, and the hotel resisted, and the guests just drove right past.
By the time I was in high school the hotel was boarded up, but still spectacular. As kids we used to break in, and we would explore the empty hallways. We crept through the darkness with our nerves on edge. The Shining played in the background of our minds as we traversed between the kitchen, ballroom, and Presidential suite. The kids I hung with were good kids, but we enjoyed frightening the daylights out of each other, especially on the Vertigo-inspired staircase to the great bell tower.
Our nighttime jaunts eventually began to spread out. We moved from the hotel to the surrounding downtown area. Once, while walking alone, I came across an old woman sitting on a park bench with her purse on her lap. She was dripping wet. It’s Florida and as I told you it is always wet. She was covered in dew. She had been there all night. She was dead.
The whole area was in decline. There was another, smaller more humble hotel just a hundred yards from the Vinoy. Known then as Grayl’s Hotel, it was a pretty Spanish mission style building, made with white stucco, and garnished with terracotta urns. In the 1920s it was called the Lantern Lane Apartments, and was once the only gracious apartment building along Beach Drive to face the waters of Tampa Bay.
Time was nearly as hard on the Lantern Lane (Grayl’s) as it was the Vinoy. By the time my teenage marauders and I found the place, it was a sort of hotel for transients and other poor souls. As a kid from a privileged family I only felt fear when we approached the building. Stereotypes were all I knew of this type of place, and the people who lived inside. Shamefully we spent too many nights throwing rocks at windows and running away like children. I had a friend who once shot his BB gun at the beautiful terracotta urns that adorned the roof line.
I’m not proud of how we behaved, but it did make me aware, and proud, of how far this part of town has come since my days as a high school junior.
Which brings me to the here and now. Soon after arriving at my father’s place at the Vinoy, I decide to take a walk. The walk takes me past all the familiar places including the basement window that was our passage to terror-filled Vinoy nights. I walk through the park where the bench of the dead women still sits. As I arrive on Beach Drive, everything feels different. Gelato. Craft beer. Outdoor cafes. Sushi. Tapas. Art galleries and more.
Standing on the sidewalk I’m immediately drawn to a green tile fountain newly added to the old Lantern Lane. The terracotta urns are gone, but the place looks beautiful, an architectural blending of the old and the new. It’s become The Birchwood, a boutique hotel with 18 meticulously renovated guest rooms. There’s a fine dining room called Birch & Vine, which delivers globally inspired farm-to-table fare. There is also the Canopy Rooftop Lounge, where the waters of Tampa Bay sparkle on the horizon like they always have. The roof is outfitted with private cabanas, lounge seating, fire pits, casual dining areas, and a sky bar.
I could be in South Beach, or Los Angeles, but I’m in St. Pete on a rooftop deck making peace with the sins of my past. It’s where I raise a glass, and I toast my hometown as the sun sets on Tampa Bay. It’s not my home any more, but it’s a hell of a homecoming.