I was drinking coffee in Tarpon Springs the other day when I overheard a diner talking about a great restaurant called, or so it sounded, Ay Las. I was curious: I've eaten out often here in Pinellas County's Greek hub but had never heard of Ay Las. A quick conversation revealed that the lady was using the Greek pronunciation, and what she was referring to was Hella's, an area institution and one of my favorite restaurants.
I should have known better, but it just goes to show that you never stop learning about culture in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, also known as Florida's Beach. Anchored by 35 miles of pristine white sands and calm Gulf waters, the area offers innumerable opportunities to sate your cultural yearnings, from museums to moussaka.
Greek Tarpon Springs
Stroll down Dodecanese Boulevard Sponge Docks alongside Tarpon Springs' marina. You'll find mom-and-pop shops selling souvenirs (tee-shirts, natural sponges and shells), but also upper-end Aegean-inspired clothing, along with divinely pure olive oil soap. Stop for an authentic Greek bite at Hellas Bakery and Restaurant, Mykonos or a host of other eateries. Those in the mood for an evening out should consider a visit to the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, a 1914 Greek revival structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here, you'll enjoy art, photography and craft exhibits along with a variety of musical performances and plays.
Another must-visit is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Built in 1941, it was constructed as a replica of Constantinople's Cathedral of St. Sophia. (Each January, the cathedral hosts the city's famed Epiphany celebration. The faithful leave this church in procession to Spring Bayou, where local boys ages 16-18 dive for a cross. The winner is said to enjoy a year of good luck.)
About 11 miles south of Tarpon Springs, you'll find Dunedin – and another culture. The city was named by two Scottish immigrant families in 1878, and its name reflects their heritage. ("Dun Eideann" translates into "Edinburgh" in the Scottish language.)
On Dunedin's entirely pedestrian-friendly Main Street, you'll find restaurants, galleries, clothing stores and gift shops. (Taste the city's heritage at the Celtic Shop of Dunedin.) The Dunedin Historical Society and Museum is also worth a look. It serves up more than 2,000 artifacts tracing the past of the city and region.
Enjoy a casual bite at Kelly's for Just About Anything. If you're in the mood for event dining, consider the Black Pearl. In addition to its superb food, you'll enjoy the sophisticated Art Deco décor of this 38-seat restaurant. At day's end, kick back at the Best Western Plus Yacht Harbor Inn. Each room offers a water view.
Culture, of course, existed in Florida long before the arrival of Europeans. You can learn more about the region's Native American tribes by visiting the Tocobaga temple mound in Safety Harbor's Philippe Park. Listed on the National Register of Historic places, archeological digs in and around this mound have unearthed ceremonial pottery, skeletons and numerous artifacts. Back in Tarpon Springs, pristine Brooker Creek Preserve also provides a glimpse of pre-European life in Florida.
Downtown St. Petersburg
Stop in St. Petersburg for the "arts" portion of your arts and culture tour. At the Salvador Dalí Museum, you'll find nearly 100 oil paintings by the famous Spanish surrealist, including such masterpieces as the Hallucinogenic Toreador and Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. Four of the five masterworks are always on display. At over 6 feet tall, they are a mesmerizing surprise.
The St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts houses a collection spotlighting European and American Art, Greek and Roman works, and even pre-Columbian art. If you want to go home with some art, stop in at Florida Craftsmen on downtown's Central Avenue. It spotlights and sells the work of the state's crafters. Also on Central, The Morean Arts Center hosts exhibits and hands-on studio classes where you can create paintings, drawings, ceramics, jewelry and more (classes can be taken on a one-time basis).
End your day with a casual meal at the Garden Restaurant, and check out the work of local artists decorating the wall.
Downtown accommodations range from luxury resorts to B&Bs. You may choose to stay at the Vinoy Renaissance, a landmark resort that serves up elegant Mediterranean Revival architecture. If you prefer more intimate digs, consider the several bed and breakfast options, typically offering gracious accommodations such as antique-styled rooms and easy access to all downtown attractions. As you sink into your bed, remember that Florida's Beach is more than surf and sand.