The west coast of Florida has its share of sports teams and snowbirds, but suddenly the cool kids of all ages are showing up.

PELICANS FLY OVERHEAD, winging slowly, prehistoric throwbacks with wide bills piercing the air like spears. Gulls follow in their wake, faster, white swirls against cerulean blue streaking down toward the sea. The palms are swaying in the breeze, fan-like fronds catching the warm air as it passes. It’s a peaceful moment, with the steady sound of the ocean waves lapping at the beach’s edge, broken only as a gull cries its shrill call; a puff of cloud floats by, tempering the sun’s yellow light.

This is my view; lying on my back near the water’s edge at The Bay in Sarasota, Fla, waiting for Namaste at The Bay, the first outdoor free yoga class of the season (it’s been raining – a lot: A hurricane had just missed the area the week before). People of all ages are slowly arriving, it’s an unfurling woosh of colourful yoga mats and beach towels, fit and meditative types staking their spot to get the best vantage point from which to see the instructor. Older yogis, girl’s night out gaggles, a cute guy unrolling his boyfriend’s mat to save him a place, a few single ladies, and me. We stretch, we breathe, we stretch some more, the instructor’s voice is soothing and encouraging. 

The Bay Park complex on Boulevard of the Arts off Sarasota Bay is fairly new, and it’s part of the Rosemary District’s downtown refurb; I’m staying at The Sarasota Modern just a stroll up the street; the hotel is also a short walk to the Sarasota Opera House on Pineapple Avenue and onward to Main Street, where there are art galleries and locally-loved restaurants with sidewalk tables for people watching. On some nights, the city will close it off to cars, and vendors will set up booths to entice people to come and experience the revitalized neighbourhood.

The Sarasota Modern Hotel

The Sarasota Modern Hotel

Between yoga by the sea and sipping on a signature cocktail at Selva Downtown Sarasota, I’m feeling rather revitalized myself. The atmosphere is relaxed formality; sure, that sounds counterintuitive; the staff uniforms and white tablecloths say fine-dining, but the servers are free of affectation, unstuffy and happy; the food is Latin Fusion, Peruvian with a helping of Asian in the mix. If the patio is open, book a sidewalk table, which affords an opportunity to spy locals and travellers, and breathe in the sea air coming up off the marina where the street meets the surf.

A few days earlier, I found myself in the company of a different kind of local. In a grassy little courtyard, it’s me and the chickens. I’m in La Sétima in Ybor City, one of Tampa Bay’s oldest neighbourhoods – a Latin Quarter established in 1885 by Cuban, Italian, Spanish and German immigrants, as a centre for cigar making. Some cigar rolling shops still dot the main street, but you’ll also find vintage shops, tattoo parlours, boutique hotels and, yes, the chickens, who roam free on the lawn at the Parque Amigos de José Marti at La Casa de Pedroso (the home of Cuban patriot Paulina Pedroso, and a refuge for the Cuban freedom fighter Marti), built in 1893, a monument to some of Ybor’s original citizens.

the TECO Line Streetcar, a 2.7-mile electric heritage streetcar that’s completely free to ride.

The TECO Line Streetcar, a 2.7-mile electric heritage streetcar that’s completely free to ride. Photo courtesy of Keir Magoulas | Visit Tampa Bay

I’ve taken the TECO historic streetcar line from downtown to get here; it’s a vintage trolley-style electric streetcar; all wooden interiors, antique fixtures, clanging bells and whistles and free to ride from downtown to Ybor City. It takes about 20 minutes, and what fun! It helps bring the journey back in time to a place in the city that’s equally historic. Columbia Restaurant, owned by the Gonzmart family, covers a whole city block on E. Seventh Avenue; it’s Florida’s oldest restaurant, and anchors the Latin Quarter (there’s another outpost at St. Armands Circle en route to Longboat Key). It’s been serving up a mix of Cuban, Italian and Spanish- inspired cuisine and on a full-house night, feeds more than 1,700 guests, served by tuxedo-clad waiters and waitresses, who have a wonderful knowledge of the food – like they’ve worked there forever. It reminds me of the banquet halls from back in the day.

Matching chairs, travertine-style floors, white arches and little rooms and dining nooks tucked in every corner of the restaurant. In the back room, you feel like you’re at a family wedding. We order the famous house salad, The 1905, which is prepared at table with cheese, Spanish olive oil, oregano, garlic, and more, perhaps a novel dressing for diners of the 1940s when it was created; it’s a little bit of theatre, but then, the lights dim.

A Spanish guitar strum cuts through the hush; dark-haired beauties emerge from backstage, skirts swishing, heels clicking, red lips and severe centre-parted hair only enhance their beauty. Boom, their heels come down on the stage; the music begins, and we’re treated to the swirl of Flamenco, performed by a local dance troupe. Flashes of white teeth are matched by flashes of crinoline skirts, eyes flare and smile, or convey heartache and heartbreak as they dance. 

Graceful arms reach out as if to pull you into the dance, to feel the intense emotion that is translated into movement. Click, clock, click, clock, boom, boom, the stage floor rumbles, accompanied by hands clapping the off-kilter Latin beat; you can feel it in your body, your soul.

My body was feeling very well taken care of, particularly after experiencing a massage at the Spa by JW at the JW Marriott on Tampa Bay’s shiny modern Water Street. The space is on the same floor as the outdoor pool, not quite rooftop, but about 6 storeys up. The spa’s ethos is very personalized (I know, shouldn’t they all be that way?), giving the guest permission to customize how their treatment is going to go. The spa has a myriad of treatments, but many can be modified (within reason) to really address what ails you. I’ve booked an 80-minute massage, and my therapist, Jennifer, is one of the best I’ve ever had. The pressure is perfect, she intuitively allows my body to lead under her touch, when she feels my body resist, she changes tack, moving on to an area that is more receiving of the therapy. After a very early flight, I feel refreshed and relaxed.

The JW Marriott is also in a great location if you like to see and be seen. The nightlife scene on Water Street has come into its own over the past few years, acting as chic storefronts for the towering offices and condo developments above. Boulon Brasserie is leading the Tampa Bay charge; restaurateur Jeff Gigante is a St. Pete native who honed his hospitality chops in New York City and knows how to feed people well, in a beautiful space; this one opened in January 2023.

Boulon’s specials include scallop risotto and lobster pot pie. Photo by Boulon Brasserie

Speaking of which, the space was designed by the Montreal-based Atelier Zebulon Perron, and brasserie it is: waiters wear aprons, brass surfaces shine, beveled mirrors reflect a backlit bar, oversized windows are embossed with golden lettering, all adding a soupçon of Parisian flair to the airy place, without the pretension. “I don’t do chef-driven restaurants, I do concept restaurants,” Gigante tells me, “it’s about the food. Of course, I’ve got talented people cooking it, but the focus is on what’s on the plate and how the guests enjoy themselves.” There’s also a boulangerie, so you can have that fresh-baked flaky croissant first thing.

Riverwalk Tampa Bay

Keir Magoulas, Visit Tampa Bay

With the Riverwalk a few steps away, it’s easy to go for a stroll to bust the jet lag or burn off the food but it’s also a great way to get around if you’re a walker like me. It covers about 4 kilometres, lining the banks of the Hillsborough River and Garrison Channel, and acts as a sort of connector of the area’s museums and other attractions. The Tampa Museum of Art, for example, a small but mighty modern/contemporary gallery laid out in a pattern so that you experience all the galleries as you go, inspired me to research modern Haitian and Mexican artists; a treasure-trove of Ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan, and two pieces of note, the sculptures Mujer Vestida, by Fernando Botero, and Patricia Cronin’s Aphrodite Reimagined. The Henry B. Plant Museum, the Tampa Bay History Center and The Florida Aquarium also make their home along the river. And, you can purchase the Riverwalk Attraction Pass, which gives you access at discounted prices.

Fernando Botero (Colombian), Mujer Vestida, 1997, bronze, 126 x 62 x 62 inches.

Fernando Botero (Colombian), Mujer Vestida, 1997, bronze, 126 x 62 x 62 inches.

The Pirate Water Taxi is not what it sounds like, there’s no skull and crossbones flying (although Tampa’s city logo, a lock and crossed keys, does resemble that somewhat), or Jack Sparrow downing rum, but there is a group of young people that enthusiastically welcome me on board. The skipper takes passengers from one end to the other of this section of Hillsborough River, while his first mate gives an overview of the area and sites you might see as you float past, wind blowing in your hair. Local knowledge aside, the crew all come with a sense of humour and a friendly, “I love my city” attitude. They oooh and ahh when I reveal I’m on my way to the Armature Works and the Heights Public Market for a quick drink before sitting down to dinner at Tampa Bay’s Michelin star Rocca, located in the historic Tampa Heights district. Seasonal Italian is on the menu under the guidance of chef Bryce Bonsack. The table next to us has ordered the fresh mozzarella cart, rolled out tableside, and the server is slowly stretching and stirring, stretching and swirling, a pound of cow’s milk cheese melted down, until it resembles a ball of what we know as mozzarella, then laid on a platter with heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and olive oil; another bit of dinner theatre to get the appetite juices flowing.

My own performance art comes a few days later. A torch is blasting blue flame, this time, coloured tubes of glass melted at a volcanic heat and stretched like maple candy, brought back to the flame to kiss another colour and meld to create a new tone. At Zen Glass Studio in St. Petersburg, glass-blowing artists hold classes and wield their own torches to create spectacular, well, spectacles of glass. 

I’ve come up with a goblet, a mix of blues and lavender. Only the day before, I’d been dazzled at the Imagine Museum, with its world-class collection of contemporary glass art. From Laura Donefer’s crystalline explosions of flameworked and blown glass (Ice Storm Amulet Basket), to Anthony James’ life-sized trick of the eye steel, glass and LED lights Portal Icosahedron, to the cast-glass wonders of Peter Bremers (Passion), it’s room after room of eye-candy wonder. I could have gotten lost in the collection for far more than the two hours I spent there. Glass blowing? More like mind blowing.

"Blue Madonna" installation by master glass artist Trish Duggan, and world-renowned painter Gottfried Helnwein

“Blue Madonna” installation by master glass artist Trish Duggan, and world-renowned painter Gottfried Helnwein

I’d had another mind-blowing experience just the day before at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the museum and home that circus baron John Ringling and his wife Mable built, and I needed to get in a meditative moment. Some say Sarasota itself was built by Ringling and his circus, putting the town on the map. The Museum of Art features some of Peter Paul Rubens’ most important works, but who’s counting when there are more than 45,000 pieces in the collection, including Baroque masterpieces, European Old Masters, along with Asian and American art. His house, Ca’ d’Zan, is open to the public for tours, transporting one to the grand palazzos of Venice.

The Greatest Show on Earth, a mural two stories tall by William Woodward, was recently given to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art by Feld Entertainment and the Feld family.

The Greatest Show on Earth, a mural two stories tall by William Woodward, was recently given to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art by Feld Entertainment and the Feld family.

But that was then; now, on my last day, I let my mind wander and go old-school Florida. Siesta Key, a strip of island just off Sarasota, is my destination. The free Siesta Key Breeze trolley drives by en route to the flip-flops and board-shorts surf culture casual bars and restos at Siesta Village as I pull into the parking lot at Siesta Beach. A minute later, my toes are digging into some of the whitest-as-snow sand I’ve ever seen. It’s powder, soft on my soles and soothing for my soul. On this day, it’s not crowded (although its vast expanse probably keeps it feeling so even a peak); the secret is out, however, as Siesta Key is consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in Florida.

A bright yellow lifeguard hut at Siesta Key Beach near Sarasota.

A bright yellow lifeguard hut at Siesta Key Beach near Sarasota.

As the sun begins its skyward climb, the temperature of the sand stays constant, cool and never burning, just right. The gulls cry their shrill cries, the pelicans wing overhead, yes, all is just right.

STAY: The Vinoy, St. Petersburg

This near-century Grand Dame of a hotel was once a stately home until it was launched as a resort in 1926; now it’s part of the Autograph Collection, and an elegant ode to Southern charm and beauty. Guests take coffee and cocktails on the front veranda that spans the width of the house, taking in views of the park, with its marina and boats bobbing in the wake, all white sails and chrome.

The proprietors have made the brilliant move of building the lobby bar on said veranda, making it a natural gathering place for happy hour and sundowners. The pool imagines Beverly Hills in the silver screen era, and the guest suites are grand without being overwrought. It’s still going through careful renovations in some of its ballrooms and restaurant spaces, a painstaking process to preserve and bring out the stunning bones of the hotel.

Named to the National Registry of Historic Places, it’s also a stone’s throw from Beach Drive, a dining hotspot, and not far from the trippy Dalí Museum.

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