Low-cost carrier Norwegian has added Tampa International to its growing Gatwick-US network, so Karl Cushing flies in to explore Florida’s St Petersburg and Clearwater region
When you’re big and pink like this, it definitely creates a lot of fun – you can’t disguise it!” says the hotel’s sales and marketing director Todd Gehrke, and he’s got a point. Known as “the Pink Palace”, the unmistakable Don Cesar in St Petersburg (the locals call it simply St Pete) has been entertaining for generations, its guest list spanning notorious gangster Al Capone, a honeymooning Marilyn Monroe and a friendly ghost who never checked out.
With 277 luxurious rooms including 40 suites, this 1920s charmer is as accommodating as it is characterful. Adults will love the spa, pool and hot tub area, and beach with cabanas, while families will flip for the kids’ club, soft white sugar sand and calm waters with the added option of staying in the nearby cluster of Beach House Suites.
I’m here to sample the delights of Florida’s St Pete and Clearwater region, which is now more accessible to UK clients, thanks to a new Norwegian flight from Gatwick to Tampa International airport.
From the moment I walk into my sunlight-strewn room with the views of the Gulf and beach stretching for miles, I’m sold on St Pete. With the beach calling, I’m soon pootling along towards neighbouring Pass-a-Grille, watching the ungainly pelicans crash in the surf as I go. Then back at the Don’s Rowe Bar, I sip beachside pre-dinner cocktails before Maritana Grille delivers a memorably indulgent feast, eased along by a great wine list.
Offering a taste of Florida without the Disney factor, the St Pete & Clearwater region boasts a staggering range of attractions and stay options, their close proximity ensuring varied itineraries and minimal drive time.
Many can be enjoyed via the Pinellas Trail. Stretching some 40 miles north up the coast from St Pete to Tarpon Springs, it’s a hit with walkers, joggers and cyclists. Popular waypoints include quirky Gulfport, Dunedin and the resort town of Clearwater, a great bet for families.
A recent focus on the region’s smaller communities, underground culture and rich gastronomy has further broadened its appeal.
A case in point is St Pete itself, where I spend much of my time in the revitalised downtown, a 15-minute drive (or short trolley bus ride) from tourist-friendly St Pete Beach.
Centred on the Edge and Central Arts districts, the community-driven resurgence of St Pete’s downtown has seen an explosion of mural art, craft breweries and vintage stores, and a tour proves a great way to get the lowdown from a local.
Mine, just $19 with muralist Derek Donnelly, comes highly recommended. As does my Eat St Pete Edge District food tour, my guide Deborah keeping the chat and calories flowing over three hours as she charts a course through five venues serving everything from healthy Hawaiian poke bowls to Japanese steamed buns.
A 45-minute drive from St Pete – and just 30 minutes from Tampa International – lies Dunedin and my second base, the 83-guest-room Fenway hotel. Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the Fenway’s 1920s Pueblo-style architecture belies the charming town’s Scottish roots, while its renovated interiors reference the property’s harmonious heritage, musicians having graced its rooms, stages and even the airwaves during a stint as a radio station.
Hew Parlor & Chophouse serves up a solid culinary offering, while a live music programme from the lobby and rooftop bars adds Instagram appeal, my pre-dinner drinks served with a side order of sunset Gulf views. This serves as an appetiser for the following morning’s trip to Caladesi Island where, between beach time, I explore nature trails and kayak among the mangroves before returning to a slap-up seafood lunch at Dunedin Marina.
Dunedin’s Main Street and offshoots boast all kinds of cuisine, and the small town is home to seven of the area’s 40 craft breweries.
I check out pint-sized 7venth Sun Brewing and the larger, livelier Dunedin Brewery, with its holy trinity of tasty bar snacks, great beer and live music.
For clients opting instead to stay in downtown St Pete, its burgeoning gallery and museum scene is another selling point. Options range from the Museum of Fine Arts, Morean Arts Centre and James Museum, the latter of which opened in April. At the Dali Museum, the Dreams of Dali attraction takes me on a fun virtual reality tour of the artist’s work.
There’s a good range of hotel options here too, from the boutique Birchwood and Art Deco-style Avalon to the Vinoy, another stately pink charmer.
Personally though, I appreciate the "best of both" experience I gain by retreating to the more vacation-focused St Pete beach, where the timely appearance of some dolphins on my final evening’s Sunset Sailing with Dolphin Landings caps a thoroughly enjoyable trip.
Book it: USAir Tours offers a seven-night Florida break for £1,539pp travelling on June 12, including two nights at the Fenway hotel and five nights at the Don Cesar. Based on two sharing and includes flights with Norwegian with a book-by date of March 14. usairtours.co.uk
Having dropped its Gatwick to Singapore service in January, Norwegian continues to look west, and its long-haul low-cost network from London Gatwick now features Brazil and Argentina alongside 12 US destinations.
From March 31, Norwegian will operate a daily Miami International and five-times-a-week San Francisco International service from Gatwick, replacing its Fort Lauderdale and Oakland services. Its Austin and Seattle services resume on March 1 and March 31.
The latest launch is the twice-weekly 787 Dreamliner service to Tampa International, operating Saturdays and Wednesdays. Cabins come in Economy and Premium, and I sample the latter, the 2-3-2 seat configuration affording ample space for my 6ft 3in frame, thanks to the metre of legroom and generously wide reclining seats. Selling points include the free inflight Wi-Fi and attentive service, aided by onscreen ordering.
Timings are good, leaving Gatwick at 2.05pm and landing at 6.45pm. As flying Premium affords lounge access at Gatwick, I enjoy the new My Lounge product from No1 Lounges.
Premium fares cost from £519 one-way and £960 return, while economy starts from £175 one-way or £305 return. Low-cost price points do mean compromises, including limited entertainment system choices. Luggage allowance in Premium is two checked pieces up to 20kg.
Snacks and spirits are payable too, although inflight meals, wine and beer are free. These are moot points however, my main takeaway being Norwegian’s coupling of smooth service with assured value.