by Jason Heidemann
At the crack of dawn outside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a rising sun is beating back the darkness and thousands around me are still wiping the sleep from their eyes, I am standing at a starting line that is both literal and metaphoric. I am lunging forward in a pair of revealing Adidas shorts in an attempt to really feel the stretch in my quads as I wait for the shotgun blast that will signal the start of the St. Pete Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (www.runrocknroll.competitor.com). The annual 13.1-mile course zigs and zags its way around all the iconic sites Sunshine City has to offer and is part of the same guitar-driven running series that pops up in cities across the country. But I’m also at another starting line. Less than 24 hours ago I touched down at Tampa Bay International Airport as part of a ten-day road trip through the Sunshine State that will loop through big cities, ancient swamps, legendary gay playgrounds, and everything else I can scrunch in-between. It is a balmy Sunday in February and the journey begins here.
St. Petersburg is situated on a gorgeous, dangling peninsula that is slightly pinched at its northern tip and hemmed in by Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s sedated compared to other Florida cities, but I prefer its stately charms, celebrated beaches, and growing indie scene over Tampa’s oddball zoning and petulant Ybor City–centric nightlife.
The route of our half marathon is a testament to why the city is worth a day or two exploring. It runs partly through the Grand Central District (www.randcentraldistrict.org), a hub of pedestrian activity that includes funky salons, tattoo parlors, used book stores, and, increasingly, food trucks. Grand Central is also the site of St. Pete Pride Carnivale (www.stpetepride.com), that happens the last weekend in June to commemorate Stonewall and attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually.
It also takes me to the city’s museum campus. Chief among St. Pete’s cultural attractions is the Dali Museum (1 Dali Blvd. Tel: 727-823-3767. www.thedali.org), a splendid collection of original works from the surrealist master that is housed within a dome of shiny glass that appears to metastasize around an otherwise unremarkable building and is as intoxicating to stare at as Dali’s beguiling mustache. In distant second place, but still an awe-inspiring detour in its own right, is the Chihuly Collection presented by Morean Arts Center (400 Beach Drive NE. Tel: 727-896-4527. www.moreanartscenter.org), a sampling of sculpted glass by Dale Chihuly including several loofa-like wonders, flower sculptures akin to the ones in the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, and many more.
The sand at Sunset Beach sticks like salt on a ballpark pretzel when it hits my skin, but after huffing and puffing around St. Pete all morning, a post-race day by the sea is exactly what’s in store. Sunset is where the LGBT community comes for their vitamin D fix and there’s a surprising amount of elbow room on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, although with an average 360 days of sunshine a year, there’s probably very few days where there’s an urgency to make a mad dash to the water the way we do up north.
I end up parking myself not far from a lovely looking gentleman who is packing heat in his candy-apple-red Speedo and an amusing scene unfolds when two twinks saunter up to the edge of his beach towel and tell him they’ve placed bets on whether he is eight or nine inches. “Can we take a peek,” they boldly inquire. As he turns away from them coldly, the pair shrug it off and continue to drift nonchalantly down the shoreline.
Eager to shake some of the sand off my body, I head to the Flamingo Resort (4601 34th St. Tel: 727-327-8000. www.flamingofla.com) where the Sunday pool scene is in full swing. The Flamingo is a hotel and entertainment complex geared toward the LGBT community. The rooms are basic (but also cheap) and the property includes a leather bar, a piano bar, and a tented cabana bar among several others, a full-service restaurant, and more.
This afternoon, everyone who is hanging out appears to be local even though all 120 rooms are booked. It is here where I meet Jesse, a waiter at a local restaurant called Bowled (3451 4th Street North. Tel: 727-895-2695. www.bowledrestaurant.com) who works up the nerve to say hello and plops himself down next to me. He looks great in his orange-striped CK briefs and introduces me to his friends Josh, Nana (a drag queen by night), and Jason.
Speaking of restaurants, there’s actually some decent dining in the region, although for this I prefer Tampa. The foodies, for example, are loving Edison Food + Drink Lab (912 W Kennedy Blvd. Tel: 813-254-7111. www.edisontampa.com), the new darling on the scene where the friends I’m visiting and I find the appetizers mediocre, but love our corn flake sweet corn-crusted snapper and buttermilk fried organic chicken entrees. Afterward, we hit the dessert lounge at Bern’s Steak House (1208 S Howard Ave. Tel: 813-251-2421. www.bernssteakhouse.com), a legendary Tampa eatery that is adorned with Gothic chandeliers, velvet banisters, and vintage oil paintings. I love the place because it resembles Disney’s Haunted Mansion. Their dessert lounge is a hoot; guests retire to their own private rooms where they can phone in song requests to a live piano player. We fight each other with our spoons over every bite of their justly famous bananas foster while the pianist bangs out a rendition of “Tiny Dancer” on the ivories.
At a stoplight in Homosassa the next morning, my friend Lindsey rolls down the window of our friend Chris’s car and shouts across to me, “This is my third time swimming with the manatees and this time I’m going to kiss one!” Lindsey, Chris and I are en route to Crystal River, the only place in Florida where it’s legal to snorkel with manatees or “sea cows” as they’re affectionately known. Apparently state law also requires that all visitors enter through the gift shop as this is where we sit through a short film about the do’s and don’ts of snorkeling among these gentle giants. Rule #3 is the most Gremlins-esque: No matter how much they beg, don’t tickle them under their flippers.
Captain Robert manages to effortlessly weave in sordid details of his life (like trolling for prostitutes in East St. Louis) and local trivia (the water in Crystal River is called “sweet water” because it is six parts salt to the thousand) as he steers us toward multiple sites where we squeeze into our wet suits and jump ship in search of our 1,000 pound treasures. It is a magical afternoon. We enjoy multiple encounters with numerous manatee including a mother nursing her young, several sleeping pairs, and multiple occasions in which they literally swim right under and around us. Unfortunately, these gentle giants are often killed by motor boats and even the practice of snorkeling with them at Crystal River is considered controversial among animal-rights groups.
Inverness, Florida is a monotonous tangle of chain stores and fast-food restaurants and is thankfully one of the few blights on an otherwise pastoral drive between Crystal River and Orlando. I’m officially out on my own now and en route to South Florida via a one-night stopover in the land of Mickey Mouse. The drive is a pleasant one, I would say even picturesque, were it not for relentless anti-abortion billboards featuring God himself touting ominous phrases like, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
At the EO Inn & Spa (227 N Eola Drive. Tel: 407-481-8485. www.eoinn.com), a charming and affordable, if slightly worn at the edges, downtown boutique hotel, I end up falling in love with Orlando. Hear me out. The EO Inn is located at the northeast corner of pretty Lake Eola, where a footpath proves irresistible even though my fet are still aching from yesterday’s run. Underneath a giant pagoda I discover a group of men with the same idea and a few of them are even flashing their eyes my way. A Google search later reveals that Lake Eola is where the Frontrunners (www.orlandofrontrunners.com), Orlando’s LGBT running group meet every Monday night for an after-work jog. With its pretty fountain and irresistible city views, I jog around it several times.