Sun Worship

-Plenty To Admire In St. Petersburg – Clearwater

Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Golf Course
Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Golf Course

There is Florida, and then there is the Florida for those who know their way around the state.  The difference?  It is a subtle one but for veteran travellers if is an important one.  Although all of Florida basks in the wonderful weather provided by it’s proximity, not every part if Florida is ideal for the traveller seeking entertainment by way of golf and a number of other attractions.

One place that does provide a suitable escape for those discriminating visitors is St. Petersburg – Clearwater, the states version of “the City by The Bay.”  Unlike the more famous San Francisco, however, this locale offers up an abundance of clear sunny days almost all year long (fog is not much of an issue).  Add that to stunning beaches, great man-made attractions, and all manners of golf and you have a desirable destination – just far enough away from the commotion caused by Mickey and the Gang down the road to make this a less stressful type of retreat.  (Of course you can make a day journey 1 ½ hours to Orlando quite easily if family needs dictate)

Less well known as their neighbour, Tampa Bay, the duo of St. Pete’s Clearwater is often where visitors to Tampa often end up, enjoying their beaches and distinct personality that gives them a feel of their own.  Put it this way, if Tampa Bay is the office where all the business gets done, St. Petersburg-Tampa Bay is the backyard where people loosen up their ties and enjoy themselves.  Here you won’t find the statuesque corporate buildings that make up the nerve centre of a large city.  Low-rise buildings give off a more casual feel, accentuated by the fact that waterside fun is never too far away.

Located on the western coast of Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico, this area is easily accessible by all means of transportation.  Flights, and major roadways, including the scenic harbour causeway all lead you easily into the area.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater has earned the moniker as Florida’s Beach and it is easy to see why.  Clear white sands are accompanied by weather that is simply astounding.  The sun usually shines an average of 361 days per year with an average temperature of 23 degrees Celsius all year long.  Perfect weather for sunbathing also means great weather for golf.

With more than 50 resort and public golfing options in the area, St. Petersburg-Clearwater is a virtual golfing Mecca.  More than 12 million annual visitors have found the area golf course to be friendly, accommodating, and a joy to play.

If you plan to skip the museums and restaurants in favour of making golf the core of your trip then this area will do it’s best to keep you occupied.  Of course when darkness falls DO visit the museums and more than 2,000 restaurants – you wouldn’t get a real feel for the area without it.

If resort golf fits your needs than you will find three in this region where golf is but a mere jaunt from your room.  The Belleview Biltmore Hotel, Golf & Spa Resort, Westin Innisbrook Resort, and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort are exceptional options.

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club might just be unlike anything you have ever seen or experienced.  The core property of this resort is the hotel that began its life back in an era when America was experiencing one of its most extravagant periods.  The original Vinoy Park Hotel opened for business on December 31, 1925 and was one of the grandest hotel projects ever undertaken in the United States.  It was built by Pennsylvania oil baron Aymer Vinoy Laughner directly across from his Beach drive home in St. Petersburg.  The Vinoy was a grand place where high tea was served in the afternoons to the upper crust of society.  Unfortunately the lofty stature of the hotel could not be sustained through the Second World War and by 1945 it was sold off to a Chicago hotel chain and was in bad need of repair.  The hotel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 but by that time it hardly resembled its original form.

Fortunately for the Vinoy there was a saviour in the form of the Renaissance Hotel chain known for its distinctive properties around the world.  After a ninety three million dollar renovation and the construction of a new guest tower to supplement the main building, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort officially opened in 1992.  It now offers three hundred and sixty rooms including twenty suites and fourteen spa rooms.  It also offers all sorts of amenities within, and outside of its pink-coloured Mediterranean Revival style walls.  They include a world-class marina, tennis courts, and a golf course, the Renaissance Vinoy Golf Club

Renaissance Vinoy Golf Club is the former Sunset Golf and Country Club and was restored by acclaimed golf course architect Ron Garl.  He is best known for notable designs like the Fiddlesticks Long and Mean course and the Golden Ocala Golf Club.  The renovated configuration includes all new tees and greens, nine lakes, beach bunkers, two double greens, and a signature island green.  The putting greens are constructed to United States Golf Association specifications and planted with tift dwarf Bermuda.  The lush landscape includes over forty varieties of palm trees and a number of native flowering plants.

The Vinoy course plays to a manageable length of six thousand five hundred and two yards from the gold tee decks and was recently altered to play to a par of seventy-two.  Garl has optimized the size of the fairways by curving them slightly from the middle for better drainage and to make them play effectively narrower.  Water is abundant at Vinoy with fourteen holes being affected by ponds, wetlands, or creeks.

Several of the holes that will stand out to golfers at the Vinoy including some dramatic ones on the back nine that test a player’s skill when they need it most.  Among them is the thirteenth, a par three that requires a carry over the edge of a plant-laden pond to a raised and sloping green.  With a length of only one hundred and seventy-three yards it only requires a mid-iron shot to reach the putting surface but it can be a challenge to match par.  The signature hole is undoubtedly the sixteenth, a lengthy par-five with a fairway and green completely surrounded by water.  Strategy is paramount over strength to successfully traverse this hole as each of the three required approach shots demand pinpoint accuracy to avoid trouble.  Golfers must take head on their final approach to the island green that also is protected by a large bunker.  The Vinoy Golf Club is available to guests of the resort and Vinoy Club members.

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel, Golf & Spa Resort traces its origins back to 1897.  Golf came to the resort in 1925 when they employed famed architect Donald Ross (a frequent winter visitor to the area throughout his life) to craft a golf course.  The result was a walkable design that employed many of Ross’ famous features and requiring the golfer to play a game of strategy.  In recent years the course had been renovated and restored to be more true to Ross’ original vision.

At just over 6600 yards, Belleview is not a long course but by playing to a par of 71 and at sea level, you have to play every bit of that yardage – no help hear from the thin air of altitude.  The layout will lay down for long and accurate hitters but wild tee shots will be punished.  If you do get beat up, have no fear, the resort’s spa will sooth any pains you may incur.

If you are familiar with the PGA Tour you may have seen the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort on your television.  Their Copperhead course, one of four that are part of the resort, has long been a host to the best players in the world.

While the Island, Highlands North and Highlands South are solid courses, clearly Copperhead is the main attraction.  The property is unlike what is most commonly found in Florida – the flat, unremarkable landscape that marks many golf courses in the state.  At Copperhead the look is more North Carolina in nature, with rolling hills accented by mature pines.

Water hazards come into play and if they don’t test you then the many uneven lies will.  At 7,295 yards and playing to a par of just 71, it can be a brute of a course but one even the best players in the world have regard for.  The greens always seem to roll true and the Bermuda rough is something to avoid.

If you choose to venture out to the resorts other course try the Island course as a strong alternative.  It is appropriately named, as many of the fairways and greens may as well be island with extensive water features protecting many of them.

Any avid golfer will want to range beyond these resorts on a trip to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area but if they are your only choice, you won’t leave with anything but a smile to show for your efforts.