Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort: A gem in St. Petersburg, FL - Is it really haunted?

As we arrived at the Vinoy, the staff rushed to get our bags, and we all proceeded to the check-in desk. I did have some concern when I saw that we were on the fifth floor! It’s not that I really believe in ghosts, but knowing that athletes from visiting teams report noises, lights that turn off or on, and closets that open in the middle of the night. Well, I did feel a little anxious. I had even heard that people have reported seeing the image of a young lady, dressed in white, floating around in the grand ball room looking for her lost love. Escorted to our bay view room, the bell hop assured us the “hauntings” were not in the new tower where we were staying. (A sigh of relief!)

Even the Ghost Hunters did a segment on the Vinoy; check it out!

The Vinoy in St. Petersburg boasts quite a history and is listed as one of the 200 Historic Hotels of America ( Since its massive restoration and expansion in 1992, at 93 million dollars, it has become renowned for story book weddings, High Tea, Spa and Golf getaways, and of course, business conventions.

I read, An Architectural Thesis by Marilee Lloyd ‘83/84, and she stated that the Vinoy Hotel was built by Aymer Vinoy Laughner during the boom years of the 1920’s. The grand opening in 1925 was a great success and brought clientele from the North and Europe. During World War II, Mr. Laughner donated the building to the war effort for use as a barracks. Being refitted for such purposes, proved to be its demise. Efforts to re-establish The Vinoy’s former significance and splendor limped along until it was sold to a chain-hotel in 1972, and eventually in 1975, it closed its doors for twenty years.

Lloyd describes the conditions: the ballroom was a complete loss…most of the interior murals had been exposed to the elements, and the hotel roof had given way in two locations. Water broke through, into the second floor, causing much damage.

The stories of birds, squirrels, and even an alligator taking up residence in the basement of the dilapidated Vinoy have been circulating for years. There were protest to “tear it down”, and there were those who wanted it fixed back up. Finally in 1992, the fabled Vinoy opened once again. The guided tours offered by the Vinoy and its History Gallery are an ideal way to take in resort’s heritage and architectural delights like the archways and the original stenciled pecky cypress beamed ceiling.

There are some exceptional deals during the summer months; you can get Florida resident rates and enjoy all the amenities of this Four Diamond Award resort. Although we were staying there for a wedding, we lounged by the pool after brunch at Alfresco (which also serves a mean seafood platter!); enjoyed the tropical drink of the day, and even made an appointment at the salon for my hair and make-up. The staff at this resort was very accommodating making our stay a real mini-vacation.

The wedding took place in The Palm Room where a center stage was beautifully decorated for the bride and groom. A reception area on The Mezzanine Level was set up for entertaining with a grand piano, bars, and a few appetizer stations. The best part of the night was the bride’s grand entrance to the ballroom. Beautifully lit and decorated, the ballroom was set to perfection with tables on both sides of the center stage where the bride and groom met for their first dance. It didn’t hurt that the Temptations were there to play.

Dinner was served to about two hundred people with formality and ease. The waiters poured water, wine, and coffee, and served hot meals and scrumptious desserts. The Vinoy makes weddings an unforgettable affair.

To end our stay, we splurged ($50. pp) on a Mediterranean Market Sunday Brunch voted “Best in the Bay”. With seating around the dining stations, choosing what to start with first will be the question of the day! A seafood station offered fresh shucked oysters on the half shell, crab legs, seafood salads, paella, and shrimp to die for. Across the way was a table of hand-carved meats: pork, dry spice-rubbed roast beef, prime rib, and more. A large salad selection and assorted cheeses, freshly baked breads and crackers were displayed proudly. The fresh fruit table had a nice assortment not usually found at other brunches, but some were not as ripe as I’d like. We both enjoyed the primo raspberries and blueberries with a little yogurt.

What stood out, though, was the additional menu for the champagne brunch. The waiter offered his recommendation of Tapas, eggs Benedict, and/or Beluga Caviar. The caviar was an extra ten dollars and well worth the upgrade. Be brave, and you will see that Beluga Caviar, (most highly prized for their large grain and fine skin) adorned with shaved egg and purple onion and then rolled into tender little crepes the size of your palm, will be a real taste extravaganza! It was buttery, not fishy as many may think. Sample only the tiniest of the American Caviar and you will see why Beluga Caviar is sought after. I don’t eat that other kind, but it provides a unique education for newbies.

Tapas were also a highlight and a new treat for me. With encouragement from the waiter, I tried three tiny portions of duck, shrimp, and steak each on separate saucers and paired perfectly with vegetables or sweet/peppery candied mango chunks. They were all delicious.

The grand finale? - A chocolate fountain with an eclectic choice of fruits, cakes, pretzels, marshmallows, etc. It will bring the kid out in you! Speaking of kids, though there were not many, there is a counter for them to decorate their cookies and cake with icing and sprinkles. I’d also recommend the fresh baked pastries, and to top it off with tea or coffee; I loved the Cappuccino.

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club is a special place to stay whether for R&R or business. Being in the heart of downtown St. Pete doesn’t hurt either. Shopping boutiques, stores and other fine dining establishments round out the total experience…and the water, well, boaters love to come here, too. (The rumor that it’s haunted makes The Vinoy all the more intriguing. )
See the Vinoy's website:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bascom’s Chop House (click for their cool website)

Talk about dinners done to perfection; this place should be at the top of your list for great steaks and chops. Right in the heart of Tampa Bay, Bascom’s menu has something for everyone especially with the current dinner specials. Booth or table, the dining experience is quite enjoyable. It has a warm ambiance and a unique history. The original Bascom came with Henry Flagler to help build the railroads. Steak, and eventually seafood (never frozen by the way!), became their forte.

We were pleasantly greeted and whisked off to our booth with their advertized specials in mind. The tender aged Petite Filet Mignon was heavenly and cooked to a perfect medium rare, and paired with our waiter’s suggestion of a Row Eleven Pinot Noir …well, it just couldn’t get much better. We also tried their Prime Rib and found it to be another great choice. Both came with a salad, large baked potato, and finely cut curly onion crisps. Dessert was worth waiting for. An outstanding original Floridian Key Lime Pie was Ed’s choice, and if you love cake batter, get their Berries and Cream! It’s really a Crème Brulee type of cream, but I taste cake batter with slices of ripe strawberries and tender blue berries. I’ll come back just for that!

On a second visit, we upped the ante choosing (Australian) Lamb Chops and the chef’s special of the night, an aged (48 days) bone-in Rib Eye steak. I ordered my favorite appetizer: a dozen chilled raw oysters. They were large premium selects and delicious, but I’d recommend getting a half dozen because they are filling. Again, both entrees were done to perfection, and the pacing from appetizer to dessert and coffee was superbly timed. The wine list is pretty extensive, but they did not have the 2006 Rombauer Zinfandel I was hoping for. Todd, the Cellar Master and General Manager, promises to have Rombauer Vineyards selections on the list soon.

Although the sides for our dinners this time were a la carte, they were large enough to share. We enjoyed splitting a Caesar salad, garlic mashed potatoes (not too heavy as far as garlic goes, yeah!), and even my favorite dessert: Berries and Cream. Yes, even dessert is large enough to share! In fact, there was enough steak to have it for our breakfast the next day as well.

We like Bascom’s Chop House; I can’t wait for October when they have their Stone Crab specials!

Specials for Friday/Saturday evenings: Petite Filet Mignon or 12 Oz. Prime Rib – also served with baked potato and garden salad. $ 19.99
Raw Oysters (12) $8.95
Chef’s Special: 25 oz. Aged Bone-in Rib Eye $ 31.95
Three grilled double-cut Australian Lamb Chops $ 27.95
Sides: $ 2.95 - $ 5.95
Desserts – made fresh on the premises: $ 5.95

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Going to Russia with Love

Zelenogorsk, Russia (Siberia) - Why would anyone go there? Well, as I sit and sip a cup of hot tea, I remembered the day we got the lucky news; we were cleared to go!

In 1997, my son and several other middle school students built a space station to simulate living on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. The kids actually made a record (30 hours) space simulation where no one could leave the “station” (a huge geodesic dome complete with air-conditioning, computers, bunks, and kitchenette). They were in touch via the internet with NASA, parents, friends, and even the Russian Space Center who caught wind of their simulation. In short, they were invited by Russia to attend the Space Consortium in Zelenogorsk with other like-minded students from Russia and Poland. (Click for article)
Now, here is where divine intervention comes in…a wonderful man in Haines City (who remained anonymous) decided that students could bridge the gap between our two countries and bring a little more peace to the world. He would pay for the entire trip! Can you believe that? And so, I was invited to attend the conference as well and join my son and the others as ambassadors of the US and Haines City. We were really going!

The trip to Zelenogorsk took months of planning: attaining Visas and passports, vaccinations, and learning about the country and the long trip we were about to embark upon. We solicited donations of pens, pencils, and jeans (we heard they were hard to get over their). Local banks and companies were glad to “represent”.

The flight over was typical, but the flights between St. Petersburg and Zelenogorsk were…scary! Russian airlines allowed dogs and animals in the cabin area. You try going to the bathroom when there is a German shepherd lying on the floor like he was on guard! Then when the plane landed, several of the unoccupied seats fell forward showing the straw and horsehair padding. We were definitely learning the differences in the travel standards between our two countries. That became even more apparent when, in route, we drove past nuclear power plants just a stones throw away from the road!

St. Petersburg was a beautiful, bright colored city: light blues and white, gilded gold, etc. It’s certainly a spot worth seeing in this world. The great Peterhoff on the Gulf of Finland was a memorable visit, and unlike its counterpart, the more formidable (militaristic) Moscow with its darker reds, greens, and black. We were lucky enough to tour both amazing cities before flying to Zelenogorsk. Traveling through so many time zones (four more, I believe) was definitely fatiguing.

Another flight and another day of sleep deprivation had us giddy. A tour bus picked us up and drove to one of Russia’s gated or “closed cities”. It was here that “the mother” in me kicked in. A guard (gate keeper) came aboard with a machine gun of some sort and requested we shut off all the cameras and enter the guard house one by one to show the proper documentation. I could not believe my eyes! What kind of city were we about to enter?

I came from the cold war era – a bit of a closed mind and maybe a closed heart – because my former husband was a Nuclear Naval Officer and played Russian roulette or “tag, your it” kind of games with Russian submarines. Luckily though, the kids thought it was very cool and hurried to oblige the guard. I just prayed we would not do something stupid and be put in the gulag. After all, we were traveling with tweens, and kids will be kids. As it turned out, after producing all the documentation for each and every one of us, we were in! Inside this gated city (by gated I mean an eight foot wall that runs the city’s circumference with bob wire on top of that), was a very peaceful feeling. After all, who would commit a crime here? There’s no way to get out without armed guards to stop you.

Zelenogorsk is a small city with lots of surrounding farm land and mountains. We learned that people who work in the city generally work for the government and are given family plots to grow their own food and own a dairy cow or two. The more prestigious the family patriarch, the more plots they could obtain. The apartments in the city are their home away from home so to speak. So, families stay in the city during the week, and they go country for the weekend.

Our first official duty was to exchange flags with the “mayors” of Zelenogorsk and Poland’s equivalent. We were presented with beautifully bound books of Zelenogorsk and treated to lunch for some pomp and ceremony. The kids were delighted when dancers greeted us with the Bread Ceremony. Who ever takes the biggest bite, gets to sit at the head of the table. That person may call the shots so to speak, and with that, we started to dine and be entertained with splendid song and dance.

While the kids attended the space consortium secluded in the White Birch forests just a few miles from the town’s center, the adult chaperones had an opportunity to visit the local school. To greet us, the students there had a chorus band awaiting our arrival even though they were officially off for summer. They sang a song in English, and then we took a tour of the different subject classes, grades one through twelve. All the children walk to school in Zelenogorsk. They had a beautiful gym and ballet room, a computer lab, cafeteria, and even display cases with their arts and crafts. I brought home a hand painted Russian egg from one the students. I was impressed by the acceptance of our cultural differences. They spoke English pretty well; we spoke only a word or two of Russian. Most European students learn more than one language!

On one occasion, I got to pick up my son form camp to have dinner at an English teacher’s country home. I’m also a teacher, so we had a lot in common and had made fast friends. Galena and her family own two plots. Their home was small but comfortable, and they had a real toilet! A toilet like ours back home is a luxury over here. Before dinner, we actually picked our own potatoes, lettuces, strawberries, carrots, cabbage, and even helped milk their cow. What an extraordinary meal they made us! My son, to this day, loves growing his own garden.

Our hotel, back in the city, was not like those in the USA. The buildings we saw as we traveled were of muted tones and unappealing really. Surprisingly, the interiors were often picturesque
with huge atriums and bird houses. Most of our room’s bathrooms were rough to say the least and many toilets did not have seats or lids. I was lucky! The water was rusty (old cast iron boilers), so we were warned to use only bottled water. The problem with that was that it was fizzy water, and by now, I had small ulcers from drinking it so often. We even brushed our teeth with carbonated water! That was a real joy. I literally dreamt of having cool, clean, “flat” water.

We persevered through these adversities like troopers. We learned that the people of Zelenogorsk were friendly, accepting, and gracious. We had an African-American student and his mom with our group, and they were actually delighted that color was not an issue. In fact, everyone wanted to touch his hair and hold his hand. He told me later that he felt like a rock n’ roll star. It was stated that it had been thirty years since an African- American had been in town, but then… it was Siberia. This is one of few cities that do not have to pay taxes to Moscow, and they were originally one of the most technologically rich cities due to the Uranium sources in the mountains. I should have made lead underwear for my son!

The city encourages entrepreneurial forms of commerce like the factory using “smart” machines to make a chemical fiber (equal in its quality to cotton) or “Siberian” cotton like we see as a down alternative in comforters, siblon fabrics for dress making, and smaller businesses like the famed folk-master crafter, Valentina Baranova. Her toy animals made of clay go far beyond the closed city and are exhibited in many museums and galleries around the world. I have a few of her characters, which all have holes to create a kind of whistle.

Almost two week into our trip and we were ready to go home with the exception of one last stop…the Space Center Moscow. The local airport was a nightmare; it was not built for tourism! The toilet situation there really threw us off balance; how do those women do it? Tired as we were from yet another long flight, we were amazed by the similarity to NASA-Kennedy Space Center except everything was

in Cyrillic letters! We got to talk to the Russian astronauts as they
buzzed by in outer space; they pass by every 90 minutes! The kids were delighted. The Russian government made sure we were treated well! It was such a privilege, and one that is given to few people!

Life lessons were learned, and a new found respect for our own country emerged. That is why one would go to such a far out place in the middle of no where! The kids went with open minds and open hearts, and as for me, I let go of a Cold War’s worth of ambivalence. I recommend two stops: St. Petersburg with its Peterhoff and Hermitage Museum ( a Baroque Winter Palace with paintings of Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh), and Moscow (see the Church of the Resurrection of Christ as it seemingly pops up out of nowhere) just to see the differences between these two historical cities.

Time for another cup of tea!

P.S. With profound thanks to that very special “sponsor”.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ocean Prime, Tampa

Ocean Prime is definitely one of those memorable places to eat. If you request the booths looking out over the fountain, then you have the perfect place to people watch as well. We enjoyed the banter with our waiter, Lyndi, who made several wonderful suggestions. The bone-in filet and the Chilean Sea Bass were a taste extravaganza! Each was served with scrumptious morsels of fragrant black truffles – Ed requested the truffle butter for his entre, and mine was served with a truffle sauce to die for.

To start the evening off, we savored their “smoking” Berries and Bubbles, but at $16.00 each, one is enough – save room for a glass of wine with dinner. I usually gravitate to raw oysters; Ed the soup specialties. The oysters were good, just not the selects I was expecting; they were average size (try the oysters at Bascom’s Chophouse where six really is enough, but that’s another blog). The presentation of the raw oysters was beautiful; they love the dry ice thing there! Oh, but that soup! The She Crab Bisque was creamy, crabby, and the chopped corn really made it tasty. Add the crab fritter and you’ve got the talk of the town kind of good. I think they could add crab fritters as a separate appetizer!

As the reservations filled the room, we saw eclectic groups of couples, a family with child (well behaved), friends meeting friends, etc. The chatter was lively but not overbearing. As always in Florida, attire was casual to dressy. It’s the kind of atmosphere you make it; we enjoy dressing up, and that was par for the course (another blog) for the most part. Reservations suggested.

Our choices:
She Crab Bisque & Crab Fritter $ 16
Daily Selection Of Oysters On The Half Shell $ 16 (for six)
Chilean Sea Bass, Glazed Carrots, Champagne Truffle Sauce $ 36
12 oz Bone-In Filet $ 43
Black Truffle Macaroni & Cheese $ 11
Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie $ 8
Peanut Butter Mousse w/Bittersweet Chocolate Ganache
White Chocolate Key Lime Tart $ 8