Earlier this summer, a Miami-based PR firm invited me to try a staycation at the Hotel Zamora, the first big-deal hotel that’s debuted in St. Pete Beach in 20-plus years.
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to shack up with five other journalists at a hotel I was sort of familiar with already, but I’d been wondering what it would be like to experience the Zamora as a guest. I also thought it’d be interesting to see how a local hotel presents itself, and St. Petersburg, to visitors.
6:40 p.m.: Wrought-iron accents adorn the wooden doors to our rooms; this place seems more like a contemporary Mediterranean castle than a hotel.
8:56 p.m.: I’m having a transcendent experience with bread. We’ve just finished up drinks — and stories about outdoor adventuring and paranormal encounters at the Stanley Hotel, the place that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining — on the days-old 360° Rooftop, and are now dining inside the second-floor restaurant, Castile. Zamora GM Tom Robertson isn’t sure what’s inside the rolls (roasted garlic?) since the Spanish-influenced eatery is trying out fresh recipes with new executive chef Alex Rodriguez, but no matter. The rolls are wonderful pillows of goodness that we can’t get enough of. (I discreetly hoard the chipotle dipping sauce.)
9:05 p.m.: We try Castile favorites like the Maine Lobster Ajillo, which looks as beautiful IRL as it did on the cover of CL, along with tuna poke and lobster fries. The food is accompanied by more travel talk: Mexico City, Cuba, Key West. I’m gonna sleep like a queen.
9:06 a.m.: We mmm and ahhh over breakfast. When you visit, and you will, order the Zamora Omelette, featuring ratatouille, spinach, braised wild mushrooms, Manchego and lime crème fraîche. The boniato sofrito hash is ridiculously good, and served with most of the savory eats.
10:11 a.m.: En route to downtown St. Pete for a three-part excursion of the Dali Museum, Locale Market and Green Bench Brewing Co., we’re told by Diamond PR’s Sydney Feldman that Zamora guests generally don’t hang around the beach the whole time. “We wanted to highlight how close the hotel is to downtown. Whatever the must-sees are, or what culinary writers are writing about.” I live near downtown St. Pete, but I don’t usually arrive in a Hummer limo. (It feels like we’re headed to prom.)
12:30ish p.m.: When we reach Locale after the Dali, almost everybody considers ordering the St. Petersburger. At the upstairs FarmTable Kitchen, you can dress up the burger with fried egg, boneless baby back ribs or seared foie gras. Changes around the nearly 1-year-old market can be seen. The cheese and charcuterie have been moved from their former upstairs spot to be near the fresh pasta, an area that’s starting to carry sandwiches such as caprese and bánh mì. We’re told additional tweaks are expected.
3:37 p.m.: Our tour of Green Bench’s brewing facility, directed by co-owner Nathan Stonecipher, starts with a pour of the gold medal-winning Saison de Banc Vert. Stonecipher says the brewery plans to open a 4,000-square-foot cellar for fermenting next door, and that it hopes to start the build-out in 2016. With a small bar and tasting room, the building will focus on Green Bench's sour program and may serve as an event space as well.
7:46 p.m.: DIY sangria time. Bartender Derrick, demonstrating his Julia-Child-style just-throw-it-in creation on the 360° Rooftop, says you don’t need fancy wine. “A Spanish red is your best bet.” Here’s how to make it: Muddle blackberries, raspberries, apple slices and a cup of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) in a pitcher. Pour in some orange juice and 1/3 cup of pomegranate juice before mixing. “Then to the liqua,” he says. Incorporate 10 ounces of blackberry brandy and triple sec (I missed how much since I was sipping... my bad), then stir. Add two bottles of red wine and half a lime for zing. After pouring club soda into a wine glass with ice, top with sangria. Garnish with lime and orange wedges, and voila!
7:58 p.m.: Chef Rodriguez presents a colorful paella with ingredients like chorizo, grouper cheeks and mussels. We dine al fresco and watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. It’s postcard-perfect.
9 a.m.: It looks stormy, but “Nanci with an I,” an alias I affectionately coin for one of our free-spirited companions, is killin’ it on the paddle board. Me? I’m wobbly, reluctant to stand. Launching from the Zamora’s private marina docks, we paddle one way up the waterway and down the other. But I begin looking around me rather than down at my feet, and topple into the cold water. Gracefully, of course.
10:30ish a.m.: Before brunch, I snack on trail mix we score after our “workout” and turn on Alaskan Bush People. Does anybody else watch this??
Noon: Brunch offers the hotel’s popular Bloody Mary bar of stuffed peppers, bacon, shrimp and way more, plus a tasty frittata and pumpernickel toast.
5:41 p.m. Aaand we’re back to the topic of ghosts. Zamora Rooms Director Chad Ingram, who’s joining us for our evening boat ride, says people have seen a little boy, dubbed Charlie by the hotel, in “old-timey clothes” on the fourth floor. “This is the kind of thing you wait until tomorrow to tell us,” Nanci with an I says.
6:22 p.m.: We explore Boca Ciega Bay with Dolphin Landings Captain Dan Peretz, observing manatees, a baby dolphin and another stellar sunset.
8:18 p.m.: Downtown St. Pete’s Brick & Mortar is the setting for our last hurrah. We dig the beef carpaccio with ravioli as well as dessert, a rich chocolate cake with chocolate espresso ganache.
For some of the out-of-towners, preconceptions were proven right. Yes, the St. Pete region is calm, it’s relaxed, we have older residents. But as others noted, there’s a bunch of cool happening, even on the beach. As one writer from Tallahassee put it, our itinerary proved to her the area is not just “the boring sister to Tampa.”