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The Impulsive Traveler: In St. Petersburg, more than a brush with the art of Dali

By Judy Wells
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2011; 3:02 PM

Paving stones forming Euclid's golden rectangle, a hedge labyrinth based on the one at Chartres, limestone boulders reminiscent of rock formations in Cadaques, Spain, and cooling mists blown from a wall of plants: all indications that you're not entering an ordinary museum.

Inside, a helical staircase spirals above you like half a strand of DNA. And the "Glass Enigma," a variation of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, breaks up the waterfront like a kaleidoscope.

Welcome to the Dali Museum - or Dali World, as some have dubbed it - the new $36 million museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., built to display the Salvador Dali work collected by the artist's friends, Cleveland industrialist A. Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor. The museum's 2,140 pieces - including 96 oils, eight monumental canvases and, of course, the lobster telephone - make it the largest collection of Dali's works outside his native Spain.

Touring the exhibit, from Dali's earliest work as a teenager through his brushes with impressionism and cubism and beyond the surrealism for which most of us know him, is a bit like following a double helix. The man missed nothing - medium or method - as he evolved his own style in the effort to give form to his psyche.

In his self-portrait at age 17, a pallid, bug-eyed Dali stares out in profile from beneath a dramatic, wide brimmed hat, illustrating his conviction that an artist must dress and act like an artist. Other convictions and influences - from Millet's "Angelus" and Miro's playful iconography to Dali's obsession with an older brother who died in infancy, his fascination with the work of Sigmund Freud and his hatred of bureaucrats, especially his father - emerge in work after work.

On a recent visit, I found myself listening in on a docent-led AAA tour through the main gallery and was tickled by how much the visitors enjoyed the treasure hunt for Dali's iconic images in later pieces. You could almost hear their brains clicking and whirring as the docent explained the themes to be found in the huge, 10- to 14-foot-high canvases informed by Dali's later-life fascination with Catholicism and science. Like the negative-positive images you find in the "Do you see the old woman or the princess?" tests, it requires stepping back, sometimes taking off your glasses and even squinting to see the multiple layers of subject matter, from the matador amid Venus de Milos in "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" (1969-70) to the large portrait of America's 16th president in "Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln- Homage to Rothko," second version (1976).

After a spin through the gallery of Dali graphics, sculpture, films and more, I was ready to rest my brain and headed for the Cafe Gala, which, in accordance with museum director Hank Hine's insistence on a total Dali experience, features Spanish cuisine. Its crystallike plastic chairs and reflective tabletops and the view of Tampa Bay helped me clear my mind. And I found a stroll through the temptingly stocked gift shop perfect preparation for reentry into the world as we know it.

Beyond Dali World, St. Petersburg isn't just for oldsters anymore. You'll see plenty of snowbirds and retirees, but baby strollers outnumber motorized chairs at the many outdoor cafes along chic Beach Drive. I began a recent quick trip to town by stopping in at two other notable museums. The Morean Arts Center has located its Chihuly Collection on Beach Drive, and I liked the juxtaposition of bright scenery and pretty people outside with the colorful visions of the Northwest glass master Dale Chihuly inside.

Here there are drawings, baskets, a ceiling-mounted Persian rug, flamboyant Venetian-inspired pieces, sea forms that seem ready to slip away like an anemone or a manta ray, massively dizzying chandeliers, huge glass spheres known as Najima Floats and the flower-like Ikebana stems that evolved from the Venetians.

Quite a contrast to the Florida Holocaust Museum several blocks and a world away. "History, Heritage and Hope," the permanent collection on the first floor, charts the history of anti-Semitism, Jewish life in Europe after World War I, the Nazi takeover, World War II and the Holocaust before moving into genocide in general.

The centerpiece of the collection is Boxcar #1130695-5, which sits on a piece of the original track it traveled when hauling Polish deportees to the concentration camps. Its effect is even more sobering when you see the tiny child's ring that was found during pressure-washing before the car was put on display.

Photos and short but compelling histories of people responsible for saving many Jews return a bit of trust in humanity. So does learning that one museum volunteer is one of two young Jewish girls whisked out of Europe on the Kindertransport and taken in by the parents of film director Richard Attenborough.

But, of course, St. Petersburg is known for its sunshine, and you won't want to spend all your time in museums. The area is a hotbed of Major League Baseball spring training activity and is awash in waterways, white sandy beaches, tropical wildlife and great fishing. Parasailing, jet skiing, boat tours and golf courses abound.

I resisted the temptation to stay at the Renaissance Vinoy, the spiffy 1920s Spanish Revival-style grand dame of the downtown bayfront and the anchor of what is now referred to as Museum Mile, the Beach Avenue stretch that runs from the Chihuly, past the Museum of Fine Arts to the Dali and the Museum of History.

Instead I opted for the younger, surfer vibe recently instilled in Postcard Inn on St. Petersburg Beach. The old beachfront motel has been given bright coats of paint and has added modern amenities such as WiFi, an Olympic-size heated pool and more, and also boasts a casual but good barbecue restaurant. After guests return to their rooms, things can get a bit noisy, soundproofing not being a feature of old motels. But fortunately all of us seemed to observe lights out and lights on at about the same times.

Best of all, you can walk out your door, pause for a beverage at the last structure between you and the Gulf of Mexico, an old-style surfer bar, and head up or down the beach for a good whiff of salt air and nature's own pedicure. Do pause for a West Florida tradition, watching as the sun sinks behind the ocean as night comes on. There's nothing quite like sand between your toes and saltwater lapping at your ankles to center your thoughts and refresh the sights of the day.

Wells, a freelance travel writer in Jacksonville, Fla., blogs at www.travelonthelevel.blogspot.com.

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