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Vinoy House once was oilman's winter home

Special to the Sun-Sentinel

How historic is St. Petersburg's Historic Vinoy House? Well, it was built in 1910 to serve as a winter getaway for wealthy Pennsylvania oilman Aymer Vinoy Laughner, whose middle name has been immortalized in the Mediterranean Revival masterpiece known today as the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club.

And it was here, in the Roaring Twenties, that famed golfer Walter Hagen drove several golf balls off the face of his friend Laughner's prized pocket watch. Hagen's confident wager dared Laughner to build a grand resort where the balls landed if he did not break the crystal of the watch.

It took a few years for Laughner to assemble the $3.5 million needed for construction, but he did the job and no doubt enjoyed watching the frenzied pace of construction from his historic house. The 375-room waterfront wonder was completed in just 10 months, in good time for the grand opening on New Year's Eve, 1925 -- with Paul Whiteman's orchestra doing the Auld Lang Syne honors.

Sixty-seven years later, $93 million and 24 months were needed to rescue the Grande Dame from 18 years of post-World War II neglect, and today it is the stately crown jewel of the city's waterfront, looking more impressive than ever. As does the place where it all started -- the Historic Vinoy House across the street.

Converted to a bed and breakfast two years ago, the cottage exudes the spirit as well as the architectural style of old Key West inside and out. It shows in the two large wicker- and plant-filled living rooms with fireplaces, in the light and springlike dining area (where complimentary full breakfasts are served), and on the tiled porch and patio with a grand view of the waterfront.

The Key West Suite is a complete encapsulation with its sea green and yellow walls, marbleized ceramic floor, whitewashed king-size oak sleigh bed, full view whirlpool tub and a wall of mirrors. It also has stained-glass windows and attached sunroom with its own wet bar and panoramic view of the famous St. Petersburg Pier and park.

My favorite is the blue-blue Vinoy House Suite with its king-size canopy cherry wood bed, hardwood floors and cozy little sunroom with a grand view of the waterfront as well as downtown. It, too, has a whirlpool tub, as does one of the three regular-size rooms, the blue-walled Montego Bay with a queen-size mahogany bed and heart of pine floors. The Pensacola sports a king-size cherry wood sleigh bed and cherry wood floors and a stand-up shower, which is also found in the Sunshine Key Largo room with its cherry wood floors and a king-size half-canopy mahogany tumbler bed.

The third suite, the Boca, has a queen-size lattice oak sleigh bed, stained glass windows, sitting wall in the bath and a splendid view of city and park.

All six accommodations have private baths, ceiling fans, irons and ironing boards, TV/VCRs, phones with data ports and individual temperature control. Each of the suites has a sleeper sofa, mini-fridge and second TV/VCR.

There's an in-house massage therapist and someone to arrange for boat tours, bicycle and fishing gear rentals. A game room has bar and billiards, dart board and foosball, and there's someone to make good on the promise that "Wir Sprechen Auch Deutsch," and "Nous Parlons Francais."

Minutes away, a short stroll through the well-kept park along the waterfront, are all the attractions of a suddenly revitalized downtown St. Petersburg -- a perfect-size Museum of Fine Arts, an intelligently arranged History Museum, the newer Salvador Dali and Florida International Museums, plus a plethora of places to eat, starting with the magnificent Renaissance Vinoy Resort across the street. It has the best food in town and the most splendid setting, but the downtown waterfront district now has many easy-to-recommend restaurants, bistros and cafes.

Start with the al fresco Black Opal, overlooking the marina and the Yacht Club, and the brand-new Perch at 10 Beach Drive, occupying a corner of the venerable Hotel De Soto. Then there's the equally new BayWalk, with seven different culinary concepts gathered around the magnet of a 20-screen Muvico Theater -- everything from fast food to another outlet for celebrateur Dan Marino to a Northern Italian winner called Gratzzi.

IF YOU GO Getting there: From Interstate 275 take exit 10 (375 East) to the waterfront, and turn left on Beach Drive N.E. to the Vinoy House immediately on the left past the first traffic light. (You'll see the Renaissance Vinoy on the right.) Rates: Rooms and suites range from $145 to $250. Information: Contact the Historic Vinoy House Bed & Breakfast, 532 Beach Drive N.E., St. Petersburg, FL 33701; 866-846-6947. Web site:

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