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The northern bay area of the Florida Gulf Coast encompasses Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The climate is semi-tropical, with sunbeams shining a whopping 361 days a year. Temperature and humidity increase in summer but Atlantic breezes and short, sudden afternoon downpours have a cooling effect in the evening. Hurricane season comes June through November. High tourist season is winter to spring, but off season brings bargain bonanzas at popular hotels and attractions.
St. Petersburg has two distinct areas: the downtown cultural area and the beaches. A causeway links St. Pete’s Beach, Treasure Island and Madeira Beach to the mainland. Twelve miles north lies Clearwater: relatively quiet in winter, teeming with the young and rowdy during spring and summer breaks.
Slower-paced than Miami, the Gulf Coast cities have a laid-back charm. Fresh Gulf seafood and raw bars with oysters, clams and mussels are everywhere. Surrounding seawaters churn with pleasure craft and casino cruise vessels, some heading for offshore gambling over the international water line, less than an hour away. If you’re under the impression that the Gulf Coast is just for retirees, think again — Tampa is considered a top destination for 20-somethings.
Downtown Tampa is concentrated and perfect for sightseeing on foot. Hop on the uptown-downtown trolley, free of charge, from the north side of Harbour Island up to Tampa Street. Air-conditioned, replica vintage streetcars run downtown through the Channelside district and into Ybor City. You can glimpse vessels, some of them brunch or dinner cruisers, floating majestically around the bay.
Riverwalk connects the Channelside shopping and entertainment zone and the Florida Aquarium complex. Stroll past the fountains and discover cinemas, an IMAX theater, shopping, gourmet dining, sports bars and cafes.
The Florida Aquarium (813-273-4000) is big: 200,000 square feet of aquatic plants and animals, built around an 83-foot glass dome. The coral reef is housed in a 500,000 gallon tank with glass walking tunnel built in. Visitors can swim with fish, or dive with sharks (at extra cost). There’s an aquatic playground for kids, with a waterslide and pirate ship replica. The Wild Dolphin Ecotour takes visitors out on the bay aboard the brand new Bay Spirit II, a 72-foot catamaran for up-close looks at bottlenose dolphins.
Tampa’s Latin Quarter was named for Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, a cigar maker, who moved his business there in 1886. Twenty thousand migrant workers gradually followed him. The streets are still paved with Spanish tiles, and buildings display wrought iron balconies. Hand-rolled cigars are a native luxury, still made by Cuban immigrants, and walking tours are offered to see these artisans at work. Ybor City’s unused cigar factories and social clubs have transformed into boutiques, galleries, restaurants and clubs. Music and food are plentiful!
Two thousand animals, seven roller coasters, shows and attractions spanning 335 acres is the definitive answer to “something for everyone.” Choose from guided or educational tours, shows and attractions such as King Tut’s Tomb or Skyride, where you can fly through the park on a cable car. Keeper-for-A-Day is a crash course in zoo-keeping; visitors can even work side-by-side with elephant keepers. As well as high-flying thrill rides, there is a scaled down, four-acre play land for children with a three-story tree house called Land of the Dragons. Tree Top Trails has climbing nets, bridges, crawl tubes and a multi-level maze for bigger kids, plus a water-play area for younger children. Buy tickets, see show schedules, peruse a map of the park, and check disability services online, or call 1-888-800-5447.
Alas, the Children’s Museum of Tampa has closed, but the Glazer Children’s Museum (813-443-FUN1) is slated to open in fall 2010. The new building is described as a vision of architectural elegance, designed to stimulate the imagination.
Six miles north of downtown Tampa, Lowry Park Zoo (813-935-8552) is rated the Best Zoo in the U.S. by Parents Magazine. The zoo offers 56 acres of water play areas, rides, shows and restaurants, and there are up to 20 manatees in residence. Safari Africa is the newest attraction. Guests can sleep over, explore the zoo after closing and can learn about the rehabilitation of injured animals.
One of the most thrilling rides in the USA isn’t in a park; it’s the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay. Fashioned after the Brotonne Bridge in France, the Sunshine Skyway is 4.1 miles long and 183 feet above the water. At times, the view gives drivers a feeling almost of flying into the sky.
Considered by some “the pride of St. Petersburg,” Baywalk is a shopping and entertainment complex, built in an open-air, California mission style with courtyards leading to dining, movies, shopping and cocktail bars. A frozen yogurt shop and Starbuck’s are popular stop-ins.
A century-old botanical wonder, the Sunken Gardens (727-551-3102) feature cascading waterfalls, koi ponds, arched bridges, a butterfly house, exotic gardens and groves.
Right next door to Sunken Gardens is Great Explorations Children’s Museum (727-821-8992), a playland where every exhibit welcomes touching, climbing and exploring. Fit4AllKidsville is a wing dedicated to educating children through play about nutrition, exercise and healthy lifestyle. Junior firefighters can dress up like the real thing in child-sized jackets and helmets, while they learn fire safety.
When the mansion belonging to Ohio industrialist A. Reynolds Morse began overflowing with his collection of paintings by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, Morse chose the city of St. Petersburg as the beneficiary. The Dali Museum (727-823-3767) holds the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dali’s works from 1914-1970, including masterworks. Interesting and informative tours are led by Dali-savvy docents daily.
Have you ever wanted to whizz around on one of those stand-up scooters? The Segway® Human Transporter is a cross between a chariot and a scooter, and All About Fun Tours (727-896-3640) offers 15 minutes of instruction before launching you on a 60 or 90-minute tour.
At the end of a breathtaking one-mile approach is The Pier (727-821-6443), a five-story, inverted glass pyramid with restaurants, live music, shops, an aquarium and observation deck where visitors can feed pelicans, overlooking the water.
St. Pete Beach is a sundrenched expanse of white-sand shore with glorious swimming. Stop and have a drink at the Don CeSar Resort, a pink, 1920s luxury celebrity resort. Pass-A-Grille Beach is at the southern end of St. Pete. Treasure Island is a free beach north of Pass-A-Grille. Scuba, snorkeling, catamaran cruises, it’s all here.
Like the name says, Clearwater Beach sports clear, aqua-colored water and clean white sand. There’s excellent swimming, sunbathing, seashell hunting, a children’s playground, restaurants and open-air concerts. North of the pier is reported to be a little more laid back and spacious.
The resident celebrity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (727-441-1790) is Winter, a rescued dolphin who survived critical injuries, including the loss of her tail. Although the medics were worried, Winter devised a new swimming motion and later adapted to a prosthetic tail just fine. Winter now inspires children with disabilities, war amputees, and everyone who meets her.
Less than 20 miles west of Tampa is Pinewood Cultural Park, where nature, art and history come together. The Florida Botanical Gardens, Gulf Coast Museum of Art, and Heritage Village provide a refreshing pause in 150 acres of nature, a rich array of work by Florida artists and artisans, plus a 21-acre living history museum with 28 historic structures.
Just three miles north of Clearwater, you can dust off your best Scottish brogue, don your kilt, and fit right in, especially if it’s in the month of March when Dunedin (727-734-8671) hosts its own version of the Highland Games and a Celtic Festival. Also in March, the Toronto Blue Jays play 18 spring training games here. Of course, what would Scotland be without a game of golf? The Dunedin Golf Club (727-733-2134), formerly the Dunedin Country Club, is semi-private with 18 holes, a driving range and more. The “grand dame” has had a loving restoration, but its world-renowed golf course, by course architect Donald Ross, is still the same.
Ten miles north of Dunedin is Tarpon Springs, a quaint little community originally settled by Greeks known for their expertise in sponge-diving. Sponging was once a viable business here; now it’s pursued more for tourism and historic preservation of the art. A diver in an old-style suit still takes the plunge a few times a day, to the delight of visitors, who stroll the waterfront shops and eateries. There is also excellent antiquing to be had here.
You can’t do the coast without a visit to the warm water springs of Weeki Wachee (352-592-5656), where mermaids do the same kitschy underwater ballet they did when the place debuted 50 years ago. A spring-fed water park is a later addition, and the snorkel tours, canoe trips and wilderness boat rides of the Florida wetlands are all part of Weeki Wachee’s charm.
Having fun in the sun has never been truer than when you vacation in Tampa. From various theme parks and attractions to tropical landscapes and entertainment, the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater area is the place to bring the entire family. And with so many DaVita dialysis centers available, you can schedule your trip the way you’d like.
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