CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
Enjoy, Explore, Discover

BY FRED. W. WRIGHT JR.

Central West Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Endowed with an outstanding inventory of assets, there is no vacation wish list that can't be fulfilled by Florida's Central West Region. Check off endless sunshine and some of the best beaches in the country. Also check off stimulating nightlife, museums, historical sites, family-friendly attractions and superior dining. Likewise, check off vibrant cities, excellent fishing, spectator sports, great golf and unlimited fun on the water. Combined, these items spell the perfect getaway.

At the heart of the region that stretches along the Gulf of Mexico's West Coast, about 85 miles west of Orlando, is Tampa Bay, a large body of water whose area cities are Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Together, this tricity group has it all in terms of things to see and do, however, smaller communities such as Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Crystal River and Zephyrhills also have attractions and characteristics entirely worthy of exploration.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Eight miles northeast of downtown Tampa, Busch Gardens, the combination amusement park and zoo, covers 335 acres and features animals from around the world together with some of the most gravity-defying roller-coaster rides in the country (buschgardens.com). A not-to-be-missed feature at the zoo is a pair of rare white Bengal tigers.

Adventure Island Water Park, a Busch Gardens sister park, has 30 acres of water-soaked excitement including corkscrew water slides, a giant wave pool, a rambling river for tubing and a splash-attack fun zone (adventureisland.com).

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Ybor City, a small Tampa neighborhood situated northeast of downtown, is the nucleus of the city's ethnic roots (ybor.org). Founded in the 1880s by a group of cigar manufacturers and originally populated by Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants who worked in the cigar factories, it gained a reputation as the "Cigar Capital of the World." The community's fascinating history is detailed at the Ybor City Museum (ybormuseum.org).

Other cultural venues include the cities of Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. Just north of Clearwater, Dunedin steadfastly preserves its Scottish roots that date back to the 1850s (dunedingov.com). The sound of bagpipes can often be heard throughout the city whose name is derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. Once every year clansmen from far and wide arrive for Dunedin's Highland Games featuring Scottish dancing, caber tossing and bagpipe competitions (dunedinhighlandgames.com). The 2011 Games will be held on April 9 following a Military Tattoo on April 2. North of Dunedin, Tarpon Springs has a sponge-fishing industry that began in the late 1800s (visitstpeteclearwater.com). Today, the waterfront remains much as it was a hundred years ago and the tradition of sponge harvesting still carries on. Several buildings and the town's Historic District are on the National Register of Historic Places.

CITY LIGHTS

Nightlife in the tricity area is both abundant and eclectic. Hundreds of venues offer everything from comedy clubs to chic martini bars and everything in between. There are scores of sports bars, friendly pubs, dance clubs and dinner cruises on Tampa Bay. Sunsets at Pier 60 Festival is a nightly celebration that takes place at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach (sunsetsatpier60.com). Popular with adults and children alike, it features glass-blowers, face painters, buskers, artisans and plenty of food concessions. Smaller communities also have a lot of nighttime entertainment. Scottish-influenced Dunedin, for example, is a fun-filled place to do a pub-crawl, enjoy a pint and play a game of darts. The waterfront community of Gulfport has beach bars, rooftop restaurants and a dance hall that dates back to the 1930s (mygulfport.us).

FUN FOR FAMILIES

One of the highlight attractions at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is the world's only bionic dolphin. Winter is a baby bottlenose dolphin that lost her tail in a crab trap. She was rescued and fitted with a prosthetic tail, to which she has completely adapted (cmaquarium.org).

At Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, there are dozens of interactive learning exhibits and an IMAX theater (mosi.org). Not far from the museum, the Lowry Park Zoo has more than 1,700 animals including everything from koalas to elephants, tigers, leopards and rhinos (lowryparkzoo.com). Another Tampa attraction is The Florida Aquarium (flaquarium.org), ranked among the top 10 in the country. Here, hours of amusement can be spent viewing exotic fish, sea horses, manta rays, sharks, turtles, sea otters and a Goliath grouper weighing more than 300 lbs.

Always popular with families are the region's oodles of beautiful beaches including more than seven miles of impeccable sand beach at Fort De Soto National Park. Made up of five offshore keys, the park also has a fishing pier and an ancient fortress built during the Spanish-American War (pinellascounty.org/park).

PROFESSIONAL SPORTS

The Tampa Bay area is a prime venue for professional sports that include the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers (buccaneers.com) and the NHL Tampa Bay Lightning (http://lightning.nhl.com). The Buccaneers play in Raymond James Stadium along with the University of South Florida Bulls, a rising NCAA football team. The Lightning team plays at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team (raysbaseball.com) plays home games at the domed Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

CALLING ALL SHOPAHOLICS

Shopping in the tricity area is the epitome of diversity. Luxury goods and high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Tiffany & Co. are found at the International Plaza and Bay Street (shopinternationalplaza.com). For casual shopping mixed with fun and entertainment head to John's Pass Village & Boardwalk at Madeira Beach where there are more than 100 interesting shops selling everything from souvenirs to T-shirts, shell goods and one-of-a-kind treasures (johnspass.com). BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex in St. Petersburg has a variety of shops and a 20-screen Muvico Theater (newbaywalk.com). St. Petersburg shopping also includes The Pier, a 1970s-era landmark featuring a collection of casual shops and restaurants as well as an aquarium (stpetepier.com). Cigar aficionados head to the Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Company in Ybor City, a family-owned operation that dates back to 1912 (tampasweetheart.com). Here, Arturo Fuente Jr. sells his famous Dominican hand-rolled cigars.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

Head north up Gulf Boulevard from the tip of St. Pete Beach for more than 25 miles past a succession of some of the most beautiful beaches in Florida: Madeira, Redington, Indian Rocks, Belleair, Sand Key and Treasure Island.

WHAT'S NEW

The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg moved to a new and larger home in January 2011 to house the world's most comprehensive collection of works outside of Spain by famous Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dalí (thedali.org). In addition to special exhibits, the museum's permanent collection includes 97 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and 1,300 graphics, photographs, sculptures and objets d'art.

The Chihuly Collection opened in July 2010 at 400 Beach Drive on St. Petersburg's waterfront (chihulycollectionstpete.com). It features the glass sculptures of world-renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly, whose creations have been exhibited around the globe. Also on site is a must-see Glass Studio & Hot Shop where visitors can observe artists creating magnificent glass pieces.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

The Central West Region has endless opportunities for outdoor activities both on land and on water. Among them, the Pinellas Trail is one of the best biking trails in the area (pinellascounty.org/trailgd). Extending for 37 miles from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg along an abandoned railroad line, the route passes through the charming communities of Dunedin and Largo and certain sections provide stunning views of the Gulf Coast.

For a nature-based outing, hike the Brooker Creek Preserve (brookercreekpreserve.org). Located just east of Tarpon Springs, the preserve has 8,700 acres of swamps and forest and a first-rate education center.

Weedon Island Preserve has miles of mangrove-lined waterways ideal for canoeing where paddlers can choose from two well-marked trails within the 3,700-acre preserve (weedonislandpreserve.org).

DINING

Hundreds of restaurants offer fish caught the same day, however, there is much more to the region's dining options than seafood. There is every ethnic cuisine imaginable and for red meat lovers there is no shortage of good old-fashioned mouth-watering steak. Bern's Steak House in Tampa, for instance, is renowned not only for prime aged steak but also for the largest wine cellar of any restaurant in the world: 90,000 bottles in its cellar and another half million in nearby warehouses (bernssteakhouse.com).

With locations in Ybor City, St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach, the Columbia Restaurant is among the oldest family-owned restaurants in the country. The Gonzmart family has offered the same rare and authentic mix of Spanish and Cuban cuisine since 1905 (columbiarestaurant.com).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

The Central West Region has numerous properties that put out the welcome mat for families. Among them, The Don CeSar Beach Resort offers poolside Kidbanas and recreation programs tailored to children. St. Pete Beach's only four-diamond beachfront hotel operates on the philosophy that the family that plays together stays together (loewshotels.com).

The new Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach features a children's program called Camp Ridley, which offers everything from fun activities to games, crafts, scavenger hunts and even a Kids Night Out that includes pizza and a movie (sandpearlresort.com).

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