CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
Explore, Engage And ENJOY

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

Central West Florida Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

When planning a trip to the Sunshine State, there are certainly plenty of options as far as destinations. When you're talking theme parks, electric nightlife, fine dining and world-class museums, not to mention sandy white beaches, you must be talking Central West Florida.

PLAY BALL!

Warm sunshine and cool breezes make Central West Florida the place to be for spring training. Whether you're a New York Yankees' fan (Tampa), pull for the Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater) or root for the Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), you'll find a game to enjoy along with the fine weather. Once the season officially starts, the Tampa Bay Rays play at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Baseball isn't the only game in town, though. During the fall, cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and through the winter months, the Tampa Bay Lightning take to the ice.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

The country's best zoo (according to Parents Magazine), Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo offers thrills for kids and kids at heart. More than 1,500 animals—including leopards and tigers—can be found within the zoo's 56 lush acres just a few miles north of downtown Tampa. Be sure to check out the zoo's website for special events year-round.

What's that rustling in the trees? Could it be a dinosaur? It may just be, if you find yourself at Dinosaur World just off of I-4 in Plant City. One hundred and fifty life-size dinosaurs, from Brachiosaurus to Triceratops, call this home.

Docile manatees, or sea cows, make their cold-weather homes in the warm (at least 72 F) waters throughout Central West Florida, and there are many places to sneak a peek at these gentle giants. The viewing platform and boardwalk at the Tampa Electric Company in Apollo Beach is ideal.

Folklore has it that sailors, in their delirium after months at sea, mistook manatees for mermaids. For nearly 60 years, crowds have gathered at Weeki Wachee Springs to watch these "mermaids" swim.

MAKE A SPLASH

Winter, the dolphin, splashed onto the silver screen in Dolphin Tale. The real-life story of Winter is quite inspiring. As a juvenile dolphin, her tail became entangled in a crab trap line. She subsequently lost her tail, yet survived! Winter's the first dolphin to have a prosthetic tail, and you can visit her at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she happily resides much to the delight of thousands of fans.

BEAUTY IS EVERYWHERE

In addition to these fun and maybe kitschy places to check out, several world-class museums are found in Central West Florida. Take the year-old Dalí Museum, for instance, which houses the world's most comprehensive collection of art from the master himself.

Or, there's the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg featuring the glassmaker's masterpieces. The collection is displayed in a building designed specifically for the exhibit—that's impressive!

AN HISTORIC PERSPECTIVE

Central West Florida is rich in history, including Ybor City. During its heyday, the small city within a city contained numerous cigar factories where workers would roll millions of cigars a year. It was once known as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Today, the old brick streets are lined with shops and cafés and you can still find some hand-rolled cigars to try.

To get a real feel for Tampa and its surrounds, take a tour via bike with City Bike Tampa. The two-wheeled vantage point will give you a different perspective on the city.

Northwest of Tampa is the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs. The sponge industry brought the Greeks, and today that Greek influence is still prevalent in the community's culture and in its plentiful choice of restaurants, which are highly recommended after you've walked through town or taken a sunset cruise.

SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP!

With anchor stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, not to mention boutiques including Betsey Johnson and Gucci, and international favorite H&M, the International Plaza in Tampa has become a destination unto itself.

For more boutiques, make your way to Hyde Park Village. Tucked away between sprawling homes on tree-lined streets, shops in a European-like village make this quiet residential neighborhood one of Tampa's hot retail spots.

If you're looking for a souvenir of Florida, try John's Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach, where more than 100 shops sell everything from T-shirts to shells to artwork and more.

The Central Avenue Corridor is an enjoyable part of downtown St. Petersburg to stroll along, popping in and out of fine art galleries, record and vintage clothing shops, and antique stores. You never know what you may find on this eclectic stretch of 15 or so city blocks.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Of course, Florida's premier attractions nearly anywhere you go in the state are its beaches, and there's no shortage in Central West Florida. In fact, the area boasts some of the best beaches in the US, including Honeymoon Island. Fort De Soto is also a top spot, and was named America's best family beach by Parents Magazine due to its 1,136 acres and three miles of sandy white beaches. It's also one of the area's only dog beaches.

If you just want to walk, jog or rollerblade, head to Bayshore Boulevard—the world's longest continuous sidewalk at 4.5 miles.

DINING VENUES

The Cuban influence is prevalent in restaurants in Tampa. For a real treat, make reservations at The Columbia. Since 1905, fans of Spanish food have made their way to Florida's oldest restaurant in Ybor City. Originally serving Cuban sandwiches and coffee to local cigar workers, today the restaurant spans 15 dining rooms and features flamenco dancing performances every night except Sunday.

Another Central West Florida dining institution is Bern's Steak House. For more than 50 years, Bern's has served aged prime beef, caviar, organic vegetables and wines from an extensive cellar—6,500 labels, to be exact. Insider's tip: try the tableside Caesar Salad and make reservations for the Dessert Room.

Seafood often finds itself in the spotlight in Florida and numerous restaurants offer the catch of the day. Island Way Grill and Bob Heilman's Beachcomber Restaurant in Clearwater Beach as well as Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores are three that do it right.

NIGHTLIFE

When the sun sets in Central West Florida, there are plenty of places to celebrate the day's end. If you're at the beach, toast the sun dipping into the Gulf at Frenchy's or Palm Pavilion right on Clearwater Beach. In Tampa, head back to Ybor City to enjoy its myriad restaurants and bars. SoHo (South Howard), also in Tampa, is another hot spot, featuring several restaurants and bars that party into the night.

In St. Petersburg, there are also plenty of choices, from live music venues to nightclubs that are hopping into the wee hours.

RESORTS

When it's time to call it a day, the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach are perfect for families or for couples on a getaway on their own. If you do have the kids, and weather permits, be sure to check out Splash Island, a water park in the Gulf of Mexico!

Further down the beach, the Loews Don CeSar Beach Hotel—or the "Pink Palace"—is an historic hotel built in the late 1920s. A Gulf-front room is ideal, and the Maritana Grille inside the Don is a fantastic restaurant.

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