CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
Exciting, Eclectic And Enticing

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

Central West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

With all of the options available in the Sunshine State, it can be difficult to choose your destination. Here’s a tip: if you’re looking for a perfect blend of exciting theme parks, electric nightlife, exquisite dining, eclectic world-class museums and enticing sandy white beaches, look no further than Central West Florida.

WHAT’S NEW

From hotel openings to more incredible dining options and ways to have fun, there are plenty of new and exciting things happening in this region.

One thing is for sure: you’ll want to get out on the water. It’s easy to rent a boat through eBoats Tampa if you want to glide along the waterways. These small electric boats seat up to 10 passengers and they’re simple to navigate.

Fans of the movie Madagascar are flocking to the new show at Busch Gardens Tampa. While there, check out Iceploration, another new show, and hop on board the Cheetah Hunt for a screaming good time. And everyone loves to take a look inside the Animal Care Center, a zoo hospital with glass walls for observers. You may even be able to help with animal care!

Tampa’s David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has introduced two new series: the Florida Opera Festival runs until March 2014, while the Bank of America Best of Broadway Tampa Bay runs until May 2014.

There’s much going on in the way of lodgings as well. In Tampa, Floridan Palace Hotel, built in 1926 and recently reopened after seven years of renovations, is one of the few hotels in Central West Florida listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Stay a night or two and enjoy the splendor.

Beach aficionados will find themselves right at home at the recently rebranded Guy Harvey Outpost, a TradeWinds Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach previously known as the TradeWinds Sandpiper Suites. The 211 rooms have been redecorated in a Guy Harvey decor theme, as have all the public and exterior spaces. There’s even a Guy Harvey Outfitter Shop on site.

The Birchwood is a new boutique, 18-room inn in downtown St. Petersburg. While the Spanish Mission-style building isn’t new (circa 1924), it has undergone historically accurate renovations to bring it to its current glory. The inn and its Canopy Rooftop Lounge provide spectacular views of Tampa Bay.

Foodies will want to make reservations at the new Epicurean Hotel in South Tampa, scheduled to open in December 2013. The 137-room boutique hotel is dedicated to extraordinary culinary experiences, which comes as no surprise since it’s being developed in collaboration with famed Bern’s Steak House right across the street.

Along the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa, Aloft Tampa Downtown is scheduled to open in early 2014. The former Mercantile Bank office is being re-purposed and developed to feature 130 loft-like rooms in a vibrant, social atmosphere.

Another restoration project is underway at the classic Federal Courthouse also in downtown Tampa, which will become Le Meridien Hotel, a 130-room property scheduled to open mid-2014.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Watch your step! The Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg features the glassmaker’s masterpieces. The collection is displayed in a building designed specifically for the exhibit. Now that’s impressive!

Located on the river in downtown Tampa, the Tampa Museum of Art features an incredible collection of contemporary and classical art, as well as enticing traveling exhibitions. Those interested in architecture will appreciate the art of the building itself, which was designed by Stanley Saitowitz.

Just down the river from the Tampa Museum of Art is the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. Here you’ll find works by local, national and international photographers.

One could say Ybor City is a living museum. Once known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” the small city within a city contained numerous cigar factories where, in its heyday, workers would roll millions of cigars a year. Today, the old brick streets are lined with shops and cafés, and you can still find some hand-rolled cigars to savor.

Greek food, art and culture are found in the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs, northwest of Tampa. The Greek influence is still alive and well, years after the sponge industry brought them to the west coast of Florida.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

When you think of Central West Florida, you may not imagine world-class museums, however you’ll be surprised. Take the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, for instance, which houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collection of art from the master himself—more than 2,000 pieces, in fact. A Picasso exhibit is scheduled to open at the museum in the autumn of 2014, adding even more to the museum’s appeal.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, the country’s best zoo according to Parents Magazine, is home to more than 1,500 animals, including leopards and tigers, offering a bit of wildlife on 56 acres just a few miles north of downtown Tampa.

Like strawberries? Be sure to plan a visit to Central West Florida where, for more than 80 years, the Florida Strawberry Festival takes place in Plant City from late February through mid-March.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Take time to explore other areas in this Gulf-side region. Dunedin is an interesting town rich in its ties to its Scottish roots; Dade City is popular for its antique stores and historic architecture; and Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island state parks boast gorgeous, award-winning beaches.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The dining scene in Central West Florida has really stepped up, with James Beard-nominated chefs and farm-to-table establishments making incredible names for themselves. The Refinery in Tampa combines the two, with James Beard-nominated Chef Greg Baker at the helm and leading his team in new creations every week using local produce, meats and fish (menus change Thursdays). Everything else is made in-house.

Landmark dining options include Bern’s Steak House and its Harry Waugh Dessert Room in Tampa and The Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City. For an international flavor, make reservations at Istanblu Restaurant and Bar in Ybor City. The Turkish restaurant combines Mediterranean and Ottoman flavors to create sensational dishes.

Like cheese? Cheese Please in South Tampa has the best selection of international cheeses and condiments. Food and wine combine at Cru Cellars in Tampa. What’s more, food, shopping, a bookstore, coffee and teashop blend seamlessly at Oxford Exchange. Another unique dining experience can be had in Tampa at Edison Food + Drink Lab, where creativity in the kitchen is served right to you. Enjoy daily flavor experiments by highly talented Chef Jeannie Pierola and her team. SoHo (South Howard), also in Tampa, is another hot spot, featuring several restaurants and bars that party into the night.

There are plenty of places to celebrate the day’s end as the sun sets into the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re at the beach, raise a toast at Frenchy’s or Palm Pavilion right on Clearwater Beach. Nightclubs and music venues such as Jannus Live are jumping most nights along Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg’s Historic District.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Whether you’re a Toronto Blue Jays fan (Dunedin), pull for the Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater), or root for the New York Yankees’ (Tampa), you’ll find a spring training game to enjoy along with the fine weather in Central West Florida. And once the baseball season officially begins, the Tampa Bay Rays take on the teams in their schedule at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

Baseball isn’t the only game in town, though. The Tampa Bay Rowdies take to the pitch to battle rival soccer teams from summer into fall, and once fall and the football season roll around, cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During winter, the Tampa Bay Lightning defend their home ice.

If you’d rather play yourself, myriad public and semi-private golf courses for all skill sets abound throughout the region. Two outstanding local courses are Saddlebrook Resort and Innisbrook Golf Resort.

Or, go deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Barry of Gulf to Bay Charters will navigate the waters and find the perfect spots for you to cast a line for redfish, snook, trout, flounder and more. Get more involved and sign up to crew on board Capt. Gus’s Crabby Adventures. If fishing’s not your game, explore the tranquil Hillsborough River in a kayak or canoe or try stand-up paddleboarding.

At the northernmost end of Central West Florida, Citrus County is where you’ll find the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, which was twice awarded the “Nation’s Best State Park Service” gold medal. Spend the day here enjoying wildlife encounters with manatees, alligators and even a hippopotamus. During the winter months, manatees congregate in the relatively warm water at Kings Bay in Crystal River, just north of Homosassa. In fact, Citrus County is the only place in the US where it’s legal to swim with the popular East Indian manatee. The county also offers endless fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking and cycling opportunities year-round and is renowned for its fresh seafood eateries.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

If you’re looking for brand names, plug Tampa’s International Plaza into your GPS and pull out your credit cards. With anchor stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, not to mention boutiques including Burberry and Gucci, and international favorite H&M, the registers will be ringing!

Explore the boutiques in Palma Ceia, one of Tampa’s most charming neighborhoods, to discover hidden treasures in more than 100 unique boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and cafés. 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.

For souvenirs 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’s Grand Central District 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.

Outdoor shopping is the way to go at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. Boutiques and department stores stand side-by-side, enticing you with their goods.

RECOMMENDED DRIVES

The Sunshine Skyway is a cable-stayed bridge that spans across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg to Manatee County to the south. The bridge soars hundreds of feet into the air, and provides magnificent views of the bay and the Gulf of Mexico beyond for passengers; drivers should keep their eyes on the road.

“Florida’s Nature Coast” in Hernando County to the north promises peaceful vistas ranging from expansive pasturelands to moss-laden oak-canopied roads. The area is rich with wildlife and marine life. Watch for deer, manatees, dolphins and rare birds.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

A different type of wildlife is found at Dinosaur World just off of Interstate 4 in Plant City. They may not be real, but 150 life-size dinosaurs, from Brachiosaurus to Triceratops, make their homes here.

A sequel to Dolphin Tale begins filming in Clearwater in 2014, but you have the chance to see the star, Winter the dolphin, up close and personal at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. As a young calf, Winter’s tail became entangled in a crab trap line and she lost it. She’s the first dolphin to have a prosthetic tail.

Some of the biggest family attractions, however, are the award-winning beaches in Central West Florida. Recently, St. Pete Beach was ranked No. 1 beach in the country and No. 5 in the world by TripAdvisor, while Clearwater Beach was named Florida’s best beach town by USA Today. There’s no better place to throw down a blanket, put on the suntan lotion and enjoy a day at the beach.

INSIDER’S TIPS

Bayshore Boulevard, which runs from downtown Tampa south along the Hillsborough Bay, has the longest continuous stretch of sidewalk in the world—4.5 miles. At any given time, you’ll find people walking, running, rollerblading, biking and generally enjoying the area. Keep an eye out for stingrays, manatees and dolphins in the water—you may just catch a glimpse!

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