CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
INCREDIBLE BEYOND COMPARE

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

Central West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

With all of the options available in the Sunshine State, it might 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

Scheduled to open late 2014, the Tampa Baseball Museum, housed in slugger Al Lopez’s childhood home in Ybor City, is a must-see for those who love the game. Inside you’ll find permanent and rotating exhibits that span more than 125 years of baseball history, from the Little Leagues and the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues and everything in between. Did you know that in addition to Al Lopez, Wade Boggs and Lou Piniella found their love of the game in Tampa?

The chef-owners of a foodies’ favorite, The Refinery, James Beard-nominated Chef Greg and Michelle Baker are digging their forks into another project in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood—Fodder & Shine. The duo is resurrecting the Old Florida food ways by concentrating on yesteryear cooking methods in a modern kitchen. Slated to open late 2014, the restaurant features a full liquor bar, complete with local craft beers, an expansive outdoor seating area, pool tables and a vintage video arcade. Eat, play and stay awhile.

Another highly anticipated restaurant opening in 2014 is Ulele on Tampa’s Riverwalk, in the former City of Tampa Water Works building on the Hillsborough River. Here you’ll find flavors from Florida’s waters expertly prepared on its 10-foot diameter barbacoa grill, as well as an on-site brewery, a domestic wine list and specially created signature cocktails.

Hotel Zamora, a new Mediterranean-themed boutique hotel, opened mid-summer 2014 in St. Pete Beach to rave reviews. Named for the Spanish province that inspired its architecture, the interior design blends South Beach chic and Old World Spanish, resulting in a luxurious place to stay.

The Chihuly Collection in St. Petersburg now has a shop to match its incredible gallery. In addition to featuring pieces by the glass master, the new space showcases local artists, as well as handcrafted and specialized products.

A 33,500-gallon aquarium takes center stage at the new RumFish Grill & Bar at Guy Harvey Outpost on St. Pete Beach. The restaurant features casual dining options of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees to satiate any sized appetite. Afterward, walk around the restaurant’s store, which carries the largest selection of Guy Harvey merchandise in the area. And if you’re staying at the resort, you can even snorkel in the aquarium!

There are a lot of new things to see, do and eat in Hernando County. The recently opened Springleton Family Park is a terrific place for families to enjoy mini-golf, bumper cars, an arcade and more. A great family event is the new Brooksville Native American Festival, which premiered in February 2014 and quickly became an annual event.

As far as dining, two new restaurants opened in 2014—The Cove in Hernando Beach and Al Di Là Italian Bistro in Spring Hill. Bon appétit!

ARTS AND CULTURE

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s plenty of beauty to be found in Central West Florida.

A showpiece on the Riverwalk in downtown Tampa, the Tampa Museum of Art is housed in an architectural work of art designed by Stanley Saitowitz. Inside, an incredible collection of contemporary and classical art, as well as enticing traveling exhibitions, is on display.

Follow the Riverwalk south to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, which features works by local, national and international photographers, as well as historical collections. Farther along the river is the Tampa Bay History Center, which tells the stories of the city on the bay.

A short trolley ride from the Tampa Bay History Center is Ybor City, a living museum, if you will. Once known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” this small city within a city was rich with cigar factories where workers rolled millions of cigars annually. Today, the brick streets are lined with cafés and shops, a few of which sell hand-rolled cigars.

Back in Tampa, step back into a simpler time and the splendor of the storied 1920s “movie palace,” the Tampa Theatre. Take a tour of the mesmerizing theatre before the main feature begins, and sit back and relax while a volunteer organist serenades you on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ before the curtain rises.

Within walking distance of each other in downtown St. Petersburg are the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, featuring 10,000 square feet of dazzling works of glass art by the master himself, and the Museum of Fine Arts with thousands of objects spanning 4,500 years, from antiquity to the present. Not far from these two museums is the Dalí Museum, where you’ll find the world’s largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work, including 1,300 graphics, photos, sculptures and objets d’art; 96 oil paintings; and more than 100 watercolors and drawings. The structure housing the Dalí Museum is in itself a surreal piece of art, too. These are but three reasons why The New York Times included St. Petersburg among the “Top 52 Best Places to Visit in 2014.”

BEACHES

With miles of coastline and beaches, Central West Florida’s stretches of sugar-white, powder-soft sandy beaches found along the Gulf of Mexico each have their own personalities and are the perfect playgrounds for all ages. Whatever type of beach experience you’re looking for—be it quiet, action-packed, or anything in between—Central West Florida has you covered.

A few of the region’s best beaches are actually state parks. For a quiet, more natural beach day without high-rises lingering behind you, consider Anclote Key Preserve State Park, Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park. One of the best beaches in the area is at Fort De Soto Park, south of St. Pete Beach.

Not only Floridians think the beaches here are fantastic. TripAdvisor named three beaches in Pinellas County to its annual list of the “25 Best Beaches in America,” namely, St. Pete Beach (No. 9), Caladesi Island State Park outside of Dunedin (No. 11) and Clearwater Beach (No. 21).

At the end of the day, there’s no better place than a beach in Central West Florida to take in spectacular sunsets.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Once awash with chain restaurants, Central West Florida has stepped up its game with loads of independently owned eateries, which include James Beard-nominated chefs and farm-to-table spots that are certainly garnering plenty of attention.

Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood continues to grow in terms of restaurants popping up and staking claim. In addition to The Refinery, where the menu changes weekly based on what’s in season, there are Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe and Rooster & the Till, with more coming in the next year or so. For authentic Cuban bread, stop by Mauricio Faedo’s Bakery, across the street from The Refinery.

You’re sure to find something to please your taste buds in Ybor City. Park your car or hop on the trolley and walk around. For Spanish and Cuban flavors, add Columbia Restaurant—the oldest restaurant in Florida—to your list, and try the 1905 Salad with a Cuban sandwich. Once dinner is over, linger awhile in Ybor City to partake in its thriving nightlife, which ranges from dance clubs and live music venues to quiet pubs for a pint.

Tampa’s South Howard Avenue, or SoHo, is filled with restaurants from which to choose. Make a night of it and book reservations at Bern’s Steak House, a dining institution. 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 Harry Waugh Dessert Room. And like Ybor City, once dinner’s over, the nights come alive along this strip.

There are loads of dining options in downtown St. Petersburg, too, from casual sidewalk cafés to fine dining. Here’s another chance to park your car, walk around and see what calls out to you.

The oldest microbrewery in Florida, Dunedin Brewery set the scene and now there are loads of pints from which to choose, many of which are award-winning brews. The best of the best include 7venth Sun Brewery, also in Dunedin; Saint Somewhere Brewing Company in Tarpon Springs; Green Bench Brewing Co., 3 Daughters Brewing and Cycle Brewing in St. Petersburg; Brooksville Brewing Company in Hernando County; Cigar City Brewing (with a new cider and mead tasting room opening soon) in Ybor; Southern Brewing, Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and Coopertail Brewing Co. in Tampa. Cheers!

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Aside from miles of beaches, Central West Florida appeals to everyone in the family.

When it’s time to go wild, be sure to visit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. The largest accredited sanctuary in the country is home to more than 100 lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats and cougars that have been rescued and are now cared for by loving staff and volunteers. Get up close to these magnificent cats and be enthralled by their beauty.

Another place to enjoy close encounters with animals is Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, consistently recognized as the “Best Zoo in the US” by Parents Magazine. Spend a day observing animals from Africa, Australia, Asia and beyond, learn about their habitats and how to protect them, and you’ll easily see why it’s rated so highly.

Discover all of the wonders that lie beneath the water’s surface at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. Meet penguins, dive with sharks (for scuba-certified only), swim with fish (for ages six and older) or cruise out onto Tampa Bay to watch for dolphins.

Speaking of dolphins, Winter, the star of Dolphin Tale, makes her home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and is always happy to meet her fans. Plenty of other marine life live alongside Winter: stop and say hello to her friends, Hope and Nicholas, and the resident sea turtles, otters, stingrays, sharks, pelicans and eel. You can get out on the water here, too, on board the aquarium’s 90-minute Sea Life Safari.

Take another look beneath the water and you’ll find mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Yes, mermaids! Every day, mermaids don their fins and entertain visitors during their shows in the crystal-clear waters. Manatees, thought to be mermaids by sailors too long at sea, gather in the same springs when water temperatures dip below 72 F elsewhere in Florida. Other popular manatee viewing spots include Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River and the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.

Take the family out to the ball game during spring training, or during the regular season for that matter. The Toronto Blue Jays hit the spring training field in Dunedin, while the New York Yankees play spring ball in Tampa, and the Philadelphia Phillies take a swing at spring in Clearwater. During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays play their opponents at the always 72-F Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

More amusement in Central West Florida is found at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, canoeing or kayaking the region’s rivers and springs, walking among life-size dinosaurs at Dinosaur World in Plant City, creating art at the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, and finding thrills on roller coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa.

ROAD TRIP

Greek cuisine, art, culture—it’s all here in the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs. The area was first settled in 1876, and today is a popular day-trip destination from Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pasco County. Go for the history, culture and food, and you’ll go back for more!

SHOPPING

What’s a vacation without shopping? Fortunately, there are plenty of spots to find just what you need in Central West Florida.

Pull out your credit cards and get ready to fill your bags at the International Plaza in Tampa. With anchor stores, such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, as well as all-time favorites Gap, Banana Republic (his and her shops), H&M, and boutiques including Burberry and Gucci, the registers will be ringing.

Tree-lined streets, sprawling homes and shopping à la European village make Hyde Park Village one of Tampa’s hot spots. It’s easy to spend the day here. Shop for a bit in the morning at name-brand stores, such as West Elm, lululemon athletica, Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie and others. Afterward, enjoy a bite to eat at Piquant Epicure & Cuisine, or sip wine at the Wine Exchange. For more outdoor shopping, slip over to The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, where boutiques and department stores entice you with their wares.

St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District is gaining popularity among shoppers, and it’s easy to see why. Spend a day leisurely strolling along the avenue lined with fine art galleries, record and vintage clothing shops, and antique stores. There are also plenty of restaurants and bars along the way to pop into for a respite.

Looking for a little something to take back to friends back home? Souvenir shopping is perfected at John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach. Drop by any of the 100 shops for everything from T-shirts and shells to artwork and more.

SPAS

When it’s time to really relax and spoil yourself, Central West Florida has what you need. In addition to day spas sprinkled throughout the area, several resorts offer spa treatments to their guests as well as to the public. What’s more, to enhance your experience, several spas feature water-inspired treatments. After all, you are in Florida.

Following a day in the springs, relax at Spa Bleu at Plantation on Crystal River. The Aveda spa has nearly everything you could desire, from one-of-a-kind treatments to a full day of pampering filled with manicures and pedicures, massages, facials, Vichy showers and more.

Set amidst 900 acres of rolling hills, pine trees and four golf courses is Indaba — The Spa at Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor. The stand-alone spa defines tranquility. Inside the separate dressing rooms are lounge areas, saunas/steam rooms and hot tubs. The state-of-the-art treatment rooms evoke instant relaxation, making it simple to ease into your treatment. For a change of pace, try the Copperhead Golf Ball Massage, a terrific take on a hot-stone massage. Complete your experience with lunch en spa, or walk the labyrinth for a bit of meditation.

The 12,000-square-foot Spa at Sandpearl on Clearwater Beach is a relaxing retreat from the start. From the whirlpool and steam rooms to treatment rooms and couples’ suites complete with Swiss showers, you won’t want to leave once you step foot inside. And that’s before the treatments even begin! For a real treat, try the Ocean Memory Ritual, an organic algae-based remedy that renders the skin smooth and firm. It’s little wonder why The Spa at Sandpearl is rated among the “Top Spas in North America” by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler.

Just down the beach is Sandava Spa at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa. With a focus on individually crafted experiences customized with fresh, organic ingredients, Sandava customizes your spa time to specifically suit your needs. For instance, the Sun Repair Soother is perfect after a few days under the rays. Or opt for one of the spa’s signature treatments, such as the Sun-Warmed Shell Massage, Florida Orange Scrub or the Blueberry Bliss Facial. Sandava has seasonal offerings, too, so be sure to check the menu when you make your appointment for even more choices.

South of Clearwater Beach is Spa Oceana at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel St. Pete Beach. Five treatments on the spa menu are exclusive to the Don CeSar, including Spa Oceana Splendor, Oceana Aromatherapy Massage, Tropical Perfecting Ritual, Pearl Radiance Resurfacing Facial and the Floral Blossom Manicure & Pedicure. Or, for a truly decadent spa experience, choose the Spa Oceana Sunset Bliss Massage—the most expensive and exclusive couples’ massage in the world, at US$3,500 per couple. Start with a little relaxation in a rooftop cabana and delicacies prepared by the hotel’s executive chef, served with a bottle of Cristal, and followed by a sunset, seaside couples’ massage that will melt the world away.

When Hernando DeSoto reached the shores of Old Tampa Bay in 1539, he thought he’d found the legendary Fountain of Youth that Ponce De León had missed. Since its founding in 1925, the historic Safety Harbor Resort and Spa is “where healing waters flow.” Today, the 50,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, which Spa Finder Magazine consistently recognizes among its top 10 US spas, features everything you need for that youthful glow. Spend a day and choose from more than 50 spa and salon treatments; or, stay overnight and try Lavender Dreams, an Espiritu Springs Mineral Bath combined with the Lavender Dreams Ultimate Experience.

In Tampa, Evangeline at the Epicurean Hotel takes organic to a new level with fresh fruit scrubs, buttery lotions and botanical oils infused with herbs from the hotel’s living wall. Each treatment is customized to meet your needs, and each ingredient is carefully selected to awaken your senses and refresh your soul. In homage to its foodie roots, Evangeline features treatments that will leave you hungry, such as the Dulce Delight manicure/pedicure, with scents of Arabica coffee bean, caramel, butter brûlée, dark chocolate and sweet cream milk emanating throughout the service. Or, create your own aromatherapy blend to use during your treatment and take home to enjoy afterward.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

For an historic night’s stay, make reservations at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, a pink Mediterranean Revival-style hotel in downtown St. Pete. Though it was built in 1925 and is on the US National Register of Historic Places, the hotel has all the modern amenities to make your stay more than comfortable.

The Loews Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach, also known as the “pink lady,” opened in 1928 and quickly became a favorite of the Jazz Age glitterati, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, “the Don” welcomes its guests with doors open to the Gulf of Mexico and all of the conveniences of home.

The Epicurean Hotel in South Tampa, just outside the downtown area, welcomes foodies and non-foodies alike to its culinary-inspired property. The 137-room boutique hotel is dedicated to extraordinary culinary experiences, which comes as no surprise since it was developed in collaboration with famed Bern’s Steak House, right across the street.

The century-old Historic Federal Courthouse in Tampa, also part of the US National Register of Historic Places, opened as Le Méridien Tampa in June 2014. Classic architecture beautifully sets off modern touches and state-of-the-art technology, turning former judges’ chambers into incredible guest rooms. What’s more, as part of its UNLOCK Art program, the hotel has partnered with the Tampa Museum of Art, offering guests complimentary access to Le Méridien-affiliated contemporary cultural centers in the city by simply showing their key cards.

Aloft Tampa Downtown, on the Riverwalk that winds its way through downtown Tampa, opened in mid-2014 and is a terrific option for business and leisure travelers alike. The former Mercantile Bank office was re-purposed and developed to feature 130 loft-like rooms in a vibrant, social atmosphere.

Situated upon 232 acres of preserved land, the Plantation on Crystal River reopened in January 2012 after extensive renovations and boasts a full-service family-oriented dive and tour marina, 27 holes of golf, a spa, dining and relaxing accommodation. The eco-friendly and green luxury resort is surrounded by natural springs.

INSTDER’S TIPS

There’s a little piece of Cuba in Central West Florida. A small park on the west end of Ybor City is dedicated to Cuban poet and revolutionary José Martí and has been owned by the Cuban government since 1956.

Daytona Beach
Northwest Florida
Sebring
Okeechobee
Crystal River
Gainesville
Royal Shell
Florida Southern College
Franklin County