CENTRAL WEST FLORIDA:
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF BEACHES

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

Central West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

When it comes to the Sunshine State and all it has to offer, Central West Florida presents a bit of everything: powder-soft, white-sand beaches; thrilling theme parks; a vibrant nightlife scene; captivating world-class museums; and much more.

WHAT’S NEW

In the historic Ybor City district outside of downtown Tampa, Rock Brothers Brewing opened in late 2015 to the delight of music fans of all genres. The production facility, tasting room and listening room feature craft beers that embody the spirit of the musicians with whom the brewer partners. Expect refreshing pints inspired by Umphrey’s Magee, JJ Grey, Hootie & The Blowfish, 311 and more!

Fresh produce and much more are found at the Ybor Daily Market in Ybor City. The farmers’ market features, not only fresh produce and food, but arts and crafts, fresh coffee and tea, and even local and organic treats served from a retrofitted Airstream trailer.

A few new restaurants have put themselves on the Tampa map. Goody Goody, a former Tampa institution, has returned and is now located in Hyde Park Village. Their famous hamburgers are back on the menu and feature the “secret sauce” everyone craves. Another crowd favorite, butterscotch pie remains on the menu.

Also in Hyde Park Village, bartaco is a recent addition to Tampa’s strong Mexican food scene. Its bright, airy space and affordable menu make it an ideal place to spend time enjoying a meal with friends and family.

Watch out for snakes at Busch Gardens Tampa! In 2016, Cobra’s Curse is expected to captivate families with its spine-tingling vertical 70-foot lift that takes riders on a whirlwind adventure of exciting explorations at speeds exceeding 40 mph. Trek over the park’s Serengeti Plain as you discover the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation and come face-to-face with an 80-foot snake icon, complete with fangs!

Disney and Dalí: Architects of the Imagination opens January 2016 and continues through June 2016 at the Dalí Museum in St. Pete. The first-ever Dalí-Disney exhibit showcases the relationship between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney, two creative visionaries who actually collaborated on an animated short, Destino, which began in 1945 but wasn’t released until 2003.

Also in St. Pete, Top Chef contestant Jeffrey Jew recently opened Stillwaters Tavern, having spent a year developing recipes for his new restaurant. Down the street, Brick & Mortar – Kitchen & Wine Bar is a “true food lovers’ and cooks’ restaurant specializing in rustic yet elegant flavors,” not to mention an extensive wine and craft beer selection.

In Clearwater, the Opal Sands Resort is set to open by March 2016, setting the bar for luxury beachfront accommodation in Florida’s No. 1 Best Beach Town, as named by USA Today. Its restaurant, Sea-guini, promises to deliver a tropical twist on seafood-centric Italian dining, with a focus on farm-fresh and fresh-off-the-boat ingredients infused throughout the menus and unprecedented views of the Gulf of Mexico.

Central West Florida craft beer brewers are making room for distilleries emerging onto the scene, including St. Petersburg Distillery, NJoy Spirits (Weeki Wachee) and Cotherman Distilling (Dunedin).

Set your sights on the treetops at the TreeUmph! Adventure Course opening in Brooksville/Weeki Wachee in fall 2016, complete with high ropes courses, zip lining and much more to keep you and your family on your toes!

ARTS AND CULTURE

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Central West Florida has plenty of beauty to share.

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, showcasing works by local, national and international photographers, as well as historical collections. Farther along the river, the Tampa Bay History Center tells the stories of the city on the bay.

A short trolley ride from the Tampa Bay History Center, Ybor City is a living museum. 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 simpler times and the splendor of the storied 1920s “movie palace,” the Tampa Theatre. Tour the mesmerizing theatre before the main feature begins. Then 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 amazing 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, the Dalí Museum displays the world’s largest collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain, 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.

To the north of Tampa, Dunedin is filled with galleries and regularly hosts arts and crafts shows throughout the year. If you’re in the area January 9 & 10, 2016, head over to the 19th Annual Downtown Dunedin Art Festival, which showcases 150 of the nation’s most talented artists and a broad spectrum of mediums including sculptures, glass, paintings, jewelry, ceramics and much more. Admission is free.

Every spring, world-class Scottish athletes descend upon Dunedin for the annual Highland Games & Festival that include a traditional Scottish gathering with music and dance, a parade and a full day of events and competitions.

For a peek into the history of the area, check out the annual Fort Cooper Days event in Inverness, where re-enactments depicting the events that took place during the construction of Fort Cooper are staged along with living history demonstrations.

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 towering behind you, consider Fort De Soto Park, south of St. Pete Beach, or Anclote Key Preserve State Park. Caladesi Island State Park is a perfect destination not only for beaches, but also for its four-mile kayaking trail and its three-mile nature trail. Nearby Honeymoon Island State Park was connected to Caladesi Island until a hurricane separated them in 1921. Once a popular honeymoon destination in the 1940s and 1950s it is now a favorite among birdwatchers and welcomes more than one million visitors annually, making Honeymoon Island State Park the most-visited park in Florida.

Not only Floridians think the beaches here are fantastic. Two beaches—St. Pete Beach (No. 2) and Clearwater Beach (No. 8)—made it onto TripAdvisor’s 2015 list of the “25 Best Beaches in America.” And at the end of the day, there’s no better place than a beach in Central West Florida to watch spectacular sunsets.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Once awash with chain restaurants, Central West Florida has stepped up its game with plenty of independently owned eateries, which feature 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 every three to four days based on what’s in season, there are Ella’s Americana Folk Art Café, Rooster & the Till and Fodder & Shine. 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 and walk around or hop on the trolley. 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 a while in Ybor City to enjoy its thriving nightlife, which ranges from dance clubs and live music venues to quiet pubs. Cigar City Cider & Mead is a tasting room with plenty of pint options.

Tampa’s South Howard Avenue, or SoHo, is filled with restaurants. Make a night of it and book reservations at Bern’s Steak House, a dining institution where for more than 50 years, Bern’s has served aged prime beef, caviar, organic vegetables and wines from an extensive cellar stocked with 6,500-plus labels. Insider’s tip: order the tableside Caesar salad and make reservations for the Harry Waugh Dessert Room. And like Ybor City, once dinner’s over, the night comes alive along this hip 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.

In Dunedin, the Olde Bay Café is known for its lobster bisque, crab cakes, fresh-from-the-Gulf fish and sunset views.

The oldest microbrewery in Florida, Dunedin Brewery set the scene and now there’s a host of award-winning brews from which to choose. The best of the rest in Dunedin include 7venth Sun Brewery and Clear Sky Draught Haus, which features 37 craft beers on tap and another 60-plus in bottles; 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; and Angry Chair Brewing, Cigar City Brewing (recently ranked among the top five breweries in the US), Coopertail Brewing Co., Florida Avenue Brewing Co., Southern Brewing and Tampa Bay Brewing Co. in Tampa.

Food is just one of many reasons to visit Citrus County. The restaurant at the Homosassa Riverside Resort serves excellent fare. If you’re ravenous, don’t pass up their famous trashcan lid filled with fresh seafood. Minutes away, The Freezer is a locals’ favorite, cash-only tiki bar, which serves up the freshest seafood around, along with wine and beer (no frilly umbrellas here!).

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

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 about 80 lions, tigers, bobcats and cougars that have been rescued and are now cared for by loving staff and volunteers.

Another place to enjoy close encounters with animals is Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, 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.

More amusement is found at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, 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.

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 clown fish. You can get out on the water here, too, on board the aquarium’s 90-minute Sea Life Safari.

Take the family out to the ball game during spring training, or during the regular season for that matter. Beginning in March, the Toronto Blue Jays take their swings at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin (once ranked as one of the “best places to see a game” by Sports Illustrated), while the New York Yankees play spring ball in Tampa and the Philadelphia Phillies step up to the plate in Clearwater. The Jolley Trolley travels from Clearwater to Dunedin and on to Tarpon Springs making it easy to catch a few spring training games. During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays play their opponents at the 72-F Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

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 Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River and the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.

For a real treat, rent a kayak from A Crystal River Kayak Company and paddle among the manatees on the Crystal River. You may choose to take a guided tour or head off on your own. Either way, just be sure to respect the rules of the river and the manatees.

ROAD TRIPS

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

Park the car and cycle along the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, a 40-mile protected, multi-use greenspace created along an abandoned railroad corridor that extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.

SHOP

What’s a vacation without shopping?

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), and 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, Sur la Table, lululemon athletica, Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie and others. Later, enjoy a bite to eat at the new bartaco 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 shoppers 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-plus shops for everything from T-shirts and shells to artwork and more.

If you admire arts and crafts, don’t miss the Annual Downtown Dunedin Craft Festival. Just a short drive from Tampa, this small coastal town attracts some of the country’s finest artists and crafters to its annual event. If you miss it, the town hosts other craft festivals throughout the year.

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, Indaba – The Spa at Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor, defines tranquility. Inside the separate dressing rooms are lounge areas, saunas/steam rooms and hot tubs. 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 that 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 individualizes 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 for even more choices when you make your appointment.

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, Beach Glow Body Treatment, Sea of Life 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 and a bottle of Cristal, followed by a sunset, seaside couples’ massage that will melt the world away.

When Hernando de Soto 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, attracts 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.

Open since June 2014, Le Méridien Tampa’s classic architecture beautifully sets off modern touches and state-of-the-art technology, turning former judges’ chambers into incredible guest rooms at what was formerly the century-old Historic Federal Courthouse and is now part of the US National Register of Historic Places. What’s more, as part of its UNLOCK Art program, the hotel partners with the Tampa Museum of Art to offer 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, 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 hip, vibrant, social atmosphere.

In Dunedin, just north of Tampa, the Best Western Plus Yacht Harbor Inn is a boutique waterfront resort that overlooks beautiful St. Joseph’s Sound. It’s within easy walking distance from Dunedin’s delightful downtown core and the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium where Toronto’s Blue Jays conduct their spring training.

Manatees may just be your neighbors during a stay at the Homosassa Riverside Resort in Citrus County, where the springs are 72 F year-round. Homosassa means “River of Fishes” in Seminole Indian, so it’s no surprise species include mullet, snook, snapper, tarpon, sheephead, trout, skate and many more. Boat tour operators head out from the resort twice a day to the Crystal River where manatees winter to escape the cold weather and they will provide all the necessary equipment and guidance if you opt to snorkel or swim with these gentle giants. Kids will also enjoy watching five spider monkeys that reside on Monkey Island, a tiny chunk of land owned and tended by the Homosassa Riverside Resort.

Situated upon 232 acres of preserved land, the Plantation on Crystal River 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.

Citrus County is also the perfect getaway choice for campers and RV owners. Stay in waterfront towns such as Crystal River and Homosassa. Popular campgrounds include the Crystal Isles RV Resort, the Homosassa River Carefree RV Resort and the Chassahowitzka River Campground, among others. Many allow fishing within the park and none are far from water activities.

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