WEST CENTRAL FLORIDA:
A CORNUCOPIA of endless delights

BY SUSAN B. BARNES

The Sunshine State has something for everyone, and West Central Florida follows suit with its myriad offerings: award-winning beaches; the thrills and spills of theme parks; natural adventures; world-class museums and galleries; a thriving nightlife; tempting shopping venues; and so much more.

A DAY IN...

CRYSTAL RIVER/CITRUS COUNTY

Begin your day feeling wonder again. Swim with manatees in the amazing springs of Crystal River's Kings Bay. Take the trolley to the Three Sisters Springs boardwalk. It's like a national park in a single acre. At the Kings Bay waterfront, dine on seafood fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Afterward, explore the shops of Heritage Village in downtown Crystal River. Later, take a sunset cruise or enjoy the show from Fort Island Gulf Beach. For dinner, reserve a table at Vintage on 5th, winner of Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence seven years running.

DUNEDIN

Cycle to Honeymoon Island, Florida's most visited state park, to swim, fish and snorkel in the warm Gulf waters. Or pack a picnic and ferry over to Caladesi to hike, paddle or bask on award-winning beaches. After lunch return to historic downtown Dunedin to shop and stroll through waterfront parks. Sample craft beers at the Dunedin Brewery. Admire the sunset and dine on fresh seafood at the Olde Bay Cafe. During spring training, cheer for the Toronto Blue Jays at the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

ST. PETE/CLEARWATER

Watch sunrise at North Shore Park in St. Pete. Grab breakfast at a St. Pete indie coffee house. Walk to the Dalí Museum to view the artist's largest collection of works outside of Spain. Lunch at Urban Comfort before heading to Clearwater Beach to soak up the sun and splash in the warm Gulf waters. Stroll along Pier 60. Sip a tropical cocktail at Tommy's Tiki Bar at the Hilton Clearwater Beach. For dinner with a view, the outdoor patio at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill ends a perfect day.

TAMPA BAY

Savor fresh guava turnovers and Cuban coffee at La Segunda Bakery in Ybor City before exploring Tampa's eclectic Latin Quarter, one of Florida's two historic districts. Visit José Martí Park, the only piece of American soil owned by the people of Cuba. Enjoy paella and sangria at Columbia Restaurant, Florida's oldest dining establishment. Ride the TECO Historic Streetcar Line to the Tampa Riverwalk and nearby museums and attractions. Order cocktails at Franklin Manor, followed by a sunset dinner at Ulele and a nightcap at Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club.

ARTS AND CULTURE

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, West Central Florida has plenty to share. One showpiece sits on the Tampa Riverwalk a pedestrian walkway that meanders through the city along the Hillsborough River. 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, are on display. From the museum, follow the Riverwalk south to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, showcasing works by local, national and international photographers, as well as historical collections.

Nobody does pirates like Tampa Bay. The newly expanded Tampa Bay History Center brings to life pirates, shipwrecks and treasure-complete with a 60-foot replica pirate ship to climb around, a real 1700s ship's treasure chest and an authentic 1703 map of the Caribbean showing exactly where to attack ships full of treasure. The expansion also includes a cartographic research center and houses over 6,000 maps dating back as far as as 1493.

Back in downtown Tampa, step into simpler times amid the splendor of the storied 1920s "movie palace," the Tampa Theatre. Tour the mesmerizing theater 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 Museum of Fine Arts, with thousands of objects spanning 4,500 years, from antiquity to the present, and the Dalí Museum with 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. The Chihuly Collection recently moved to its new location on the Morean Arts Center campus in St. Pete's Central Arts District, and features amazing works of glass art by the master himself.

To the north of Tampa, Dunedin is filled with galleries and regularly hosts arts and craft shows throughout the year. If you're in the area January 6-7, 2018, head over to the 21st Annual Downtown Dunedin Art Festival, which showcases more than 100 of the nation's most talented artists and a broad spectrum of media including sculptures, glass, paintings, jewelry and ceramics. 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 of the Second Seminole War are held twice a day along with living history demonstrations.

ATTRACTIONS

When it's time to go wild, be sure to visit Big Cat Rescue in Tampa. One of the largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats in the world, this is home to about 100 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, five-time winner of TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence. Spend a day with animals from Africa, Australia, Asia and beyond, learning about their habitats and how to protect them, and you'll easily see why it's rated so highly. Downtown, discover all of the wonders that lie beneath the water's surface at the Florida Aquarium. Meet penguins, dive with sharks (SCUBA-certified only), swim with fish (for ages six and older) or sharks (for ages nine and older), or cruise out onto the waters of Tampa Bay to watch for dolphins.

Located right across the Street from Busch Gardens, Adventure Island is the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. And in March 2018, guests are in for the slide of their lives when Advenure Island Tampa Bay's new epic drop slide, Vanish Point, opens next to another family-favorite, Colossal Curl.

In its 46th year, the largest non-profit wild bird sanctuary in the US—the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores (located between St. Petersburg and Clearwater)—has been dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and hopeful release of sick, injured and orphaned birds.

North of Indian Shores, Winter, the star of Dolphin Tale, makes her home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and is always happy to greet 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 Nature Cruise.

Take another look beneath the water and you'll find mermaids in the crystal-clear waters at Weeki Wachee Springs.

More amusement is found winding down the Weeki Wachee River on a Bayport River Safari; cooling off in the new indoor ice rink at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel; creating art at the Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa; indoor skydiving at the new iFly in Brandon; and walking among life-size dinosaurs at Dinosaur World in Plant City, not to mention the thrilling rides at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

West Central Florida's stretches of sugar-white, powder-soft sandy beaches found along the Gulf of Mexico each have their own personalities and are perfect playgrounds for all ages.

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 to the north. 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.

Not only Floridians think the beaches here are fantastic. Two local beaches made it onto TripAdvisor's 2017 Travelers' Choice list of "Top 25 Beaches-United States"—St. Pete Beach (No. 3) and Clearwater Beach (No. 4). And at the end of the day, there's no better place than a beach in West Central Florida to watch spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.

When water temperatures dip below 72 F in Florida, West Central Florida's natural springs are terrific spots to see manatees, thought to be mermaids by sailors too long at sea. Popular manatee viewing spots include Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River and the TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach, just south of Tampa.

ENTERTAINMENT

When it comes to nightlife, West Central Florida likes to party. And there are plenty of spots to do just that.

Ybor City's thriving nightlife ranges from dance clubs and live music venues to quiet pubs, while Tampa's South Howard Avenue, or SoHo, is filled with restaurants. However, this hip strip really comes alive after dinner when the drinks begin to pour.

Professional sports take hold of West Central Florida on the ice, on the field and on the pitch. The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the ice for their 2017-18 season through April, unless the team makes the playoffs and their NHL season is extended in pursuit of the coveted Stanley Cup.

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 one of the top five places to watch a spring training 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 along the route. During the regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays play their opponents at the 72 F Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

On the pitch in downtown St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer team begins its pre-season matches in March, and the regular schedule takes them through the summer and late into the fall.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their gridiron season in September and play through the fall and into January, with their season extending if they make it into the NFL playoffs.

For a different type of sport, try your hand and test your skills at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa.

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 by Greek immigrants, and today has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans than any other city in the US. What was once "the sponge capital of the world" is a popular day-trip destination from Tampa, Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Dunedin and Pasco County. Go for the history, culture and food, and you'll find yourself wanting to go back for more!

Park the car and walk, run, cycle or rollerblade 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.

For a truly unique experience you won't soon forget, head over to Crystal River where various tour operators provide the equipment and let you swim among West Indian manatees in super clear waters. Visitors who prefer to stay at arm's length from the gentle giants can rent a kayak (with or without a guide) to observe them as they swim and play below in the warm waters. If this option is still too close for comfort, you can watch manatees any day of the year from the underwater observatory at the nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. The park also showcases other native Florida wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators and crocodiles, and river otters, and offers Wildlife Encounter programs and a children's education center.

SHOPPING

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, J. Crew, Banana Republic (his and her shops), and H&M, and boutiques including Burberry and Gucci, the registers will be ringing. Just down the road, WestShore Plaza counts Macy's, LOFT, Old Navy and Dick's Sporting Goods among its storefronts, so there are plenty of shopping opportunities here, too.

Tree-lined streets, historic homes and shopping à la European village make Hyde Park Village one of Tampa's hot retail spots. It's easy to spend the day here. Shop for a bit in the morning at brand-name stores, such as west elm, Sur la Table, lululemon athletica, Brooks Brothers, Anthropologie and others. Later, enjoy a bite to eat at the re-imagined Goody Goody, nibble on a cupcake at Sprinkles or sip wine at the Wine Exchange Bistro & Wine Bar. For more outdoor shopping, slip over to The Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, where boutiques and department stores entice shoppers with their wares, or Tampa Premium Outlets in Lutz for 25 to 65 percent savings on designer brands.

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, so take your time and enjoy all this shopping district has to offer.

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 26th Annual Downtown Dunedin Craft Festival February 17-18, or the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in downtown Tampa March 3-4. Just a short drive from Tampa, the small coastal town of Dunedin attracts some of the country's finest artists and crafters to its annual event. If you miss it, the town hosts additional craft festivals throughout the year, so don't despair!

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