The gulf coast of Florida has a laid-back reputation, the opposite of the Atlantic side’s fast-paced party attitude. In truth, both coasts can be low-key one moment and high-octane the next. In this issue we explore two weekend-long itineraries originating in Tampa, one heading south and one heading north. There’s plenty of gulf coast tranquility—and a healthy dash of wild-side fun—to enjoy along the way.
Boaters have always been fond of wide, protected Tampa Bay. Its deepest point is approximately 30 feet in the channel and it is dredged several times a year. Forbes ranked Tampa one of the best outdoor cities in the U.S., and it’s no wonder, given all the year-round festivals and activities that take place. Guavaween is a Halloween party with Latin flair; the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, held each January, culminates in a pirate parade and is known as Florida’s Mardi Gras.
Be sure to visit Ybor City (www.ybor.org), the city’s historic Spanish and Cuban district, now home to an eclectic array of restaurants, galleries, and night clubs. Other don’t-miss attractions: 56-acre Lowry Park Zoo (1101 W. Sligh Ave., 813-935-8552, www.lowryparkzoo.com), complete with natural habitat exhibitions and rides such as a roller coaster and a flume; and Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center (6998 Dickman Rd., 813-228-4289, www.tampaelectric.com), a wonderful facility near the company’s Big Bend Power Station where manatees gather in a warm-water current.
The Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (700 S. Florida Ave., 813-221-4900, marriott.com) is in the heart of downtown, minutes from Ybor City, and has 32 full-service slips.
Cruising South: St. Pete, Longboat Key and Sarasota
St. Petersburg is just a few short miles from Tampa and deserves at least a day for sightseeing. The excellent Salvador Dalí Museum (1000 Third St. S., 727-823-3767, salvadordalimuseum.org) houses an extraordinary collection of the painter’s work; a new museum building opens this January. Built on the site of the 1926 Million Dollar Pier, the pyramid-shaped Pier (800 Second Ave. N.E., 727-821-6164, stpetepier.com) has become a landmark in its own right. The Pier holds five stories of shops and restaurants, as well as an aquarium, education station, and observation deck. People feed pelicans, large boats tie up at the docks, and the vitality of the older structure can still be felt.
On a tiny nearby islet is Fort De Soto Park (pinellascounty.org), with battlement ruins, miles of walking and biking trails, and a lovely beach. Climb to the top of Battery Laidley for terrific panoramic views.
For dockage, slide into a slip at Renaissance Vinoy Marina (501 Fifth Ave. N.E., 727-824-8022, vinoymarina.com), a luxurious resort right in downtown St. Pete.
Head farther south to Longboat Key and Sarasota, an area that has loads to see and do. For shopping and dining, saunter through St. Armands Key (starmandscircleassoc.com), set between downtown Sarasota and Longboat. The charming district is pedestrian friendly and full of great restaurants and boutiques. The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art (5401 Bay Shore Rd., 941-359-5700, ringling.org) is a gem, with a superb Old Masters collection. A quirky circus museum adjacent to the art galleries celebrates the Ringling family’s three-ring connections. The gorgeous, Venetian Gothic-style Ca d'Zan Mansion was built by the Ringlings as their private residence in 1925 and can now be toured.
Other attractions you might want to make time for: Mote Marine Lab & Aquarium (1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy., 941-388-4441, mote.org), headquarters for one of the nation’s premiere marine research centers, and Selby Gardens (811 S. Palm Ave., 941-366-5731, selby.org), a 9.5-acre bayfront spread with an impressive array of plants, including more than 6,000 orchids.
Dock at Longboat Key Club (2630 Harbourside Dr., 941-383-8383, longboatkeymarina.com), which you’ll see right before reaching Sarasota. The top-notch facility offers a free shuttle to places around town, including St. Armands Key.
Cruising North: Clearwater and Tarpon Springs
An unbeatable place to slow it all down and just dawdle on the beach, Clearwater also has a fantastic nightly sunset festival. Street performers, crafts vendors, and musicians gather right before dusk at Pier 60 (10 Pier 60 Dr., 727-461-7732, sunsetsatpier60.com).
Dock overnight at Clearwater Municipal Marina (727-462-6954 ext. 27, myclearwatermarina.com), a 210-slip outfit next to Clearwater Beach.
A bit farther north, the unique Sponge Docks district (spongedocks.net) is the center of Tarpon Springs’ sponge industry, and home to a proud, long-standing Greek community. Sample the many restaurants and cafes for out-of-this-world Greek food. The pristine 403-acre Anclote Key Preserve State Park (1 Causeway Blvd., 727-469-5942, floridastateparks.org) comprises four beach-swathed islands and is only accessible by private boat or ferry. Pack your own cooler because provisioning is not available. Dogs are allowed on North Anclote Bar only.
For overnight docking in town, try The Landing at Tarpon Springs (727-937-1100, thelandingattarponsprings.com), a friendly spot on the Anclotte River, across from the Sponge Docks. If you have one too many shots of ouzo, you’ll be able to easily find your way home.