West coast of the Sunshine State!
Florida’s west coast is a hidden paradise with its white beaches that go on for miles along the Gulf of Mexico. The area is well known for its 350 sunny days and the slow pace in a “Southern style”.
Boca Ciega Resort & Marina is on the waterfront, between Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach. Madeira Beach & the Gulf of Mexico with its beautiful beaches are just around the corner. If you are up for it, you will find activities everywhere. It’s only 3 miles to Maderia Beach, 5 miles to Treasure Island, 8 miles to St. Petersburg, 10 miles to Clearwater Beach, and 18 miles to Tampa
Weather at Boca Ciega Resort:
For white sands, mangrove swamps, wildlife, cultural riches, fine dining and lots more – go west!
Given that Florida’s first “tourist” arrived in 1513, it took a long time for the state’s Gulf Coast to draw any serious attention – almost 400 years, in fact. But then the 16th-century Spanish adventurer Juan Ponce de León was in search of the Fountain of Youth, not great beaches. As a result, it wasn’t until the early 20th century and the spread of Florida’s railroads that the west coast really caught on.
The “Gulf Coast” is a misnomer, though, especially when it comes to the UK’s holiday industry. The full length of Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline is 770 miles but, in tourist terms, the 210 miles from Tarpon Springs, north-west of Tampa, to the southern tip of Marco Island, on the fringe of the Everglades, are generally considered the essential “Gulf Coast”.
That narrower definition still contains plenty of reasons to visit, from seemingly endless white-sand beaches to wildlife refuges, charming coastal towns, chic shopping and several cultural treasures, such as the home of the Ringling Brothers circus.
The region falls into five main areas, each offering its own take on the sybaritic seaside vibe, plus some surprisingly cosmopolitan touches. Starting in the north, there is the stretch known as “Florida’s Beach” for its sheer family-friendly style. Here, the twin cities of Clearwater and St Petersburg (www.visitstpeteclearwater.com) – voted the best beach destination in the US by TripAdvisor users recently – are neighbors to 16 coastal communities. These include the Scottish-tinged Dunedin, secluded Caladesi Island and Tarpon Springs. This last place is an amazing Greek transplant created by late-19th-century sponge-harvesting immigrants who maintain their Mediterranean traditions to this day – along with arguably the best Greek restaurants in America.
St Petersburg features the fanciful new Dali Museum (+1 727 823 3767; thedali.org; admission $21), set in an extremely avant-garde building, and the eye-catching Chihuly Collection (+1 727 822 7872; moreanartscenter.org; admission $14.95). At weekends, the local glitterati turn up to see and be seen, notably at the recently renovated classic 1920s Vinoy Resort (+1 727 894 1000). The movie Spring Breakers, starring James Franco, is currently being filmed in St Petersburg/Clearwater.
Florida’s film star is Winter, the tailless dolphin. Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to the animal that became a Hollywood sensation in the 2011 film Dolphin Tale, the story of a crippled young dolphin rescued by the aquarium from a lobster trap and fitted with an artificial tail. Winter is now the region’s mascot and can be seen in her newly refurbished facility (+1 727 441 1790; seewinter.com) on Windward Passage ($17.95).
The biggest city, though, is thoroughly modern Tampa (visittampabay.com), a major port that began life as a frontier fort during the 19th-century Seminole wars and which now flourishes as a university community, hi-tech medical centre and military HQ (MacDill Air Force Base), with a thriving downtown, major attractions (Busch Gardens theme park, Lowry Park Zoo and Florida Aquarium), plus a historic old quarter called Ybor City.
Traveling further south entails a return to the more tranquil side of the Gulf Coast, and the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice municipality (sarasotafl.org). The principal city, Bradenton, was founded in 1903 and has been home to Snooty, the world’s oldest manatee, since 1949, as well as Florida’s largest artist community: the Village of the Arts (www.villageofthearts.com). It’s the gateway to the beaches of Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key (annamariaisland-longboatkey.com), plus St Armand’s and Lido Key. These barrier islands feature charming low-rise resorts and B&Bs, plus the stylish shopping of St Armand’s Circle. This was founded in 1917 by John Ringling. His circus elephants helped to build the causeway bridge.
Each September, Sarasota, Bradenton and the Gulf Islands join together to offer 30 Days of Discovery (30daysofdiscovery.com), giving visitors 2-for-1 admissions to their leading attractions. A family of four could save $119 on five main attractions, including the South Florida Museum and Ringling Estate, at this time of year.
Venice Beach revels in its reputation as the “shark tooth capital of the world”. A seaside stroll might reveal teeth up to three inches long, as well as other marine fossils. If nothing else, you should find enough seashells to start a sizeable collection, including examples of conch, a common sea snail in these parts.
If you need any further convincing to visit, bear in mind that the average temperature on this stretch of coast is 29C – and the region reveals in 360 days of sunshine each year
Ybor City, pictured, in Tampa was founded in the 1880s by refugee cigar manufacturers from Cuba and quickly became a major center of immigration, with thousands arriving in the next few decades from Cuba, Spain, Italy and Germany. For the first half of the 20th century this was cigar central, one of the biggest producers of cigars in the world, visited by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (en route to the Spanish-American War in Cuba).
In 1929, at its peak, it produced 500 million cigars and each nationality had its own “club” or community center to provide social services and education. Organized crime became a major problem, though, with the mafia taking a significant interest in the many illegal lotteries and bootlegging until the 1950s.
Today, it has become an area of restaurants, bars, shops and nightlife with just a handful of the cigar shops that were its raison d’être. However, it still has a free Visitor Center and the neat Ybor City Museum (+1 813 241 6554; www.ybormuseum.org; admission $4) on Ninth Avenue, a converted bakery that tells the immigrants’ stories and includes a recreated cigar-worker’s house. Make sure you visit La Tropicana Café (+1 813 247 4040) on East Seventh Avenue or La Segunda Bakery on 15th Street (+1 813 248 1531; www.lasegundabakery.com) and try the local delicacy: a guava pastry accompanied by Cuban coffee.
Like the larger and more recent development of Little Havana in Miami, Ybor City is a living testament to Florida’s Cuban connection.