Virtually the whole of Florida’s west coast is one long, beach-laden playground. From Crystal River on the northern fringe, all the way 230 miles south to Naples and Marco Island, this is the Gulf Coast that attracts beach devotees from far and wide, as well as lovers of great food, blissful resorts, Florida wildlife and the performing arts. It has vibrant cities like Tampa, Bradenton, Sarasota and Fort Myers; stunning beaches in Siesta Key, Anna Maria Island, Longboat Key, Clearwater Beach and Sanibel Island; fabulous natural attractions like Myakka River State Park and JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge; and some real surprises in places such as The Ringling Estate (Sarasota), Naples Botanical Garden, and Greek-influenced Tarpon Springs.
This is also the western gateway to the magnificent Florida Everglades, the vast ‘River of Grass’ that is one of the rarest ecosystems in the world and a fascinating place to visit.
The Gulf Coast is easily accessed from any of Florida’s main airport gateways. Naples is barely a two-hour drive from Miami; Crystal River is only 90 miles from Orlando; and Tampa is ideal for the whole of the Gulf Coast, with everywhere no more than two-and-a-half hours away by car while Bradenton and Sarasota are much closer.
You also can’t go wrong here for some of the best beachfront resorts in the state. Starting at Clearwater Beach and St Pete Beach, near Tampa, all the way south to Naples, there are any number of great hotels with that idyllic seaside location, and you will rarely find crowds along this coast (although the northern-most beaches can be very popular at peak holiday periods). Look out in particular for the Don Cesar (St Pete Beach), the Resort at Longboat Key Club (Sarasota), Hyatt Regency Coconut Point (Bonita Springs), and LaPlaya Beach Resort (Naples)
As you travel south, things can become distinctly exclusive, with the likes of Anna Maria Island affording very low-key but stylish accommodations, Sanibel and Captiva adding a real get-away-from-it-all feel, and exclusive Naples being a hideaway for the well-heeled and well-to-do. This latter is definitely the place to come for the more distinctive and upmarket side of the Sunshine State, and the shopping and dining are at their best here.