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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.
While Orlando boasts its theme parks, Miami its beach-party vibe and nightlife, this stretch of coastline is the antidote to the hectic and the helter-skelter. The attractions here on the Gulf Coast are fewer as things are definitely more naturalistic, but there are still great places to visit that will entertain all the family.
Tampa is the best example, with the fun and excitement of Busch Gardens theme park – with a fabulous array of rides and roller-coasters, plus animal exhibits – the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and Adventure Island water park, as well as one of the best craft brewery scenes in the US. Sarasota adds the more gentle attractions of the Mote Marine Laboratory, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and the stunning Ringling Estate, the former home of John Ringling of the Ringling Bros. Circus (and the Barnum and Bailey Circus, for good measure). The Estate features a museum, mansion, lovely gardens and one of the best classical art collections in America.
History on the Gulf Coast is a recurring theme along the coast, too, with places like Ybor City in Tampa highlighting the area’s 19th century roots, along with the South Florida Museum in Bradenton and specific attractions like the Edison and Ford Winter Estates (in Fort Myers) and the automotive history of The Revs Institute (Naples).
As well as Tampa’s headline offerings, this section of the Gulf Coast has a lot of Florida nature on tap, both on land and at sea. There are some great opportunities to go dolphin-watching in places like St Pete Beach, Fort Myers and Marco Island (just south of Naples), while the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is one of America’s foremost marine hospital exhibits, including Winter, the tail-less dolphin from the two Dolphin Tale films.
The Florida manatee can also be seen all along the coast at different times of the year, notably in the intra-coastal waterway between the mainland and the string of barrier islands just off the coast. Nowhere is this better seen, though, than at Crystal River, where November to March is manatee ‘season’ and hundreds of these wonderful creatures pack the rivers and springs. You can even swim with them in organised snorkelling tours or kayak among them for the ultimate in up-close encounters.
On land, you will discover great wildlife at Homosassa Springs State Park (just south of Crystal River), Naples Zoo, Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve (Fort Myers) and a wide variety of Everglades tours from the Naples area.
Sports & Activities
This being the Gulf Coast, there is an almost limitless supply of watersports on offer, from jet-skis to paddle-boards. Fishing is omni-present, both inshore and deep-sea varieties and, in the summer months (July to September) you can try your hand at scalloping – diving for scallops in the shallow waters off the coast of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.
Spectator sports are far fewer, but the lure of Major League Baseball is strong in St Petersburg, home to the Tampa Bay Rays, who play at the vast, indoor Tropicana Field. There is still great golf to be found, too, notably in the Tampa area, around Naples, Bradenton and Fort Myers. For something really special, the rural Streamsong Resort (south-east of Tampa) has a magnificent two-course set-up on reclaimed mining land that is a real treasure.
As you might expect from such a wide swathe of territory, the city characteristics of the region are equally wide-ranging, from the growing urban profile of Tampa to the low-key but high-style of Naples. Every city has markedly different qualities.
Crystal River is notably rustic and old-school Florida, while Bradenton and Sarasota are both modern and fast-developing as great sources of contemporary coast life, with lively downtown areas full of shops and restaurants. Port Charlotte and Fort Myers are also up-and-coming urban areas in their own right, with more of the signature craft brewery boom that can be found across Florida. Sarasota and Fort Myers also have burgeoning art scenes, with a great variety of theatre and other performing arts.
Naples might be the most laid-back city along the whole coast, but don’t let its sleepy initial impression fool you. This uber-chic destination is loaded with the wow factor, if you enjoy high-quality art galleries, sophisticated shopping, fine dining and the exclusive feel of being somewhere special along Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South.
Having just mentioned Naples, it is worth starting there if you are looking for some of the finer things in life, like art, jewellery and designer fashion. The shopping opportunities here are first class, from the boutiques of Fifth Avenue and Third Street to the purpose-built retail centres of the Waterside Shops, Coconut Point (just to the north in Bonita Springs), the Village Shops on Venetian Bay and The Mercato.
Bradenton can boast the outlet shopping of Ellenton Premium Outlets while Sarasota has the Shoppes at University Center and Fort Myers features the Miramar Outlets. Do take time to slow down everywhere you go, though, and take in the one-off opportunities in places like Venice Beach, St Petersburg and downtown Sarasota, which has a great number of boutique-style shops mixed in with its fab restaurant array.
Tampa is another centre overflowing with choice, and you simply can’t go wrong at any of Westshore Plaza, International Plaza and Bay Street, Hyde Park Village and Tampa Premium Outlets, as well as the individual style of Ybor City and The Shops at Wiregrass in nearby Wesley Chapel.
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
Ready for some great seafood? Yes? Then you’re definitely coming to the right place in this part of Florida. While most of the state features memorable fish dishes and plentiful shrimp, crab and oysters, the Gulf Coast positively revels in its access to some of the very best seafood in the south-east US.
You’ve probably heard of Farm-to-Table cuisine, but here it is Boat-to-Table, with restaurants almost umbilically linked to the local fishing fleet and the freshest of catches going straight to their kitchens. Stone Crab season is from mid-October to mid-May each year and is especially prevalent in the Marco Island and Naples areas. Scallops, spiny lobsters and mussels are all Gulf Coast delicacies, while Lionfish is an invasive species that is on the increase and, thankfully, makes for really good eating, along with the typical sea bass, grouper, flounder and mahi-mahi.
Tarpon Springs, which has a strong Greek heritage, has some of the best Mediterranean-flavoured restaurants in the state, and you will often find grilled octopus on the menu. If so, try it. You can thank us later! At breakfast, look out for the speciality of Seafood Benedict, with crab instead of ham. It’s truly delicious.
Why the Gulf Coast?
If the rare combination of sophisticated resorts, miles of open beaches, plentiful wildlife, elegant shopping and great seafood is your idea of holiday heaven, then the Gulf Coast is definitely for you. Its heady mix of all those ingredients, plus unique places like the Ringling Estate, Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Crystal River, make for a powerful attraction, and it’s not unknown for people to come back year after year to sample more of it.