Many of my readers come to Orlando for technology conferences. Let’s be honest – many do not enjoy that experience - they find it too artificial, too hot, too crowded. Many spend a couple of days and cannot wait to fly out. Others use it as a launching pad to head to the Keys, to Kennedy Space Center, to the Everglades.
They should head West! We have lived on the “West Coast of the East Coast” for three decades in Tampa, and there is so much to explore. Here is a teaser of some of the things.
Best coastline in the world
The Gulf Coast has mile upon mile of sugary sand, but you cannot go wrong with two counties – Pinellas, and a bit further south, Lee. Whether you want to get a tan, a fishing or diving charter, a more adventuresome Jet ski or Sea-Doo or check out historic lighthouses or ship wrecks, the roughly 40 miles from Tarpon Springs to Tierra Verde is unbeatable. Places like Honeymoon Island, Clearwater Beach and Fort DeSoto attract people from every corner of the world. Captiva and Sanibel in Lee County are shelling heavens. All along the coast, we have plenty of rustic fishing towns like Cedar Key and Steinhatchee. Plenty of grouper, drums, scallops to feast on.
A calm river to float on
If you want a slower pace, check out the Hillsborough River which meanders for about 60 miles before ending up in Tampa Bay. At various points like at the Hillsborough River State Park and Rivercrest Park, you find a slew of canoes and kayaks. Fishing boats which end up with all kinds of bass, catfish and sturgeon. And much more competitive scull riders. In the winter it becomes home to rowing teams from places like U of Michigan and Georgetown. Every January, we also have our pirate invasion, Gasparilla which brings out a wide range of tall ships and other vessels.
Dali Museum in St. Petersburg has one of the largest collections of his eccentric art. The building architecture is itself worth exploring. The Ringling Museum in Sarasota has plenty of European and Asian art, but the piece de resistance is The Howard Bros. Circus, a miniature at 1/16 of actual scale. It has over 42,000 intricately crafted tents, circus animals, railcars spread over 38,000 sq. feet. The Babcock Ranch in Punta Gorda is a testament to old Florida. Ancient cypress trees abound, feral pigs and Cracker cows roam freely, reminders of our Spanish invaders centuries ago. A bit further down the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Ft. Myers has artifacts from the wide body of the work of the two geniuses.
Dining worth driving for
Come to Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa for one of the largest wine collections in the world - the cellar has over half a million bottles. Columbia in Ybor City, the former cigar capital, is the oldest Spanish restaurant in the country. St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota is a superb collection of shops and restaurants. Want some ethnic food? Tarpon Springs is our Greek town. On Sunday, the Wat Mongkolratanaram, the Buddhist temple, hosts a Sunday Thai food market on the banks of the Palm river.
The best food, of course, is in beachside dives, cafes and mobile trucks which serve blackened grouper, black beans and rice, fish tacos and the hearty Cuban sandwiches.
A catalog of activities
We have some great golf courses like Innisbrook which is on the PGA circuit. Want to try disc (Frisbee) golf? Come to Sheffield Park in Oldsmar. Want indoor golf - we have a Topgolf. If you can score a visit to the IMG Academy in Bradenton you may run into some of the best tennis players in the world. The Selby Botanical gardens in Sarasota are superb. Cave diving at Manatee Springs State Park is breathtaking. The Warm Mineral Springs in Northport attracts spa fans from around the world. Big Cat Rescue is an impressive animal sanctuary. The Southwest Florida Water Management District has a wide variety of recreation parks for hunters, hikers, fishermen, dogs.
I have just scratched the surface on what my part of the world offers. So, look forward to your trip to Orlando by adding some time on the West Coast.
Feel free to drop me a note for more detailed recommendations – will be happy to share my Instagram posts and lots of other notes. My daughter is in the hospitality business and can offer other ideas.
Westward Ho, folks!