William M. Dowd photo
TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG, FL -- See DisneyWorld, Epcot and environs if you plan to visit Florida. After all, if you believe the advertising hype they're the only things to see in Florida.
OK, they advertise the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area, too. But for now, let's look across the state at the Gulf Coast -- that stretch of sun-kissed land that lies along the west coast of the Florida peninsula. This is Florida, beyond Disney World and Cape Canaveral -- beyond rodents and rockets.
Once you get below the Panhandle -- the location of the state capital of Tallahassee -- you hit a string of charming waterfront communities such as Tarpon Springs (a center for sponge fishing and Greek culture), Clearwater (and its beachfront shops and restaurants on Clearwater Beach), St. Petersburg, Ft. Myers and Naples.
The Tampa Bay area is the largest Gulf Coast metropolis. The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, the latter slightly inland, flank the bay. It's a boom area that offers business and residences ranging from the cosmopolitan to the casual. Florid Old Florida architecture abounds, but there are more modern looks as well, such as The Pier off St. Petersburg, a multi-storied inverted pyramid that house shops, nightspots and an aquarium. It's connected to the mainland by its own causeway (seen above).
Colleges and universities abound, along with a raft of museum such as the fabulous Salvador Dali Museum in St. Pete and a 'living museum" such as Ybor City, the onetime cigar-making town that now is a rejuvenated tourist attraction in Tampa itself. Make a point of visiting there for the nightlife, as well as the docent-guided tours and the Cuban sandwiches that take crusty bread and cold cuts to a new level.
Pro sports are big in the area, from the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers to hockey to baseball, as well as water sports, fishing, beachcombing, swimming and boating.
An hour's drive south is Sarasota, winter home to circus stars and minor league baseball, with a refurbished downtown that is worth spending time traversing on foot.
Another hour south you hit the Ft. Myers area, gateway to Sanibel and Captiva islands and such scenic wonders as the "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.
In Ft. Myers itself, one of the major attractions is Thomas Edison's winter home, complete with laboratory, home and museum right on the main McGregor Boulevard thoroughfare. And make a point of having dinner at one of the restaurants along the Caloosahatchie River where sunsets are breathtaking.
One more hour and you're in Naples, second fastest growing metro area in the nation (Las vegas is No. 1). Upscale housing, dining, hotels and shops are the norm there.
Beyond this, you're in 'gator country. You can head easterly toward Daytona, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, or even further south to the Keys. But, literally millions of people don't feel the need to keep going. They make the meandering Gulf Coast of Florida their home or destination.
ON THE WEB
• Tampa Bay Area Start Page
• Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau
• Tampa Cam (updated every 5 mins.)
• Florida Info
• Gulf Coast fishing guide
• Tarpon Springs
• Clearwater/Clearwater Beach
• Fort Myers/Cape Coral
• Sanibel & Captiva islands