Though it's home to some of Florida's most beautiful stretches of coastline, you'll find the Central West region offers more than the usual beach vacation. So pack your opera glasses and your imagination alongside that yellow polka-dot bikini and prepare to sample Central West's diverse cultural calendar, visit pristine nature areas or enjoy major attractions here.
and Pasco Counties
are part of what is called the "Nature Coast." Much of this area is rural, having been set aside as national, state and county parks and preserves. The tongue-twisting and beautiful Withlacoochee, Homosassa, Pithlachascotee, Weeki Wachee and Chassahowitzka Rivers traverse this region (as does the Crystal River
), offering scenic byways for boating and fishing. Crystal-clear springs attract visitors from afar to swim, snorkel and scuba. In Citrus County, visitors can actually swim with manatees (winter months are best). At nearby Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, descend into the amazing "fish bowl" to see thousands of fish as well as manatees.
The St. Petersburg / Clearwater
area is sometimes called Florida's sunshine capital because it boasts an amazing 361 sunny days a year. Clearwater Beach offers an upbeat, tropical atmosphere as well as a nightly sunset celebration on Pier 60 with entertainers and food vendors. Two state parks in the area, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island (named one of the top beaches in the nation), offer preserved beachfront and nature trails. Minutes inland, the city of St. Petersburg is home to many art galleries, antique shops and museums, including the Florida International Museum, which hosts world-class traveling exhibits. A string of resort communities from St. Pete Beach
to Tarpon Springs
treat visitors to a variety of watersports, cultural events and excellent restaurants.
To take a break from sun and sand, visitors merely cross the bay to Tampa
, where they'll encounter a glittering city that's home to the region's top attractions Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
, the Florida Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). Visitors will discover a revitalized downtown waterfront, notable museums, a huge sports scene and an extraordinary performing arts calendar. Ybor City
, Tampa's historic Latin Quarter, is rich in Spanish and Cuban tradition and was once known as "the cigar capital of the world." Today, Ybor City offers the area's liveliest nightlife.
Drive across the dramatic Sunshine Skyway Bridge with its giant yellow spires to reach Bradenton
and its island beaches, Anna Maria Island
and Longboat Key
. On Anna Maria and south along Coquina Beach, miles of white sand are bordered by towering Australian pines, providing the area's laid-back, "old Florida" attitude. Longboat Key is a more exclusive setting, with luxury condominiums and resorts hosting the majority of visitors. Don't miss St. Armands Circle, a world-class shopping and dining enclave.
To the south across Ringling Causeway, Sarasota
has long been known for its cultural offerings. It's here that John Ringling built his Venetian-styled mansion and housed his priceless 17th-century Baroque art collection, all now owned by the state. Elsewhere in town, a ballet company, an opera company, an arts cinema, numerous theaters and galleries round out a diverse cultural scene.
proudly maintains lovely, white sand beaches, among them award-winning Siesta Beach
on a barrier island off the Sarasota mainland. Exclusive Casey Key
is just to the south, with public beaches at North Jetty Park and Nokomis Beach. Venice
offers small-town charm in its Main Street shopping district (Venice Avenue) along with good shelling and prehistoric sharks' teeth on area beaches. Visitors who want to canoe or fish in freshwater and observe a variety of wildlife, including alligators, should travel a half-hour due east to Myakka River State Park, which is Florida's largest.