Traveller's Guide: Florida's Gulf Coast

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For white sands, mangrove swamps, wildlife, cultural riches, fine dining andl ots more – go west, says Simon Veness.

Given that Florida's first "tourist" arrived in 1513, it took a long time for the state's Gulf Coast to draw any serious attention – almost 400 years, in fact. But then the 16th-century Spanish adventurer Juan Ponce de León was in search of the Fountain of Youth, not great beaches. As a result, it wasn't until the early 20th century and the spread of Florida's railroads that the west coast really caught on.

The "Gulf Coast" is a misnomer, though, especially when it comes to the UK's holiday industry. The full length of Florida's Gulf of Mexico coastline is 770 miles but, in tourist terms, the 210 miles from Tarpon Springs, north-west of Tampa, to the southern tip of Marco Island, on the fringe of the Everglades, are generally considered the essential "Gulf Coast".

That narrower definition still contains plenty of reasons to visit, from seemingly endless white-sand beaches to wildlife refuges, charming coastal towns, chic shopping and several cultural treasures, such as the home of the Ringling Brothers circus (see panel).

The region falls into five main areas, each offering its own take on the sybaritic seaside vibe, plus some surprisingly cosmopolitan touches. Starting in the north, there is the stretch known as "Florida's Beach" for its sheer family-friendly style. Here, the twin cities of Clearwater and St Petersburg (visitstpeteclearwater.com) – voted the best beach destination in the US by TripAdvisor users recently – are neighbours to 16 coastal communities. These include the Scottish-tinged Dunedin, secluded Caladesi Island and Tarpon Springs. This last place is an amazing Greek transplant created by late-19th-century sponge-harvesting immigrants who maintain their Mediterranean traditions to this day – along with arguably the best Greek restaurants in America.

St Petersburg features the fanciful new Dali Museum (001 727 823 3767; thedali.org; admission $21/£14), set in an extremely avant-garde building, and the eye-catching Chihuly Collection (001 727 822 7872; moreanartscenter.org; admission $14.95/£10). At weekends, the local glitterati turn up to see and be seen, notably at the recently renovated classic 1920s Vinoy Resort (001 727 894 1000; marriott.com). The movie Spring Breakers, starring James Franco, is currently being filmed in St Petersburg/Clearwater.

Florida's current film star is Winter, the tailless dolphin. Clearwater Marine Aquarium is home to the animal that became a Hollywood sensation in the 2011 film Dolphin Tale, the story of a crippled young dolphin rescued by the aquarium from a lobster trap and fitted with an artificial tail. Winter is now the region's mascot and can be seen in her newly refurbished facility (001 727 441 1790; seewinter.com) on Windward Passage ($17.95/£12).

The biggest city, though, is thoroughly modern Tampa (visittampabay.com), a major port that began life as a frontier fort during the 19th-century Seminole wars and which now flourishes as a university community, hi-tech medical centre and military HQ (MacDill Air Force Base), with a thriving downtown, major attractions (Busch Gardens theme park, Lowry Park Zoo and Florida Aquarium), plus a historic old quarter called Ybor City (see panel).

Travelling further south entails a return to the more tranquil side of the Gulf Coast, and the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice municipality (sarasotafl.org). The principal city, Bradenton, was founded in 1903 and has been home to Snooty, the world's oldest manatee, since 1949, as well as Florida's largest artist community: the Village of the Arts (villageofthearts.com). It's the gateway to the beaches of Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key (annamariaisland-longboatkey.com), plus St Armand's and Lido Key. These barrier islands feature charming low-rise resorts and B&Bs, plus the stylish shopping of St Armand's Circle. This was founded in 1917 by John Ringling. (His circus elephants helped to build the causeway bridge.)

Each September, Sarasota, Bradenton and the Gulf Islands join together to offer 30 Days of Discovery (30daysofdiscovery.com), giving visitors 2-for-1 admissions to their leading attractions. A family of four could save $119 (£79) on five main attractions, including the South Florida Museum and Ringling Estate, at this time of year.

Venice Beach revels in its reputation as the "shark tooth capital of the world". A seaside stroll might reveal teeth up to three inches long, as well as other marine fossils. If nothing else, you should find enough seashells to start a sizeable collection, including examples of conch, a common sea snail in these parts.

Continue past industrial Port Charlotte and the next region is Fort Myers (fortmyers-sanibel.com) and its barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. Here, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford helped to create a popular retreat, with a more laid-back approach than bling-conscious Miami and Palm Beach. The J N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of Florida's foremost nature preserves (001 239 472 1100; fws.gov/dingdarling; admission $5/£3.30 per vehicle).

The beaches also have an array of fine-dining opportunities the equal of anything in the more high-profile cities, notably the new American cuisine of the beachfront Mad Hatter (madhatterrestaurant. com) and the superb seafood of Traders Café on Sanibel (traderssanibel.com) and Sunshine Seafood Café on Captiva (captivaislandinn.com/dining.cfm).

Finally, a southerly drive along Highway 75 brings visitors to the "Paradise Coast" (paradisecoast.com) of Naples and Marco Island. This is the winter retreat for northern "snowbirds" (wealthy and retired people from Canada, New York and equally chilly destinations) and the summer target for honeymooners and other couples looking for a perfect Florida chill-out zone. Luxury shopping, resorts, spas and restaurants are found in their highest proliferation here, along with manicured beaches. The natural splendour of Naples Botanical Garden (001 239 643 7275; naplesgarden.org; admission $12.95/£8.60) is found on Bayshore Drive, now fresh from a huge renovation.

If you need any further convincing to visit, bear in mind that the average temperature on this stretch of coast is 29C – and the region revels in 360 days of sunshine each year. For more information, see visitflorida.com/uk.

Ringling-a-bling

Florida has a secret back-story: the circus, thanks to John and Mable Ringling. The original circus impresario had been a regular Florida visitor since 1909 and moved his business, which also incorporated the better-known but smaller Barnum & Bailey Circus, to Sarasota in 1927.

Here, the Ringling brothers and their entertainment extravaganza became household names, and John and his wife created an empire of wealth and culture the like of which the state has not seen since. In 1929, John Ringling was estimated to be one of the richest men in the world, although he lost much of his investments in the Great Depression and died in 1936 with only $311 in the bank.

Today, the Ringling Estate, pictured (001 941 359 5700; ringling.org; $25/£16.60), on Bay Shore Road is a 66-acre spread of gardens, plus an 18th-century theatre (brought over lock, stock and barrel from Asolo, Italy), two circus museums and a museum of art, stuffed full of priceless Old Masters housed in a replica of Florence's Uffizi Palace. To set the seal on a collection of 1920s and 30s extravagance, John and Mable's palatial Ca' d'Zan mansion is also on show, filled with period furniture.

A visit conjures up a world of the seriously opulent: a rare combination of unrivalled showmanship and ravenous art collecting.

Cigar central

Ybor City, pictured, in Tampa was founded in the 1880s by refugee cigar manufacturers from Cuba and quickly became a major centre of immigration, with thousands arriving in the next few decades from Cuba, Spain, Italy and Germany. For the first half of the 20th century this was cigar central, one of the biggest producers of cigars in the world, visited by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (en route to the Spanish-American War in Cuba).

In 1929, at its peak, it produced 500 million cigars and each nationality had its own "club" or community centre to provide social services and education. Organised crime became a major problem, though, with the mafia taking a significant interest in the many illegal lotteries and bootlegging until the 1950s.

Today, it has become an area of restaurants, bars, shops and nightlife with just a handful of the cigar shops that were its raison d'être. However, it still has a free Visitor Center and the neat Ybor City Museum (001 813 241 6554; ybormuseum.org; admission $4/£2.60) on Ninth Avenue, a converted bakery that tells the immigrants' stories and includes a recreated cigar-worker's house. Make sure you visit La Tropicana Café (001 813 247 4040) on East Seventh Avenue or La Segunda Bakery on 15th Street (001 813 248 1531; lasegundabakery.com) and try the local delicacy: a guava pastry accompanied by Cuban coffee.

Like the larger and more recent development of Little Havana in Miami, Ybor City is a living testament to Florida's Cuban connection.

Resort, villa or B&B?

There's less development on the Gulf Coast than in Miami, Palm Beach or Orlando, so accommodation is more varied – even eclectic. You'll still find many of the chains but there are also a tempting array of B&Bs, guesthouses, villas and condos.

There are also "Superior Small Lodging" options (superiorsmalllodging.com) along the coast: one-of-a-kind inns and resorts that often feature self-catering facilities and just a handful of rooms, plus private mini cinema and games rooms.

There are even a few genuine all-British choices, such as Pineapple Fish (01202 486245; or 001 941 778 7200 in the US; pineapplefish.com), nine luxury self-catering villas on Anna Maria Island with a sustainable approach, sleeping from six to 10 people (weekly rental from $1,550/£1,033). Alternatively, try Bentleys Boutique Hotel (001 941 966 2121; bentleyssarasota.com) in Osprey, south of Sarasota, with double rooms from $100 (£67), B&B. Several British holiday specialists also feature a range of villas and holiday homes along the Gulf Coast, notably James Villa Holidays (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk) and Vacations to America (01592 469661; vacationstoamerica.com/florida).

Other options include the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach (001 727 441 2425; sandpearl.com), with its idyllic beach location and Caretta on the Gulf restaurant. Doubles from $230 (£153), room only. The Hyatt Siesta Key Beach (001 941 346 5900; siestakeybeach.hyatt.com) has superb beachfront condos with full kitchens and a choice of five restaurants; two-bedroom condos from $440 (£293), room only. Or there's the romantic hideaway of the Lemon Tree Inn in Naples, pictured (001 239 262 1414; lemontreeinn.com), which has B&B doubles from $89 (£59). Finally, try the charming Lakeside Inn in Marco Island (001 239 394 1161; marcoislandlakeside.com), which as suites from $109 (£72), room only.

The Everglades

For a sense of what much of Florida was like a million years ago, head to the Everglades – the "river-of-grass" that covers much of the lower third of the state. These wetlands once covered an area the size of Wales, but they have been whittled away to barely half their original extent by 20th-century settlement, drainage and channelling. Today, however, they remain one of the world's largest conservation areas, with half denominated as the Everglades National Park (001 305 242 7700; nps.gov/ever).

The western gateway to this amazing natural paradise is via Naples, taking Highway 41 to Everglades City, 35 miles away, where the Gulf Coast Visitor Center (admission $10/£6.50 per car, valid one week) offers an orientation film, maps, brochures and educational displays for self-guided tours, which include boat and canoe rentals.

The sub-area of the Ten Thousand Islands features a maze of mangrove swamps and waterways extending out into Florida Bay. The wildlife includes the ever-present alligators, the less-prevalent American crocodile, white-tailed deer, otters, raccoons, more than a dozen species of turtle and some 350 bird species. Birds range from the common white ibis, roseate spoonbills and herons to the endangered wood stork, bald eagles and ospreys.

Getting there

Florida has three main airport gateways for international visitors, the most convenient being Tampa, but the busiest are Orlando (about an hour's drive from Tampa) and Miami (about two hours from Naples). British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) serves all three, with two flights from Heathrow to Miami daily and one each from Gatwick to Orlando and Tampa.

Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310; virgin-atlantic.com) has a non-stop daily flight from Heathrow to Miami, two flights per day from Gatwick to Orlando and one from Manchester to Orlando, plus summer-only flights from Glasgow to Orlando. American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) and Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com) both have a non-stop daily flight from Heathrow to Miami.

For flight and accommodation packages, try Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3865; virginholidays.co.uk), which offers a range of villas on the Gulf Coast. A week in May, with flights, costs from £535 per person. Ocean Florida (020-7939 7775; ocean-florida.co.uk) has two-week fly-drive packages with flights to Miami from £509 per person (excluding accommodation), while Jetsave (0844 415 9880; jetsave.com) has a fortnight's package staying in a Gulf Coast villa in July from £1,492 per person with Virgin Atlantic flights from Manchester.

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