Who needs Mickey when Winter's on your side?

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A new film about an injured dolphin is about to put Florida's Gulf coast in the spotlight. But there are more reasons to come here, says Kate Simon

I am watching a movie star splash about in a tank of water.

She's a perky little dolphin called Winter, who's about to make different kinds of waves with a new film, Dolphin Tale, due to hit your cinema screens this autumn.

Winter tops the bill alongside Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and Harry Connick Jnr by virtue of her tail – or rather the lack of it. For this movie will tell how the little bottlenose was rescued from a crab trap by a fisherman when she was three months old, lost her fluke but survived, thanks to the work of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the west coast of Florida – and the help of a new bionic tail.

"She wears the prosthetic tail for about an hour a day," says Krista Rosado, who works at the sanctuary which rehabilitates more than 200 animals a year – including a huge number of sea turtles – most of which can be viewed by visitors to the aquarium. Krista brings out the tail for me to see up close; it's a surprisingly weighty object. "We have to order new ones as she grows," she says, explaining that this hasn't been a frivolous project. Winter, now five years old, would have died without a new tail, plus some of the research from its development is being used on humans.

The tank in which Winter is playing to the assembled tourists – which she shares with one of the oldest resident dolphins, 40-year-old Panama (they can live for 60 years) – is a new addition, built by the film-makers especially for the shoot. Another bit of leftover set, the houseboat that is home in the movie to Connick Jnr's character, Clay Haskett, is likely to become a tourist attraction in its own right. But, most importantly for the aquarium, the film itself will surely increase awareness of the sanctuary's work and will probably draw in more visitors and boost its coffers.

How Dolphin's Tale will fare at the box office is yet to be seen, though Winter is unlikely to eclipse the popularity of her near neighbour Mickey Mouse. But Winter shows that there's more to this state than Disney, and if you head west of Orlando, Britain's default Florida holiday destination, to Tampa Bay you can enjoy a varied mix of city and beach – and benefit from the shorter queues at Tampa's airport customs.

Winter is a curious name for a dolphin that basks in the shade of a canopy to protect it from Florida's fierce sun. The sun is the main subject of conversation for any British visitor who has just landed in Florida, and of any local resident keen to promote the state to weather-obsessed Brits, the area's number one international visitor.

David Downing, deputy director of the local tourist board, is unable to resist keeping up the tradition, telling me: "The old Evening Independent had a 'sunshine offer' and promised to give away the paper free every day the sun didn't shine. In 76 years, they only had to give it away 296 times!"

But guaranteed sunshine comes at a price on the Gulf of Mexico, for when the weather throws a temper tantrum here, oh boy. The point is clearly illustrated to me when I arrive at my hotel, the recently built Hyatt Regency on Clearwater Beach, the main event on the newly developed south end of the shorefront. This huge chunk of a building is layered on to several levels of open-sided multi-storey car park, so that the wind and water may rage around it without wreaking total havoc. (The ground-floor reception desks are set on wheels, I am told, in case of the need to beat a retreat to a higher level.)

The ugly car park is an architectural necessity, yet it isn't easy on the eye. And the sight is hardly soothed by the pink palace that rests on top. The lack of proportion doesn't help; the Hyatt is a monster, utterly out of scale with the skinny barrier island on which it sits, casting its shadow over the sea-fishing boats and yachts bobbing in the marina to its rear and supersizing the neighbouring condominium blocks and Mom-and-Pop motels.

The beach itself is eye candy: the sun flits across its silver-white sands and aquamarine waters. Striped cabanas and an old wooden fishing pier complete a charming scene that draws the day-trippers and has encouraged a community of sun-seeking second-home owners to snap up property on this five-mile sliver of land. The Clearwater folk know the value of the good old-fashioned seaside fun that they can offer. A small road and a palm-fringed pink promenade, set with benches and cafés, now separates the buildings from the sands, part of a five-year, $30m project (completed just a couple of years ago) to make more of the shorefront.

This Beach Walk is the place to catch the trolley bus south along the Gulf to Treasure Island, where you can connect to St Petersburg for a little culture-on-sea. The big news in St Pete, as the locals call it, is the opening of the new Dali Museum. The beachside community has hosted a private collection of the Spanish artist's work since 1982, but this gallery, which opened in January, is twice the size of the original venue. That means many more paintings, in oil and watercolours, as well as drawings and other works from photography to sculpture can be displayed.

While visitors come first to explore the physical expression of Salvador Dali's extraordinary imagination – works include typical tongue-twisting mind-benders such as Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln – the artist's talent and controversial philosophy isn't the only talking point here. The new building itself, designed by Yann Weymouth, who worked as a young man with I M Pei, is an apposite space for works by Dali, a concrete box in the clutches of a sprawling glass bubble, with a staircase at its heart in the shape of a helix, one of Dali's favourite forms.

Outside, a playful "Avant-Garden" sculpts the grounds. The entrance to the gallery is part of this; a shady grotto filled with plants and water through which visitors must step to reach the surreal world of Dali. At one side of the museum, a hedge labyrinth urges onlookers into its maze to seek out the cypress tree at its centre (recalling the artist's Mediterranean roots). And the patio, featuring limestone quarried at Lake Okeechobee (another Dali reference, this time to the artist's love of the rock formations in his native Cadaques on Spain's Costa Brava), features the head-scratching puzzle of the ancient Golden Rectangle, which fascinated the mathematician in Dali.

While I'm in this culture-rich neighbourhood (the Museum of Fine Arts is also in St Pete), I decide to pop into the new gallery dedicated to Dale Chihuly, the glass artist. I don't expect to stay longer than necessary to take down a few notes. For me, blown glass conjures up childhood memories of the kitsch clowns, swans and stallions that one of our neighbours used to create for display in the sitting room of his stone-clad dormer bungalow.

But I am utterly beguiled. There are just 16 installations in this small curvaceous space, yet each invites careful study of the thousands of pieces of glass from which they are made, the application of colour and the creation of texture. A wooden boat is filled with smooth speckled and striped multicoloured orbs in various sizes; a wall is pinned with ethereal flower forms; glass is weaved into the shape of baskets.

The most spectacular sight is saved for the end: the Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, made especially for the new collection, is a shock of brilliant red shards suspended from the ceiling. I can't resist the gift shop, plumping for the inevitable longevity of a photograph of red flames of glass set amid a garden over the fragile if tactile glass fridge magnets.

I leave the beach for Tampa, the city on this bay. At first glance, it looks to me like the kind of destination that would only waylay the business traveller. Yet Tampa is gaining a reputation as one of America's liveable cities for its outdoor lifestyle and rich historic and cultural offerings. It seems only appropriate, then, to get on my bike and join a guided tour with City Bike Tampa to find out how Tampa built its fortune on cigars and see the regeneration efforts that are making it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

We ride along the Hillsborough River, down Bayshore Boulevard (the longest continuous sidewalk in the United States, my guide informs me through his megaphone, a canny way to keep the tour moving). Then, we wheel around the leafy avenues of Hyde Park, an elegant neighbourhood of late 19th-century houses with neat porches, immaculately restored by the latest generation of affluent residents lucky enough to live in them.

We take a breather below the silver minarets and domes of the University of Tampa, a curious edifice originally designed as a "neo-Moorish" hotel by Henry B Plant, the man who brought the railroad here to transport the cigars up country, turning Tampa into a boom town. Tourism was a by-product of the cigar industry, says my guide, a way to fill the empty trains on their return journey.

We cross a park to the riverside, for a prime view of the redeveloped waterfront. A 20-year project has transformed the city's former docklands into a pleasure precinct, with shops, restaurants, hotels and museums. A Riverwalk now connects some of the city's smart modern attractions. From our vantage point we can see two of them bordering the Curtis Hixton Waterfront Park; the colourful contemporary Glazer's Children's Museum, and the Tampa Museum of Art, a bold metal box wrapped in perforated steel panels set upon a pedestal made of glass.

Onwards to Ybor (say ee-bor), a district named after the Cuban exile Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, who brought his cigar business here from Key West in 1885. Ybor has long been on the tourist trail as the cigar-making capital of the world – 700 million cigars a year were rolled here during the industry's heyday. More recently, it has become the place to come for the galleries, eateries and nightclubs opened by the city's groovier residents, who have been migrating since the 1980s into its derelict warehouses and the casitas, the shotgun houses where the cigar factory workers once lived.

This project is continuing to evolve. Two recent (universal) signs of regeneration include the establishment of a Saturday morning farmers' market in Centennial Park, at Ybor's heart, and the fact that the gay community is setting down roots here, in a fast-expanding enclave known, inevitably, as GaYbor.

Who needs Mickey when you've got all this?

Compact Facts

How to get there

A seven-day fly-drive on Florida's Gulf coast costs from £670 per person with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/gulfcoast), including return flights from Gatwick to Tampa and car hire with Avis. A night at the Westin Tampa Bay costs from £60 per person, and a night at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa is from £96 per person, both based on two sharing.

Further information

Visit Tampa Bay (020-7253 0254; visittampabay.com). Visit St Petersburg/Clearwater (020-8339 6121; visitstpeteclearwater.com). City Bike Tampa (citybiketampa.com).

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