Words: Lucy Connors
Dreaming of escaping dreary grey skies for somewhere where the summer never ends? Well, the Gulf Coast of Florida may be just the place. The heart of Tampa Bay bleeds out along the coast and makes it a very special place to experience, and everything here is within easy reach of the city. The coastline offers a magic concoction of big city hustle and white sand beaches, providing never ending ways to fill your days. Here at The Guide, we are transporting you across the pond and giving you an insider’s guide to our favourite hidden gems along the 175 highway, starting from Tampa Bay and spreading out towards untouched islands.
The Tampa Sky Line
Photo: Condé Nast Traveller
Tampa and St Petersburg are the sister cities of the bay, yet despite this, they offer very different personalities and experiences. Tampa is one of the fastest growing cities in the US and offers an epicentre for sports, nightlife, and upmarket cuisine. St Petersburg is around the same size and has similar variety to Tampa, however it offers much more eclectic charm. It is somewhere you can spend your days musing in museums, browsing the markets along the pier, and dolphin watching at the beach.
One of the first restaurants I discovered in Tampa was Oxford Exchange, a gorgeous restaurant that enters through a bookshop. It offers a carefully curated selection of publications that immediately capture your attention, and this eye-catching décor is a running theme throughout the rest of the restaurant. Oxford Exchange has both a more formal, art-filled dining room, and a sunlit conservatory complete with a fountain in the middle and vines adorning the walls. The food does not disappoint either, providing a classic selection – although not one that pays homage to English cuisine as you may expect on account of the establishment’s name. From their brunch selection, small plates, burgers, or sandwiches, the selection is mouth-watering, however it is the Whipped Feta that steals the show.
Oxford Exchange Restaurant
Photo: Oxford Exchange website
For a more casual experience, head down to Sparkman Wharf. A waterfront hub where shipping containers have been turned into independent restaurants and boutiques. It hosts live music in the evenings or screens the giant sporting events that give life to Tampa: The Bucs, The Rays, and The Bolts. If you are wanting something savoury, we would recommend Gallito Taqueria for some of the finest street tacos around. To satisfy a sweet craving? Try out Whatever Pops for feel good acai and gelato that will revitalise you from the Florida heat. The Channelside spot not only offers a culinary experience, but a wonderful atmosphere, and a perfect place to study or simply while away the afternoon.
Heading across to St Petersburg, you should ensure that you stop at the Salvador Dali Museum. It is host to an unparalleled collection of works and virtual features that will allow you to experience surrealism in a new intensity. Furthermore there is a never-ending selection of independent cafes and restaurants to keep you occupied, but a special mention must go to The Crislip Café. Tucked away in an arcade off Central Ave, stepping in here is like slipping into Alice in Wonderland – perhaps due to the mad hatter themed mural, but also because of the immensely creative drinks. Their specialty menu is all fair trade, sustainably farmed, and artisan roast, and ranges from a Purple Rain Lavender Latte, to a Light My Fire S’mores Mocha, and Red Velvet Cappuccinos for when Valentine’s Day comes around. For even more variety, head to The Lure for an enticing and vibrant crossover of sushi, tapas, and tacos, in which Mexican and Southern American influences are blended, and only the freshest seafood is used.
The Mesmerising Staircase at the Salvador Dali Museum
With Florida bursting at the seams with wildlife, it would be unwise to miss an opportunity to witness it first-hand. I first experienced Tampa Bay’s huge array of animals, birds and Sealife after spending two days wild camping on Shell Key Preserve: a completely wild and untouched island. It is only accessible by kayaking from the mainland and is surrounded by networks of mangrove tunnels that are fantastic to navigate through, provided you do not get stuck! Camping overnight requires a permit to ensure the wildlife is not overwhelmed. From sea turtles and birds, to dolphins, Shell Kay Preserve is magnet for wildlife, and provides a unique opportunity to see many rare animals and creatures undisturbed. While staying on the island, we had twenty separate dolphin sightings, many of them at sunset as they ventured closer to shallower waters in search of warmth: a truly surreal dreamlike experience!
To experience more of Florida’s incredible wildlife, head inland to the Three Sister’s Springs on Crystal River. If the season is right, it is home to manatees looking for warmer waters, and this National Wildlife Refuge offers a special viewing opportunity to see these majestic sea cows.
Stepping further away from the Tampa Bay, there are innumerable other day trips that are possible, ranging from beaches to ball games and the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Head to Dunedin to watch the Toronto Blue Jays’ MLB Spring Training, in the quaintest setting. A trip to Sarasota is a must and stopping at the John and Mable Ringling Museum is highly recommended. The museum is an extraordinary State Museum and was built as a legacy for the citizens of Florida. The pink, renaissance style palace holds paintings of Europe, panelled rooms from Gilded Age New York, artefacts from ancient and medieval times, and circus history.
The Expansive Florida Coastline
Photo: Condé Nast Traveller
Continuing your historical journey, do not leave Sarasota without a visit to Owen’s Fish Camp. Always heaving, this downtown restaurant is the continuation of an Old Florida swamp shack. It offers upscale, re-invented Southern seafood; whatever is freshest that day. A few of the regular dishes include: Fried Oysters, Blackened Shrimp, Boiled Peanuts, and Bacon Jalapenos. If you are in the outside dining area, you will also get to listen to a variety of bands and singers performing live country music, which only adds to the authenticity of the place.
Any guide to Gulf Coast Florida is not complete without mentioning a few of its best beaches. For longer day trips, Anna Maria Island is a dream like location, where cobalt, crystal clear waters meet pristine, almost blinding, white sands, whilst brightly coloured houses overlook the serene vista. Indian Rocks Beach, meanwhile, is perfect for sunsets and provides fantastic dolphin spotting opportunities, whilst St Pete Beach is situated much closer to the cities and offers the same stunning scenery.
The Tampa Bay region is a treasure trove. With such range in its cuisine, landscapes and culture, the area has endless opportunities, and best of all, it is summer all year round, so it makes for the perfect escape from the UK’s unpredictable weather.