Start your vacation by visiting a fairly urban city beach, Clearwater Beach, a long, wide stretch offering showers, restrooms, concessions, cabanas, umbrella rentals, volleyball, and metered parking. Pier 60, where the beach meets the causeway, has a regular sunset celebration with entertainers and live music. But this is the warm-up, just to get your feet wet, so to speak.
If you have a little more time on your hands, head to Caladesi Island in Dunedin, which frequently makes it onto the lists of top beaches in the world. It is only accessible by ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park off Alternate Highway 19 in Dunedin. Caladesi is 3.5 miles long, with a marina and swim beach right near where the ferry lets you off, but the rest of the island remains undeveloped. The bay side of the island is worth exploring, with a mangrove shoreline and seagrass flats (rent canoes and paddle the 3.5-mile canoe trail that meanders through the bay side).
All that paddling will certainly make you ravenous. Dunedin’s Main Street is not far away, with a wealth of dining options. Whet your appetite with a little spicy Mexican fare, especially veggie, at Day-ofthe-Dead-themed Casa Tina.
Cap it all off with a nightcap and a little hip-swiveling at the whimsical Chic-a-Boom Room.
Probably worth a whole day in its own right, Busch Gardens has must-sees that include the Montu, the ShieKra, the Kumba, and the tooth-rattling Gwazi, in descending order of priority. For a truly different experience, first check the live cheetahs racing along nearby and then board the Cheetah Hunt coaster. Busch is a park for all ages, with a mix of big, scary coasters and sweet animal attractions. And, for lunch, the onsite concessions are better than they need to be (the truly hungry can opt for the all-day dining deal; $32.99 adult, $14.99 child age 3–9).
Right across the street from Busch Gardens is Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), probably the best science museum on the Gulf Coast. It’s majorly ambitious to combine this in a day with Busch Gardens, but it can be done.
Alternatively, skip Busch Gardens and pair a visit to MOSI with a half day spent wandering the Florida Aquarium.
Stop for lunch across the street at the portside dining/entertainment complex of Channelside.
In the late afternoon, take one of the aquarium’s Wild Dolphin Cruise Eco-Tours out into the bay to get an eagle-eye view of dolphins, manatees, and migratory birds.
And before you hit the hay, experience a Florida original Cracker-style institution: Try the gator nuggets at Skipper’s Smokehouse while watching a live blues performance.
Spend your third day immersed in the area’s arts offerings. Drive over the Howard Frankland bridge to downtown St. Petersburg.
Wander the galleries of the expanded Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a little lunch in its MFA Café.
Then cross Beach Drive to take in glassworks maestro Dale Chihuly’s art in its only purpose-built gallery outside his Washington state studio. It takes about an hour to see it all, with fascinating docent-led tours.
Still in an artsy mood? Barely a half-mile south is the fascinating Salvador Dalí Museum, opened in its new home in January 2011 to display the world’s largest private collection of the Surrealist genius’s works.
Head from any of these museums to Central Avenue, to do a little window shopping or credit-card calisthenics.
Music fans should attend a concert outdoors at rock-centric Jannus Live.
There are several worthy restaurants on Beach Drive and within a block or two of Central Avenue that offer tables on the sidewalk.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Tampa & St. Petersburg.