Life’s a Beach (and So Much More) on Florida’s West Coast
Floridians are famous for their laidback approach to life, but the fact is, it comes with the territory. Florida’s the warmest state in the US, boasts the most beaches thanks to its 1,350 miles of coastline, and has virtually no hills, so even walking is easier in the Sunshine State than in most places.
With its glut of gorgeous beaches, Tampa Bay is among the best spots in the sprawling state to get a taste of #floridaliving. Boating, fishing, exotic wildlife sightings — all the stuff people see in their dreams of coastal paradise — can be found here in spades. And there’s even more to see and do with a short drive to St. Pete or Clearwater.
On the subject of easy transportation, this might be a good time to mention that Alaska Airlines offers daily nonstop service to Tampa Bay (TPA) from LAX. The airline pays special attention to safety during COVID, so the relaxation starts even before you hit Tampa’s warm white sand beaches. (Alaska's stellar commitment to sustainability adds to the #goodvibesonly flight experience, too.)
Grab your straw hat and your comfiest flip flops — they’ll be staples of your easy-living uniform for these six unique Tampa Bay-area experiences.
Reach the Beach
Once you touch down at the Tampa Bay Airport, Ben T. Davis Beach is a mere 4-mile drive away, so make sure to pack your shades and your beach towel in one of your suitcase's most accessible compartments. Pull off here to catch your first Florida beach view and stretch your legs with a walk on the sand — or better yet, on the Courtney Campbell Trail, a 4-mile pedestrian bridge that runs parallel to the causeway by the same name (read also: you'll score epic vistas of Tampa Bay and the city while you stroll).
Once you've whet your beach-going appetite, keep heading west for your next must-see beach destination: the award-winning sand and surf of Clearwater Beach. What exactly has earned this patch of oceanfront so many accolades? The three-part answer, while admittedly basic, does nothing to diminish its appeal.
Part I: White, sugary-soft, cool-to-the-touch sands made of sparkling quartz crystals from the Appalachian mountains.
Part II: The year-round warm Gulf of Mexico waters. In the summer, expect inviting temps of around 85 degrees; but even in winter, the water's usually a swimmable 70 degrees.
Part III: One word: sunsets. Whether you're sprawled out on a beach blanket, snapping pics at the open-to-the-public Pier 60 Park or sipping drinks at a beachside bar when the sky ignites, the flaming reds, pinks and oranges that star in each evening's show have a way of etching a new happy place in the onlooker's memory.
With scores of charming old Florida shops, eateries and bars within easy walking distance of its white, soft-sand shores, St. Pete's Pass-a-Grille beach is another must-visit. Its four miles of coastline are touted for their crystal clear waters and visitors get into a range of laidback activities, from beach volleyball to snorkeling. Heck, the town is so serious about beach-going, there's even a museum dedicated to the region's coastal history.
Looking for a more secluded beach experience? Head to Caladesi Island State Park. You can only get there via boat (ferry or private boat, for instance), but the unreal aquamarine waters and untouched island wilderness are well worth the effort.
Rock a Boat
Speaking of seafaring, on Florida's Gulf Coast, sailing into the sunset isn't an activity reserved for one percenters. Between Tampa Bay and nearby beaches, there are literally dozens of businesses ready to make you captain of anything from a stand-up paddleboard to a yacht (okay, they'll definitely supply their own captain for yacht charters, but you get the idea).
You can do a private half-day adventure on something in between — say, a 25-foot deck boat — for a little more than a hundred bucks per person if you're traveling with a group — and that includes a captain. Or hop into a pedal boat or kayak if you're feeling sporty; try a small-group booze cruise or sunset sail if you're not. Note: If you plan to drive a motorboat with 10 or more horsepower and were born after Jan. 1, 1988, you'll need to earn a Boating Safety Education Identification Card first.
See Florida's True Nature
Get the lay of the balmy, tropical land with a walk through prairie grasses, groves of Florida oak, verdant swamplands and clusters of cabbage palms at Cypress Creek Nature Preserve, just 20 minutes north of downtown Tampa. Wild pigs, deer, gopher tortoises and armadillo are among the animal species that call the preserve home. It's also a great spot to catch sight of long-necked wading bird species for which Florida's wetlands are famous (Florida sandhill cranes and tricolor herons are just a few fetching examples).
Of course, this is just one of a dozen or so nature preserves in the Tampa Bay area. Weedon Island Preserve is another standout, with a fascinating history extending back to prehistoric times, when primitive humans enjoyed the island's abundance of fish, shellfish and edible plant life, according the the archaeological record. The island has since hosted homesteaders, speakeasies, a Hollywood movie studio and an airport, all of which have now given way to the present-day scenic boardwalks and trails (don't miss the 45-foot observation tower), an education center offering a variety of classes and events for all ages and a paddling trail through mangrove swamps and shallow open waters. Kayak and canoe rentals are available on site.
See the State of the Arts in St. Pete
St. Pete is a beach town with serious brains, as its wide range of museums attests. Guests rave about the mind-bending collection on permanent display at the Dali Museum, but the Spanish artist's liquified clocks, distorted skulls and mutated human forms are not the only beautifully twisted objects in town. The Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center gives visitors an up-close look at the living artist's florid, luminous and curving glass creations, many of which have an enchanting subaquatic appearance.
There's more fantastic glass work at the Imagine Museum, which houses a contemporary collection from an array of gifted artists. Fans of Americana will want to visit The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, which showcases paintings, sculptures, jewelry and artifacts by 20th and 21st century artists, including living Native American artists.
Go Old Florida
There are pockets of Florida's Gulf Coast that have retained their old-world charm so, well, charmingly that a stop is nearly mandatory. These include The Sponge Factory and Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs, outposts for the Greek-run sea sponge industry that has been in play here since the early 1900s. After you've learned about sponge diving and bought a few of the pretty sea creature skeletons to take home, don't dare miss the Greek cuisine that's just as entwined with the neighborhood's identity.
Check out 1950s-era gaming with a trip to the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club, which boasts a whopping 52 in- and outdoor courts for practicing your "go arounds" and "bump shots." A club member will be happy to demystify the game's lingo and rules upon your arrival — and your first game is free.
For another leisurely and nostalgic experience, peruse the more than century-old Sunken Gardens in St. Pete, a 4-acre botanical garden whose specimens include some of the region's oldest tropical plants — and a flock of resident flamingos.
Or simply pop into a laidback beach bar, where the no-frills decor and low drink prices will make you feel like you've wandered into a simpler time.
Get a Modern Upgrade
A gleaming reimagined St. Pete Pier made its debut in summer 2020, bringing visitors to the historic Pier District a slew of engaging new activities. The Tampa Bay Watch Discovery Center, for one, provides interactive ways to learn about the area's rich local wildlife, from manatees to bobcats to tens of thousands of nesting bird species. Pet a sea urchin, sea star or hermit crab at one of the facility's touch tanks; view an aquarium teeming with local marine species; or have a close encounter with Bertha and Ruby, two rare Ornate Diamondback Terrapins that call the center home.
Launched just last summer, marine biologist-led eco-tours aboard a certified eco-friendly catamaran now offer visitors a way to take their natural explorations out on the open waters. Tours set sail directly from the pier, with options that focus on dolphin, manatee, fish and native bird species.
A kids' splashpad, five restaurants and a rooftop tiki bar round out the new leisure center's on-shore offerings, making it a relaxing place to cap off your Tampa Bay area adventure.
Pro tip: If you're flying out from LAX, start your trip in as leisurely a fashion as you'll end it with a visit to the new Alaska Airlines lounge. Day passes are 50% off with the Alaska Airlines credit card.