Which West Coast is the Best Coast?
Even before their baseball teams squared off in the World Series last fall, Tampa and Los Angeles had more in common than you’d think. And now, they are even more connected thanks to Alaska Airlines’ new nonstop service between TPA and LAX.
With that in mind, we thought it’d be fun to compare these two “West Coast” destinations, along with a few tips if you decide to hop on Alaska’s new route and give the other side a try. (Then find your Tampa to LA flight or LA to Tampa flight.)
The Tampa area has one built-in advantage over southern California when it comes to sunsets: They get first dibs -- every night. On Florida's West Coast, sunsets are a laid-back celebration with the gentle waves lapping at the sugar-sand beach, as you try to catch the Green Flash (that flash of light that appears in the split second when the sun disappears over the horizon), usually with cocktail in hand.
The most organized version of this is the free nightly Pier 60 Sunset Celebration in Clearwater Beach, where food trucks, musicians and vendors help celebrate the day's end on the 1,080-foot pier that extends into the Gulf. For a different way to decompress, you can join the sunset yoga sessions held three nights at week at Indian Rocks Beach.
To take in the golden hour in the Golden State, make a point to get to the beach to bid farewell to the final beams of light as the sun splashes into the Pacific Ocean. We love El Matador State Beach just north of Malibu, and while we wouldn’t necessarily recommend a beach towel and book here, this beach is perfect for sunsets thanks to the dramatic waves, concealed coves and sea stacks.
If you want to combine your sundowners with people-watching, find a rooftop bar to set up shop. Two of our favorites: Hotel Erwin in Venice is right on the beach with 360-degree views. Or, if you want to watch a sunset on Sunset (Blvd.) before hitting the famed music venues up and down the Strip, Harriet’s Rooftop at 1 Hotel is our pick.
It's hard to go wrong with a beach in the L.A. or Tampa Bay areas, so let's focus instead on one iconic beach you're going to want to visit, and one you shouldn't miss.
Venice Beach is a scene -- Muscle Beach, roller skaters, drum circles and a paved mixed-use biking, boarding and blading path that’ll take you all the way to Santa Monica's famed pier. Plus, it's a great surf spot for beginners. For a different vibe, try Will Rogers State Beach. It's less crowded than neighboring beaches in Malibu or Santa Monica, with 100 acres of beach to sunbathe, play beach volleyball, or picnic.
The Tampa Bay area claims two of the best five beaches in the U.S., according to TripAdvisor readers. You'll find the wide sands and clear emerald-green water at St. Pete Beach (No. 2) or Clearwater Beach (No. 5) are worthy of all the kudos. But across the 35 miles of beachfront in the region, you can find some more sweet spots if you go the extra mile. You'll need to hop on the ferry to reach Caladesi Island State Park, a pristine barrier island. Once there, it's a very low-key beach day on the unspoiled sand, with the opportunity to rent a kayak to explore the nearby mangrove trails.
Both L.A. and Tampa are within driving distance of a Disney, but we don't have enough room here to get into a full comparison between -World and -land, so we'll "park" that, for now.
L.A. is Tinseltown and you can still get the movie experience even if you're not interested in the touristy Hollywood sign or Walk of Fame. Even our jaded L.A. deal experts enjoy Universal Studios, just over the hill about 20 minutes from Hollywood. It's a movie geek's dream day -- Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Springfield (Simpsons), plus rides for Jurassic Park, Minions and more. Go on a studio tour (it doesn't cost extra), and the bus will take you around the active lot of the largest studio in the world where (depending on the day and current COVID protocols) people are actually filming.
You could spend your whole trip to southern California looking for filming locations and movie stars, but we prefer one-of-a-kind spots like the Bridge to Nowhere in the San Gabriel Mountains, where you can hike to and then bungee jump off a bridge that's never had a car cross it. For something less strenuous, visit the massive Griffith Park, with hiking and horseback riding in the urban wilderness, plus the L.A. Zoo and Griffith Observatory (fresh off its starring role in La La Land).
Thrill-seekers will get right off the Alaska Airlines flight at Tampa airport and head to Busch Gardens, 20 minutes away. There you'll find some of Tampa's tallest (and most fun) skyscrapers, like Tigris (Florida's tallest launch coaster) and the Iron Gwazi, which will take several "-est" claims (tallest, steepest, fastest) when it opens in spring 2021. Once you've screamed yourself silly, you can settle down in one of the country's largest zoos, also on the Busch Gardens grounds, including an open-air safari tour where you can hand-feed giraffes.
The Tampa area has its own movie star, and you can actually take selfies with him. Winter the dolphin was the star of Dolphin Tale (and Dolphin Tale 2), which was filmed on location at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a working animal hospital that rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles, otters and, yes, dolphins for release into the wild.
Things to Do
If you're switching coasts, you want to try something new. So here's a few reasons to cross the country. We'll group them as Easy/Medium/Hard, depending on how ambitious you are.
Easy: You can't go to California and not try the wine. A short drive up the coast brings you to Santa Barbara, where you'll want to hit the tasting rooms before (or after) you hit the posh boutiques. For a chill atmosphere, head to Pali Wine Company for a pour of the Pinot Noir. The Santa Ynez Valley is also worth a detour. Seek out the charming wine towns of Los Olivos or Los Alamos, where you'll find female-owned Casa Dumetz Wines. We recommend the yummy and affordable red blend called the Feminist.
Maybe it's something in the water, but the Tampa Bay area is an up-and-coming craft beer destination. Tampa's Cigar City Brewing has made the biggest impact nationally, and you're going to want to ask for a Jai Alai IPA (with notes of orange peel, naturally) when you visit the tasting room. From there, sip your way through the Tampa Bay Ale Trail or Gulp Coast Craft Beer Trail in St. Pete, one pint at a time (with a designated driver along for the ride).
Medium: Hiking is a thing in L.A., you'll find a ton of great options in and among the canyons of Southern California. One of our favorites is Temescal Canyon near Pacific Palisades. The moderate 3-mile-long loop includes a small waterfall and ocean views if it's a clear day.
Why walk when you can float? Getting out on the water is second-nature in the Tampa area, whether it's kayaking through a mangrove canopy in the Weedon Island Preserve (watch for manatees and dolphins), canoeing up the Hillsborough River or stand-up paddleboarding in downtown Tampa.
Hard: Surfing is one activity where the difficulty is a bit subjective. If you can't get up on the board on dry land, there are still spots for beginners -- like Santa Monica Beach (go in the morning for smaller crowds). More advanced surfers will probably want to catch the surf report when they land.
Much like surfing, golf is a sport you'll either find easy or impossible -- and sometimes it will alternate between swings in the same round. Florida is home to the most golf courses in the U.S., and the Tampa area has several that will challenge your game -- including Innisbrook Resort, a regular on the PGA TOUR rotation. For a true golf pilgrimage, fly into Tampa and drive the hour to Streamstrong Resort, where three of GOLF Magazine's top eight courses in the state are found.