What to See and What to Skip in Florida’s Gulf Coast

PHOTO: St. Pete Beach in St. Petersburg, Florida is pictured in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
St. Pete Beach in St. Petersburg, Florida is pictured in this undated stock photo.

The appeal of Florida’s Gulf Coast is no secret. When TripAdvisor named the top beaches in the country, three of the top four – Clearwater, Siesta Key and St. Pete – were on the Sunshine State’s western shores. Throw in a bevy of cultural and entertainment options and it’s easy to see why people flock here year-round.

The new year may give travelers even more incentive to visit. The gorgeous coastline – the approximately 200-mile stretch between Clearwater and Naples – saw no less than nine new hotels open their doors in 2016. That extra inventory, along with upped airline competition at the four airports here, including Tampa International and St. Petersburg—Clearwater, are creating the kinds of travel values we haven’t seen in years. That’s why Florida’s Gulf Coast was one of the six hot spots in Travelzoo’s Wow Deal Destinations list for 2017.

Check out just a few of the region’s unique experiences.

Skip the Concert, Dance to the Drums
A couple of Sarasota County beaches have become famous for weekly drum circles – energetic, pulsating, rhythmic events that occur spontaneously right on the sand. On Casey Key, the Nokomis Beach Drum Circle is legendary and, depending on the weather, can draw dozens or thousands of dancers and Hula-Hoopers. This free-spirited event takes place Wednesdays and Saturdays, starting around an hour before sunset and lasting until the light of day almost completely goes away. Take your own bongo and join in. A community drum circle also takes place on Siesta Beach each Sunday at dusk.

Forget the Street Lights, Mind the Stop Sign
Call it island living. When you visit Pine, Sanibel and Captiva, don't bother looking for traffic lights. Traffic flow, which is never hurried, is driven only by the occasional stop sign, plus a healthy dose of common courtesy.

Skip the Souvenir Shop, Hunt for Teeth
People visit Sarasota County’s Venice not for gondola rides but to comb for teeth. Hunting for fossilized sharks’ teeth is a favorite pastime here, especially along Venice Beach and Caspersen Beach, which hosts the Shark’s Tooth Festival every year. Sharks continually shed their teeth and can produce thousands over their lifetimes; the finds here come in a variety of sizes (some up to 3 inches) and colors (mostly black, with some brown). After your hunt, head to palm tree-lined downtown Venice to shop the eclectic boutiques, admire the architecture and, on Saturday mornings, scour the farmers’ market.

Skip the Metal Detector, Check for Shells
Like taking your metal detector to the beach? Forget it. Along the shores of Ft. Myers and Sanibel, treasure is easy to find with the naked eye, or by sifting through the sand with your fingers. It turns out that this region's east-west topography makes it an ideal final resting place for an amazing variety of shells – 400 varieties in all, rolling onshore by the thousands every day. Horse conches, jingle shells, giant cockles, calico scallops – take your pick. The junonia is a locals' favorite. North Captiva and Cayo Costa offer great shelling.

Skip Siesta, Lounge in Anna Maria
This suggestion is meant merely to remind you that while well-known beach destinations here are always worth a visit, a ton of other coastal havens worth finding also exist. Popular Siesta Beach is well-named, with its laid-back vibe and quartz-crystal sands, and an unassuming village nearby where killer cocktails flow freely. My colleague Cat Jordan, PR manager in Travelzoo’s New York City office, loves Anna Maria Island, “where you can still find old-town charm” and because “it’s not a tourist trap” Located at the southern mouth of Tampa Bay, this seven-mile strip features white sand beaches, a stroll-worthy pier and great seafood spots. And the list of awesome beach discoveries continues…

Skip the Restaurant, Catch Your Own Meal
Sarasota Bay is fed by three sources of freshwater, making it a natural estuary and creating an environment teeming with seasonal fish. Several locals who’ve been fishing these waters for decades are also guides, offering chartered trips that can help even novice fishermen reel in inshore catches like trout and flounder, or offshore prizes like grouper and amberjack. At Wolfmouth Charters, Captain Wayne Genthner, who’s been fishing Sarasota Bay for more than 30 years, leads trips by day or night aboard a 28-foot commercial catamaran. Also, check out Tightlines Charters.

When You Do Dine Out…
Locals, as well as the concierge at your favorite hotel, will point you to a ton of awesome dining options, especially for seafood lovers. There are a few things you have to try when you’re here, like the grouper. You’ll find this fresh fish served many ways along the Gulf Coast, but a grouper sandwich is the most popular, whether it’s grilled, blackened, or fried. And don’t forget the shrimp! The ones sourced off these shores are so good, some people gobble it up raw, and their flushed hue give them an apt moniker: pink gold.

My colleague, Andrea Sedlay, business development manager in Travelzoo’s Chicago office, heads south most winters to visit her in-laws. “I spend as much time as possible there,” she tells me. She recommends the landmark, family-owned Columbia Restaurant in Clearwater Beach for its “amazing food and gorgeous setting.” The Spanish-themed eatery, well-known for its seafood and paella dishes, also has a handful of other Gulf Coast locations, plus a café inside Tampa International Airport. For that sweet tooth, Sedlay raves about the key lime cookies at JJ Gandy’s Pies in Palm Harbor, just north of Tampa Bay. “To the point I bring back dozens for people who have put in orders with me before I go visit,” she says.

Skip the Playground, Go Wild
The many wildlife destinations here will keep kids of all ages intrigued and entertained. Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a 10-acre tropical landscape, as well as a home to 150 exotic animals, many of them rescued, including macaws, primates, alligators, iguanas and pink flamingos. Make sure to check out the daily bird and reptile shows. Save Our Seabirds is a nonprofit conservation group that focuses on avian rehab and whose three-acre Wild Bird Learning Center features several live exhibits; it’s located next to Mote Aquarium and your same-day admission ticket to Mote cuts your admission price here in half. Big Cat Habitat is a sanctuary for lions and tigers where you can witness training (except during the hot summer months) and take a private tour. You can also see bears, tortoises, and lemurs while you are here.

On Sanibel Island, visit the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to witness more than 200 bird species. The 5000-acre complex is known as one of best birding spots in the country, so bring your binoculars and your camera. It’s open every day of the year except Fridays; admission is $5 per car.

Skip the Snorkel, Go Deep
The USS Mohawk is a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was involved in more than a dozen attacks against Nazi subs during World War II. It was sunk off Sanibel Island in July 2012 and is now an artificial reef. A bit more than 25 miles offshore and 90 feet down, it is paradise to the more experienced diver, for sure. Contact charters like El Gavilan and Ultimate Getaway.

Skip the Ocean, Kayak the Blueway
First-time kayakers and experienced paddlers alike come to the Great Calusa Blueway to commune with water and wildlife up-close. This 190-mile trail encompasses three distinct regions of the Gulf of Mexico coast; meander in and out of coastal waters and inland tributaries while catching glimpses of ospreys, manatees, dolphins and crustaceans.

Skip the Gym, Run
For active visitors, the best way to take in as much of this area’s sweeping scenery as possible may be to hit the pavement. Sarasota County, in fact, is considered one of the country’s most jogging-friendly communities and several hotels here have devised routes right from their revolving door that cater to all abilities. The Hyatt Regency Sarasota features a three-mile running loop that takes guests over the Ringling Bridge while the Inn at Siesta Key sends guests on a five-mile run along the coast and through neighborhood streets. Ask for maps at the concierge desks. If you want to run with the kids, the summer months see themed family runs at Siesta Beach on Tuesday evenings and at Brohard Beach in Venice on Wednesdays.

After the Beach, Get Cultural
Sarasota is known as the Circus Capital of the World for good reason: John Ringling, the famous Ringling Circus impresario, established his winter home here in 1927, making the circus an integral part of Sarasota’s social scene and economy. Today, his 66-acre estate is a cultural epicenter, hosting rotating pop art and photography exhibits, screening award-winning films and featuring stage performances. Visit the Circus Museum and marvel at classic posters, glittery costumes and the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus Model.

In St. Petersburg, the Dali Museum pays homage to the surrealist painter Salvadore Dali and is the centerpiece of a thriving arts community here. The waterfront museum houses 2,000 works by Dali, the largest collection outside Europe.

Gabe Saglie is the senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive tips and deals throughout Florida’s Gulf Coast at travelzoo.com.

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