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A Day At The Gulf Coast - Orlando / Florida Guide

Florida Guide > Days Out

What do you come to Orlando, Florida for? Is it the whole Disney experience? Is it to visit other critically acclaimed theme parks such as Universal Studios and Sea World? Is it the weather – probably not if you were there in August/September 04? Or is it because as the No 1 holiday destination with visitors from all over the globe, you can taste so many different experiences right on your doorstep?

As someone once said, there is more to Florida than Walt Disney World; in fact, Florida did actually exist before the mouse took over, although a lot of it was swamp. It would be such a shame to visit Central Florida for perhaps a once in a lifetime holiday and not travel a little further a field and see what else Florida has to offer.

One of our favourite days out is to travel west from Orlando and head out towards the Gulf Coast.

An easy drive on I4, soon brings you to Tampa, where a further 30 minutes drive (approx) will bring you to the Gulf Coast at Clearwater.

On the approach to Clearwater, take time out to visit the Aquarium. Here you can spend a few hours interacting with some great characters and watching them at play – I just love to watch those playful sea otters. And yes, they know you are watching them and often show off just to keep you there.

Once in Clearwater there is plenty of metered parking on the front (have those quarters ready). The sand is soft, but can get extremely hot and the sea is warm. Umbrellas and cabanas can be rented to protect you from the fierce mid-day sun – or the wind if an inclement day.

For those who fear nothing, try a trip on the Screamer, A bright yellow speed boat that leaves from the dock in Clearwater and takes you out into the Gulf of Mexico. It guarantees you will get wet, definitely not for the faint hearted.

Driving out of Clearwater heading south on the coast road, just over a bridge brings you to Sand Key Park. This is a beautifully maintained public park with direct access to the beach. Once again plenty of parking meters. There are showers, toilets and changing rooms. There are picnic tables and places to BBQ. And best of all, is the wide sandy beach lapped by the sea. Again, umbrellas and cabanas can be hired. The beach is patrolled by guards who have several functions but include assisting lost children to be re-united with their frantic parents and also cooler box checks to ensure no alcohol is brought onto the beach.

From Sand Key Park, it is a really pleasant drive, South, down the coast road towards Treasure Island and St Petersburg.

A great place to stop for a while is the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. It is on the right hand side of the road and located at Indian Shores. No flashy signs announce you’ve arrived, in fact if you are not careful you could very easily drive past. No admission fee is charged although donations are always welcome as this is run purely on a voluntary basis. The owner, rescues birds and treats them until they are well enough to leave, some never will and are firm favourites with visitors who return time and time again. At 4.00pm every day, one of the volunteers takes a large bucket of fish out behind the Sanctuary and down onto the beach and birds appear from no-where, in their hundreds, to have their daily freebie.

Our next recommendation for a place well worth stopping at is John’s Pass. On the left hand side of the road, just before Treasure Island.

It is built around an old fashioned wooden board walk. This extends left and right along the water and is lined with restaurants, bars and shops. From the lower level of the boardwalk, boating excursions, fishing trips and jet-skis all vie for your business. If you are very lucky you can see Dolphins at play in the Intra-Coastal waters. You are also sure to see the bridge being raised to allow a ship with tall sails through.

Spreading out from the main centre of the boardwalk, a number of shops have developed, mixing “tourist” shops with those selling curios. My favourite shop sells hand made fudge and you can order it via the Internet and have it delivered to the UK.

After a leisurely dinner at Sculleys (on the Boardwalk), head over the bridge into Treasure Island and turn left and a short drive along Central will bring you to I275 which in turn will lead you back to I4.

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