In the three hundred miles from the state’s southern tip to the junction with the Panhandle, Florida’s West Coast embraces all the extremes. Buzzing, youthful towns rise behind placid fishing hamlets; mobbed holiday strips are just minutes from desolate swamplands and world-class art collections vie with glitzy theme parks. Surprises are plentiful, though the coast’s one constant is proximity to the Gulf of Mexico – and sunset views rivalled only by those of the Florida Keys.
The west coast’s largest city, Tampa, has more to offer than its corporate towers initially suggest – not least the lively nightlife scene in the Cuban enclave of Ybor City, and the Busch Gardens theme park. For the mass of visitors, though, the Tampa Bay area begins and ends with the St Petersburg beaches, whose miles of sea and sand are undiluted vacation territory. South of Tampa, a string of barrier-island beaches run the length of the Gulf (including those on beautiful Anna Maria Island), and the mainland towns that provide access to them – such as Sarasota and Fort Myers – have enough to warrant a stop. Inland, the wilderness of the Everglades can be navigated by simple walking trails, canoe, kayak or an overnight stay at a campground.Read More
A small, stimulating city with an infectious, upbeat mood, TAMPA, the business hub of the west coast, is well worth a stop. As one of the major beneficiaries of the flood of people and money into Florida, Tampa boasts an impressive cultural infrastructure envied by many larger rivals. In addition to its fine museums and Busch Gardens, one of the most popular theme parks in the state, the city holds, in the Cuban-influenced Ybor City, just northeast of the city centre, the west coast’s hippest and most culturally eclectic quarter.
Tampa began as a small settlement beside a US Army base that was built in the 1820s to keep an eye on the Seminoles. In the 1880s, the railroad arrived, and the Hillsborough River, on which the city stands, was dredged to allow seagoing vessels to dock. Tampa became a booming port, simultaneously acquiring a major tobacco industry as thousands of Cubans moved north from Key West to the new cigar factories of neighbouring Ybor City. The Depression ended the economic surge, but the port remained one of the busiest in the country and tempered Tampa’s postwar decline. Today, Tampa continues to draw on the strengths of its local universities and historically minded tourist attractions, and a few that are just attractions.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park
One of the country’s most celebrated natural areas, the EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK is a vast, tranquil wildlife reserve, with a subtle, raw appeal that makes a stark contrast to America’s more rugged national parks. The most dramatic sights are small pockets of trees poking above a completely flat sawgrass plain, yet these wide-open spaces resonate with life, forming part of an ever-changing ecosystem, evolved through a unique combination of climate, vegetation and wildlife.
Though it appears to be flat as a table-top, the limestone on which the Everglades stands actually tilts very slightly towards the southwest. For thousands of years, water from summer storms and the overflow of nearby Lake Okeechobee has moved slowly through the Everglades towards the coast. The water replenishes the sawgrass, which grows on a thin layer of soil formed by decaying vegetation. This gives birth to the algae at the base of a complex food chain that sustains much larger creatures – most importantly alligators. After the floodwaters have reached the sea, drained through the bedrock, or simply evaporated, the Everglades are barren except for the water accumulated in ponds – or “gator holes” – created when an alligator senses water and clears the soil covering it with its tail. Besides nourishing the alligator, the pond provides a home for other wildlife until the summer rains return. Sawgrass covers much of the Everglades, but where natural indentations in the limestone fill with soil, fertile tree islands – or “hammocks” – appear, just high enough to stand above the floodwaters.
In the nineteenth century, the Seminole and Miccosukee Native American tribes were forced to live hunter-gatherer existences in the Everglades, and still maintain a sizeable presence here. By the late 1800s, a few towns had sprung up, peopled by settlers who, unlike the Native Americans, looked to exploit the land. As Florida’s population grew, the damage caused by hunting, road building and draining for farmland gave rise to a significant conservation lobby. In 1947, a section of the Everglades was declared a national park, which today bestows federal protection to a comparatively small area at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The Everglades’ boundaries have been steadily pushed back by urban development over the last century, and unrestrained commercial use of nearby areas continues to upset the region’s natural cycle. The 1200 miles of canals built to divert the flow of water away from the Everglades and toward the state’s expanding cities, the poisoning caused by agricultural chemicals from local farmlands and the broader changes wrought by global warming could yet turn Florida’s greatest natural asset into a wasteland.