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 lie just minutes from desolate swamplands; and a world-class art collection competes with a glitzy theme park. 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 holiday 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.