By Jim Ferri
Florida’s Gulf Coast – primarily the area between Naples and Crystal River, a drive of about 250 miles – is a great road trip any time of year. It’s especially good in the winter, even more so during these pandemic times when we’re all getting cabin fever.
Best yet, Florida’s Gulf Coast is accessible from all over the U.S.
There’s a lot to see on the Gulf Coast. It’s a ribbon of pristine beach that stretches hundreds of miles. Along it, you’ll find fascinating cities with excellent dining in superb restaurants (many offering take-out), good shopping, fun watersports and good fishing, top art museums, and other cultural offerings. You’ll even have the opportunity to observe manatees in the wild.
Due to the pandemic, many attractions and sites you’ll likely want to visit along the way have taken precautions. Most, if not all, require masks and a timed entry for each visitor to ensure safe social distancing. You should also check with them to ascertain if tickets must be bought online in advance.
Upscale Naples, a Tiny Post Office, a Primeval Swamp
Start your drive in Naples, the city at the western end of Alligator Alley (I75) that’s wedged between the Gulf of Mexico and Everglades National Park. It’s a decidedly upscale city. Along a six-block stretch of Fifth Avenue South, you’ll find plenty of fashionable boutiques, galleries, and trendy restaurants interspersed with the offices of investment advisors. Florida Gulf Coast beaches are renown, and some of Naples’ beaches are snuggled up against charming neighborhoods.
When you’re ready to depart Naples, and before you begin your drive north towards Tampa and St. Petersburg, you’ll want to drive south. Take U.S. 41 south to Loop Road Scenic Drive, in the Big Cypress National Preserve, to see how Florida looked thousands of years ago. No tickets are required here.
Halfway to Loop Road – about 45 minutes from Naples – you’ll pass the Ochopee Post Office (38000 Tamiami Trail), the smallest post office in the U.S.
Stop to read the interesting historical marker out front and, if open, have a chat with the affable postmaster. Be a big spender – buy a postcard and have the postmaster stamp it for you. It’s generally open Monday-Friday 8–10am, 12–4pm, and 10–11:30am Saturday.
Continue on another 12½ miles, and you’ll see Loop Road on your right. The road is paved here but will become an unpaved dirt and gravel road a couple of miles further ahead. At that point, you may find it worthwhile to use the toilet facilities you’ll see on the left. There are also hiking trails into the National Preserve that start off at this point.
Back in your car, continue straight ahead through a primeval swamp filled with alligators and other wildlife. It’s best during the winter months when the alligators come out of the cool waters to sun themselves on the banks. For many, this is Florida’s real Alligator Alley. If you do see gators, however, don’t get too close. Remember that a gator can run faster than you from a dead stop.
Continue along, and you’ll meet up with U.S. 41 after 27 miles or so. When you reach it, turn left and head back towards Naples.
The Ringling Masterpieces on Florida’s Gulf Coast
From Naples, head up Florida’s Gulf Coast for 129 miles, about a two-hour drive, and you’ll find beautiful Sarasota. To many, it’s the cultural center of Florida. The city’s infusion of culture was launched by John Ringling (of Ringling Circus fame). He poured his millions into the area and attracted other wealthy neighbors to this beautiful area of Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Ringling’s most significant legacy is Ca’ d’Zan (“House of John”), his and Mable’s winter home. It’s the type of place you’d expect only see in a Great Gatsby-era movie.
On the shore of Sarasota Bay, it’s an extraordinary Venetian-inspired palatial residence that combines Baroque with French and Italian Renaissance styles. The 66-acre estate spreads across a beautiful park-like setting with manicured lawns and massive oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
Also on the estate is the beautiful John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. It contains numerous galleries containing late medieval European art, 16th-and 17th-century Italian masterpieces, and 18th-century American works.
It’s an intimate place that gives you the feeling that you’re wandering through someone’s home admiring their private collection. If the Ringling museum were in Europe, travelers would rate it as a “must see.”
The Incredible Ringling Circus Museum
Also on the property is the Ringling Circus Museum, which is, in fact, two separate museums.
The first is a nondescript building containing old circus wagons and Ringling’s opulent restored rail car from the original circus. Here you’ll find everything from a ticket booth, the mechanic’s cart that contains everything needed to keep the show going, cars that held the animals for the sideshows, as well as a ton of other memorabilia.
The second part of the museum – and the show’s real star – is the Tibbals Learning Center. The center contains an incredible miniature recreation of a circus called the “Howard Bros. Circus,” but is patterned after Ringling’s extravaganza.
The exhibit’s million pieces are built to exact scale (3/4” to the foot) and are amazingly detailed. For example, there are 7,000 miniature-folding chairs in the Big Top, and when folded, they fit into the five little wagons, just as they would in the real show. Even more impressive is that one man, Howard Tibbals, created the entire thing over 55 years.
It’s fascinating and shows all aspects of the circus, from the time the train pulls into town to when the big show is over. It covers an area of 3,800 square feet and is about 1½ times the length of a football field.
If You Go:
The Ringling (Museum of Art, Circus Museum and Ca’ d’Zan)
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243
Tickets: $5-25. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets online before arrival. Hands-on activities and docent-led tours are currently unavailable.
Opening hours: Daily 10:00am – 5:00pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, & New Year’s Day
Head North to St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast
You’ll likely spend the better part of a day with the Ringlings, but at some point, you’ll want to move on and head further north up Florida’s Gulf Coast.
About 40 miles up the coast, you’ll come to beautiful St. Petersburg and St. Pete’s Beach, the latter aptly named for the miles of beautiful, wide pure-white beach on which it sits.
You can grab some tan time if you like, but you’ll also find many other things in this area of Florida’s Gulf Coast that you’re likely to enjoy as well. One of them is the acclaimed Salvador Dali Museum, the most comprehensive collection of the artist’s work in the world.
It might seem a bit odd to have a Dali Museum in St. Petersburgh. Still, the site was chosen because it resembles Dali’s hometown of Cadaques, Spain.
To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a Dali fan, but I was fascinated by this museum. After visiting, I left with a newfound respect for the man and his works.
If you enjoy art, you’ll likely also want to pay a visit to the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. Its collection includes works by Cézanne, Monet, Rodin, and Georgia O’Keeffe.
If you have children in tow, head for the Great Explorations Children’s Museum, a hands-on museum dedicated to children’s learning that’s also fascinating for many adults. It’s adjacent to Sunken Gardens, a former water-filled Florida sinkhole. Ten feet below street level, it’s been transformed into a tropical garden with thousands of plants.
If You Go:
Salvador Dali Museum
1 Dali Boulevard
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Tickets: $10-25 and can be bought online at https://thedali.org/visit/buy-tickets/. Advanced timed-tickets are required for all visitors. Your ticket will indicate the time you will be admitted into the museum.
Opening hours: The Dalí is currently open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 am-6 pm (until 8 pm on Thursdays and Fridays). Starting November 21, 2020, the museum will open daily 10 am-6 pm and until 8 pm on Thursdays and Fridays).
St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts
255 Beach Drive NE
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Tickets: $10-20. All tickets are timed admission and must be purchased in advance.
Opening hours: Tuesday-Wednesday 10:00 am-5:00 pm; Thursday-Friday 12:00 pm-8:00 pm; Saturday 10:00 am-5:00 pm: Sunday 12:00 pm-5:00pm; Closed Monday.
Great Explorations Children’s Museum
1925 4th Street North
St. Petersburg, FL 33704
Opening hours: The museum has implemented new health policies and procedures and a phased opening. See https://greatex.org/reopening-plan/ for more information.
1825 4th Street North
St. Petersburg, FL 33704
Opening hours: Monday–Saturday: 10 am–4:30 pm; Sunday: Noon–4:30 pm. The last admission is sold at 4 pm daily.
Neighboring Tampa on the Gulf Coast
Across the bay, in Tampa, there is a score of other exciting places, including the Henry R. Plant Museum, a lavish former hotel, and the city’s best-known historic landmark. At the Tampa Museum of Art, you’ll find both ends of the art spectrum: ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan pieces as well as American 20th-century fine art.
Tampa’s lively neighborhood of Ybor City was once home to the largest cigar factory in the world, employing about 20,000 people. Today it’s a vibrant district with boutiques, clubs, and restaurants that comes alive in the evening.
Scattered about this Florida Gulf Coast city are the Florida Aquarium (focusing on the various habitats of Florida), the Museum of Science and Industry (lots of interactive displays for adults and children), and Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park (with the expected variety of animals as well as a center for injured and sick manatees). Outside the city is the famous Busch Gardens, the well-known African-inspired theme park and zoo.
If You Go:
Henry R. Plant Museum
401 West Kennedy Boulevard
Tampa, FL 33606
Tickets: $5-10. Visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance to facilitate contact-less entry.
Opening hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm; Sunday 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm; closed Monday.
Tampa Museum of Art
120 West Gasparilla Plaza
Tampa, FL 33602
Opening hours: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 10am – 5pm; Thursday: 10am – 8pm; Saturday & Sunday: 10am – 5pm
701 Channelside Drive
Tampa, FL 33602
Ticket prices vary by date but are generally between $20-30. All tickets must be reserved and bought online without exemption.
Opening hours: Monday–Thursday:10:30am – 4pm; Friday: 9:30am – 5:00pm: Saturday: 9:30am – 9:00pm; Sunday: 9:30am – 5:00pm
Museum of Science and Industry
4801 East Fowler Avenue
Tampa, FL 33617
Tickets: $7.95 – 12.95
Opening hours: 10 am – 5 pm daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas
Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park
1101 West Sligh Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
Tickets: $29.95 – 39.95. Discounts are given for advance purchase.
Opening hours: 9:30am – 5:00pm daily
10165 McKinley Drive
Tampa, FL 33612
Tickets: $85.99 (discounted, regularly $110.99). Several combo tickets include dining, visits to a second park, etc. Advance reservations online are required.
Opening hours: Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday: 10 am – 5 pm; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10 am – 6 pm; closed Wednesday.
Continue North Up the Coast
Head back across the bay to St. Petersburg and take Rt. 19 north to Tarpon Springs, a town founded by Greek fishermen and sponge divers in the early 20th century. Sponge diving has made a resurgence here, and Greek culture still survives, as you’ll see by visiting the area about the harbor.
Continue another 60 miles up Florida’s Gulf Coast on Rt. 19 to Crystal River, just short of where Florida’s coastline begins to swerve left to form the state’s panhandle. Crystal River is known for its Crystal River State Archaeological Site, the site of six Indian mounds, gravesites of the Native Americans who occupied the area from 200BC to AD1400. You’ll find it two miles west of town.
However, Crystal River is better known for its many manatees, which gather in herds of up to 300. One of the best places to see these gentle “sea cows” is in the Crystal River. The area is famous for kayaking, and in January-March, you can see the manatees that come to bask in the warm springs in the area.
If you’d like a closer encounter, you can observe these endangered animals from the surface while snorkeling – just do not touch or disturb them in any way. They are most active in the early morning.
If you’d rather stay out of the water, head about eight miles south to Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. There a floating observatory gives you good views of the animals underwater.
If You Go:
Crystal River State Archaeological Site
3400 North Museum Point
Crystal River, FL 34428
Tickets: $3 per vehicle (up to 8 people); $2 pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers, and passengers in vehicle with holder of Annual Individual Entrance Pass. The correct amount is required (honor box).
Opening hours: 8 am until sundown, 365 days a year.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park
4150 South Suncoast Boulevard
Homosassa, FL 34446
Parts of the park are closed, but the wildlife walk and above deck area of the underwater observatory are open. Scheduled manatee feedings daily at 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, and 3:30 pm.
Tickets: $5 – 13
Opening hours: 9 am – 5:30 pm daily. Ticket counters close at 4:45 pm.
How To Reach Florida’s Gulf Coast
Naples has only a small airport that is utilized, for the most part, by private planes, flight schools, and air charter operators.
Most travelers use the area’s larger airports to reach Florida’s Gulf Coast. These include Southwest Florida International Airport (in Ft. Meyers, about one hour north of Naples), Tampa International, and Orlando International (about one hour east of Tampa).
Alternatively, you could also fly into Miami or Ft. Lauderdale, rent a car and drive across the Everglades to the Gulf Coast. From Ft. Lauderdale, the most direct drive would be across US75, Alligator Alley, directly to Naples, about a two-hour drive.
The route from Miami to Naples on the old Tamiami Trail (U.S. Highway 41, the original connection between Miami and Tampa) also would take about two hours. Still, it would allow you to detour onto Loop Road and not have to backtrack from Naples.