pete 1Photos: Visit St. Petersbug/Clearwater

Going Greek: Tarpon Springs

You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Crete or Corfu rather than Florida when you wander through the historic riverfront town of Tarpon Springs, which lies just 20 minutes north of Clearwater.

Settled by Greek immigrants back in the late 1800s, the town’s charming, traditional Greek flair remains to this day, so it provides a great opportunity to soak up the flavours of authentic Greek cuisine and culture – without going to all of the time and expense of crossing the pond.

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Natural sponge beds were discovered in the early 1900s, which attracted Greek sponge divers to the area. If you want to soak up some sponge knowledge, check out the quirky Spongeorama theatre and museum, which is dedicated to the Tarpon Springs’ sponging industry.

And no trip to Tarpon Springs would be complete without a visit to the ornate St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. This cathedral was received global recognition in the 1970s as it was said to house a ‘weeping’ icon of St. Nicholas.

Then make your way to the waterfront strip to sample some strong Greek coffee and baklava. Mama's Greek Cuisine, Hellas and Mykonos are just a few of the eateries offering superb Greek cuisine.

Small Town Charm: Palm Harbor

Palm Harbor simply oozes a quaint, small town charm. Golfers flock to the area, which is home to the stylish Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, where Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh are among those who have won championships on the resort’s famed Copperhead course.

Anglers also love Palm Harbor, as it offers both freshwater and saltwater fishing in Lake Tarpon, the Gulf of Mexico and its offshoots.

Wind up your day in Palm Harbor by taking a stroll along Florida Avenue and gaze upon the well-preserved historic buildings and pop into the arty gift stores and cosy restaurants.

Parks Galore: Oldsmar

Where the waters of Tampa Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Tarpon come together at the north end of Old Tampa Bay, you’ll find Oldsmar.

The town boasts more parks per square mile than any other city in the state, which means that you can paddle a canoe along bay trails, and hike, swim, fish, boat, water ski, dive or windsurf to your heart’s content.

Oldsmar boasts a fantastic line up of events, including its lively Oktoberfest, which is known as one of the best in central Florida. The town comes to life each Memorial Day with the three-day Freedom Fest, which offers a classic blend of family-friendly fun, live music and craft vendors.

Spa Haven: Safety Harbor

Nestled at the headwaters of Old Tampa Bay, Safety Harbor epitomises old-school Florida charm, with its brick-lined streets and moss-covered oak trees.

Legend has it that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto believed he had discovered the Fountain of Youth in Safety Harbor. De Soto named them ‘Espiritu Santo Springs’, which means ‘Springs of the Holy Spirit’.

Today, the site of De Soto’s enchanted springs is home to the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, which attracts health-conscious travellers from around the globe. Founded back in 1925, the spa is a U.S. Historic Landmark, Florida Heritage Landmark and a Historic Hotel of America.

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Bliss For Beach Bums: Dunedin

Dunedin is home to some of the finest beaches on the Florida coast. Pedal across the Dunedin Causeway to the award-winning beaches of Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island, which lie just minutes from downtown Dunedin. Caladesi is bliss for the beach-bum. It can only be reached by boat from Honeymoon Island, and it was named America’s number one beach in 2008.

Dunedin itself is a pleasantly walkable town to explore. Grab your comfy shoes and meander through the marina, stumble upon quaint antique stores and take a break with a hand-crafted ale at Dunedin Brewery.

The Pinellas Trail biking and walking path, which winds its way from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, passes right through Dunedin’s compact town centre, making it an ideal stopover for cyclists and pedestrians.

Snack At The Shack: Madeira Beach

About half way between St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach you’ll find Madeira Beach with its sparkling turquoise waters. Just off Gulf Boulevard there’s a fabulous 1930s log cabin known as the Old Snack Shack, where you can enjoy an ice cream or a beer and spend a couple of hours soaking up the chilled-out Madeira Beach vibe.

Redington Long Pier is a rickety wooden structure that juts out more than 30 metres into the Gulf, and for just a couple of dollars, you and your fishing pole are welcome to spend a relaxing afternoon there.

One of the area’s most popular attractions is John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk. With water views and more than 100 stores and restaurants, a stroll along the boardwalk with an ice cream in your hand is a Madeira classic.

If you want to stay for dinner, check out The Hut restaurant and waterfront bar, which features a fun tropical vibe and live music. Alternatively, try local favourite Keegan’s Seafood Grille on Indian Rocks Beach, which has been featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Check out the gumbo and the ceviche.

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Sunsets & Sloppy Joe’s: Treasure Island

Stand aside Long John Silver; St. Pete/Clearwater’s Treasure Island got its name from a hotel owner who is said to have buried a couple of wooden chests on the beach. News of this ‘treasure’ quickly spread and the nickname stuck.

This area boasts almost five kilometres of white sand beach, so there’s plenty of room to find your own little secluded spot on the sand. However, if you want to find friends on Treasure Island, check out one of the beach bars, like Sloppy Joe’s.

Each Sunday, Treasure Island hosts an evening drum circle, a long-standing, mellow tradition that has gone on for almost 20 years, attracting bongo players and hula-hoopers.

One of the area’s best kept secrets lies just south of Treasure Island’s public beach. Sunset Beach, which sits at the southern tip of the peninsula, is an especially serene stretch of sand. At the north end you’ll find Ka’Tiki, a funky spot for listening to some blues music, while the southern tip is a hub for the GLBT crowd.

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Low Key Luxury: St. Pete Beach

St. Pete Beach has almost as many fans as it has grains of sand. This low-key beach town with a splash of luxury was voted TripAdvisor’s number one beach in the U.S. last year – as well as the number five beach in the world.

The town is home to the ‘Pink Palace’, the castle-like Loews Don CeSar Hotel, which is one of the most recognizable buildings on the Gulf Coast. Swing by this St. Pete/Clearwater icon for an ice cream, or to check out its award-winning restaurant, the Maritana Grille.

Buzzing with funky stores, artsy galleries and lively restaurants, you’ll find the heart of the town on Corey Avenue, which is located just off Gulf Boulevard. Foodies love the Sunday morning market in this part of town, while retro-fans simply adore the Art Deco Beach Movie Theatre.

Wind up your day by partying the night away in one of the town’s many beachfront bars, like the Undertown, Postcard Inn, Bongo’s or Jimmy B’s.

Island Vibe: Pass-A-Grille Beach

The longest stretch of undeveloped beach in the St. Pete/Clearwater area is the uber mellow Pass-a-Grille Beach, which is tucked away at the southern tip of St. Pete Beach, just past the Don CeSar Hotel.

Known for its island vibe and its splendid lack of high-rises, chains and crowds, this area is dotted with bungalows and quaint motels. In fact, building height restrictions help retain Pass-A-Grille’s old-style Florida ambience.

Take a stroll through the town’s Eighth Avenue Historic District to the sea grass-sheltered beach and out to the island’s tip, where the Intracoastal and Gulf surround you. Alternatively, make your way to the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum to browse artifacts that date back to the 1500s, or feel the sea breeze as you visit local artists’ booths each Saturday morning at the Suntan Fine Art Market.

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Gulfport

Rickety-yet-romantic Gulfport marries that old-time Florida feel with a unique, artsy ambience. Nestled right on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico’s Boca Ciega Bay, this laid-back town attracts an eclectic crowd of artists, musicians, foodies and craft beer aficionados.

To get your bearings in this eclectic town, take advantage of the free half-hour tour on the Gulfport Trolly, and then grab yourself a coffee or a craft beer and soak up the atmosphere at Gulfport’s Art Village Courtyard. Semi-monthly art walks also celebrate the town’s creative prowess. You won’t just find Gulf beach sunset paintings here, either – it’s more to do with quirky wall décor and jewelry made from turquoise and shells.

For fine French fare, check out La Cote Basque Winehouse, or for veggie-friendly Mexican dishes, Peg’s Cantina is the place to be. It even brews its own craft beer on site.

And if you want to visit Gulfport at its most crazy and fabulous, swing into town on Labour Day weekend, when GeckoFest takes over the whole town and sends off the summer in style. Think wacky costumes – many with a lizard theme – food vendors, local bands and a parade. It makes for some of the finest people-watching opportunities in the St. Pete Clearwater area.

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