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Destination Guide

Spread out across many miles of territory, the sprawling Tampa Bay area is the bullseye of a Florida coastline that extends its sandy reach from the serenity of Naples and Marco Island north to the manatee refuges of Homossassa Springs and Crystal River, to sleepy fishing villages and the rustic seafood restaurants of Cedar Key.

Within that vast expanse is a serenely sunny coastline whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, turning tiny towns into sprawling metropolitan centers, yet somehow never altering the essential small-town ambience that prevails, even in such populous towns as St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

Using the Tampa Bay area as a focal point offers you an opportunity to journey from the elegant environs of Sarasota and Naples, where many of Fortune magazines 500 winter, to the farmland of Plant City and Thonotosassa, a Greek enclave at Tarpon Springs and the wooded acreage of Cedar Key, one-time pencil capital of Florida!

Lets take a look at the touring options available from Tampa Bay.

On the north side of the region, tiny Dunedin is a sleepy village settled by Scots who continue to celebrate their heritage in festivals and performances that feature the drums and bagpipes of their Scotland homeland.

Farther north, you'll find the village of Tarpon Springs, settled years ago by fishermen who wrested sponges from the sea floor. You can learn more about their unusual trade here, feast on Greek foods and participate in traditional festivals, complete with bouzouki music and Greek dancing.

West of Tampa Bay are the farmlands of Plant City, which likes to call itself the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World and has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records to prove it?in the 2000 edition, the city will be noted for creating an 827-square-foot strawberry shortcake that weighed 6,000 pounds!

Heading south from the region, through St. Petersburg and across the soaring Sunshine Skyway Bridge, you reach the east side of vast Tampa bay. There, I-275 joins I-75 north of Brandenton and Sarasota and the road zips straight to chic Sarasota, the west Florida coasts answer to posh Palm Beach.

Plush and elegant as the city is today, it owes its existence to a flamboyant circus king, none other than showman John Ringling who created the famed Ringling Brothers Circus. However gaudy his circus, Ringling himself had taste and used it to amass one of the worlds finest collections of Baroque and Renaissance art. He also built a palatial bayside home called Ca' d'Zan (it means House of John, ever so humbly) that cost a whopping $2 million in 1920 dollars, and was outfitted in solid-gold bathroom fixtures, among other extravagances. Ringling gave it all, house and vast art collection, to the people of Florida. Today that legacy is the ethereally beautiful Ringling Museum of Art and the Ringling Complex, home to an enchanting display of circus memorabilia. You can tour it all, including Ca' d'Zan, and you should.

Sarasota is also home to the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial Site/Gamble Mansion, which brings home the touching drama of the nations Civil War. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State in Robert E. Lees administration, hid out in this antebellum mansion until he could escape to England after the Confederate Army was defeated.

Nearby Fort Myers was the longtime winter residence of carbon filament bulb inventor Thomas Alva Edison, who shed a little light on all our lives, and of automotive genius Henry Ford, who lived right next door. Both homes are open to visitors?and the bulb Edison lit decades ago is still burning!

North of the Tampa Bay area, beyond Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, are the coastal villages of Cedar Key, Homosassa Springs and Crystal River.

Dense groves of cedar trees once grew on Cedar Key, providing the basic ingredients for a pencil-making industry that thrived here until the wood ran out and this rough-and-tumble frontier town turned to yet another industry: producing palm frond brooms. Today most of Cedar Keys' few residents operate fishing boats or run one of this small towns several delightfully rustic seafood restaurants.

Native Americans occupied the banks along the aptly named Crystal River for centuries at one of the oldest and longest continuously occupied native sites in the state. This crystalline river, fed by underground springs, is believed to have been home to ancient tribes who roamed as far west as the Yucatan Peninsula and built a solar observatory here. Today, the river is winter home to a cluster of fat manatees, the chubby 'cows' of the sea, whose frequent clashes with fishing boats have made them an endangered species.

Homosassa Springs, about 75 miles north of Tampa Bay, offers visitors a trip down a meandering waterway that leads to the Spring of Ten Thousand Fish. Here you can watch the staff feed alligators and a bevy of rainbow-hued creatures.

At Weeki Wachee Springs, one of the states oldest attractions, an underground spring flows at the rate of 100,000 gallons a minute and remains a constant 74 degrees. 'Mermaids' paddle about, feeding nearly tame fish in a watery environment billed as the nations only underwater theater.

All that and...we haven't even mentioned the megalopolis of Orlando and environs, less than an hours drive away.

Now don't say theres nothing to do!

Marylyn Springer