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Some genuinely super Florida spots

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[Times files 2000]
Caladesi Island is the beach for those who are picky about their beaches. Here, Debbie Bergeron is showered in water from the Gulf of Mexico as part of a day-long mental and physical healing session.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2001


Super Bowl visitors who tire of the mobs and hoopla may want to punctuate their visit with glimpses of down-to-earth Florida. Here are 10 sites that offer much diversion for little expense.

Ah, another Super Bowl week. So many visitors. Where should you take them? I'll tell you where I'd take them: Disney World and Busch Gardens, maybe Bern's Steak House.

NOT!

Nothing wrong with those big-time attractions. They're fun. But I'm a Real Florida guy. Here's my trip ticket:

1. The Howard Frankland Bridge. As you cross Tampa Bay on the interstate, look for dolphins. Air breathers, they surface every minute or so and show off their dorsal fins. I also like to point out to visitors the brown pelicans that dive on minnows and the fish-hawking ospreys that roost on light poles.

2. Caladesi Island State Park. If you've never experienced a good beach, any will do. If you're picky, try Caladesi. Drive west through Pinellas County to Dunedin and into Honeymoon Island State Park. Board the ferry. Five minutes later you'll be dropped off on a real island. There are restrooms and a place to buy a soft drink. Other than that, you'll feel like a castaway. Maybe you'll rescue Tom Hanks. For information, call (727) 469-5918.

3. Solomon's Castle. This oddball attraction in eastern Manatee County (30 minutes from Bradenton) is a throwback to pre-Disney tourism. Eccentric artist Howard Solomon got a notion to build a castle out of scrap aluminum in the middle of a swamp and charge people to see it. It's three stories high and filled with his hilarious metal sculptures. Floating in the inevitable moat is a full-size Spanish galleon that serves as a restaurant. Closed Mondays. Call (863) 993-0755.

4. La Tropicana Cafe. Tampa's Ybor City has many fine restaurants, but this Seventh Avenue cafe is a favorite luncheon spot for the locals. It's always busy, but it's a fast eat. There are tables, but try sitting at the counter, where you'll hear more Spanish than English. Read La Gaceta newspaper for Ybor news while you enjoy a Cuban sandwich, garbanzo bean soup and a cup of cafe con leche. Talk about wired! You'll feel as if you can run through the Baltimore Ravens' defense. (813) 247-4040.

5. Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center. In the winter, these behemoth marine mammals flock to the power plant's discharge canal to warm up. You can watch them from a platform or stroll the boardwalk along the canal. You might see two or two dozen. They look like giant sweet potatoes. Drive I-75 through Hillsborough County and take Exit 47. Go west a couple of miles and head for the smokestacks of the power plant. It's a weird place to see an endangered species, but kind of cool, too. (813) 228-4289.

6. Good eats. You can't visit Florida without seeing an honest-to-goodness orange grove. Take Highway 60 out of Tampa and head east. Past Brandon, no mistaking it, you're in orange country. Fruit stands line the road left and right. Treat yourself to a tangelo (an orange-tangerine hybrid) or a Temple (seedy, but one of the best). And if the stand sells fresh-squeezed juice, try some -- nectar of the gods! Keep going until you get to the little community of Bealsville. That's where Ruby C. Williams has her produce stand. She'll sell you tomatoes, collards and strawberries. But what will catch your eye are her folksy paintings. Her canvas is scrap lumber and her topic is the world.

7. Spongeorama. Tarpon Springs, at least the sponge docks, is an old-fashioned place. Even by old-fashioned standards, the tourist attraction Spongeorama seems ancient. There are no rides, no talking robots, no smiley blond guides. It's old Florida here, with dusty mannequins dressed as sponge divers, and a film about sponge diving that was made in the 1950s and looks it. It's kitschy and kool. Afterward, visit the gift shop and buy a sponge, guaranteed not to weigh down your suitcase on the flight home. (727) 942-3771.

8. Myakka River State Park. This 28,000-acre wilderness only 9 miles east of Sarasota is a place of escape. Hike through the pines and the palmettos or ride your bike on the main road while watching for deer and red-shouldered hawks. The Gator Gal, a tour boat, will take you birdwatching on the lake. (941) 361-6511.

9. Gatorland. Sure, alligators in pits are tacky, especially when you can see wild alligators in almost any water hole. But Orlando's Gatorland, one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions, knows how to show off Florida's famous reptile. They're in pits, but they're also in lakes and just about everywhere else. Gatorland has 15-footers that jump out of the water to snatch meat from a trainer's hand. Of course there's gator wrestlin'. And guess what's on the menu at the restaurant? (407) 855-5496.

10. Ted Peters Smoked Fish. For more than half a century, old coot Ted has been serving up the best smoked mullet and mackerel you ever tasted at his Pinellas County chow shack in the city of Pasadena. If you're fussy about seafood, try his hamburger, maybe the best around. I'd kill for the German potato salad recipe. Ted's is your basic outdoor restaurant with picnic tables. If you are brave, take a stool at the counter with the locals. Follow their example and do not, I repeat, do not make eye contact with the notoriously sassy waitress whose name I am afraid to speak aloud. Closed Tuesdays. (727) 381-7931.

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