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A guide to avoiding the RNC crowds in Tampa Bay

Nothing against the Republican National Convention — Hi, delegates! Welcome to Tampa Bay! — but just between us, how many of you locals want absolutely nothing to do with the whole mess? Thought so. Here are five gems around the bay area that just might slide under the radar of political bigwigs. Go, eat in peace.

1. Ozona: The tiny North Pinellas town is like a sweet hippie dream, Ohana Cafe the sweetest of them all. It mixes Hawaii's flavors with a healthy approach — lots of brown rice, quinoa, hemp hearts and other super foods for breakfast, lunch or weekend dinners. Also, there's hula and live music on Friday nights and a dog-friendly patio, too. [306 Orange St. N; (727) 787-1234]

2. Wesley Chapel: The Louisiana and Texas delegations are staying at Saddlebrook Resort, but still, at 25 miles from downtown Tampa, you likely will be out of the fray. The newish New Tampa suburb hit the jackpot with its Shops at Wiregrass [28211 Paseo Drive] an open-air mall with a wealth of sophisticated options. Try guacamole, made tableside, and just-fried chips at Cantina Laredo, or take the kids to Grillsmith, a chain with a varied kids menu but reasonably adult atmosphere. For nightlife, stylish Aja Wiregrass [28330 Paseo Drive, Suite 190; (813) 994-0002] has all the ultra lounge amenities without the RNC crowds of the Aja in downtown Tampa.

3. Anna Maria Island: Where's the first place political tourists will want to go? The beach. Good time to sneak south of the Sunshine Skyway. A slip of barrier island just off Bradenton, Anna Maria Island is a flip-flops and snow cone kind of place, except for Beach Bistro [6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; (941) 778-6444], one of the mostly highly decorated restaurants in all of Florida, with French and Floribbean cuisine.

Other spots include the Rod and Reel Pier, with a locals bar on one level and a casual restaurant above it, and the Sandbar [100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria; (941) 778-0444], one of the few restaurants where you can walk out and find yourself sloshing through the gulf. Don't miss the iconic city pier, which celebrated its 100th birthday in May 2011.

In nearby Bradenton, drop by to visit Snooty, the oldest manatee in captivity at age 64, at the Parker Manatee Aquarium at the South Florida Museum [201 10th St. W; (941) 746-4131].

4. Gulfport: One of the few pedestrian-friendly parts of the bay area, Gulfport's main drag recently was a finalist in a Rand McNally competition for the main street with the best food. In an adorable bungalow is Peg's Cantina & Brew Pub [3038 Beach Blvd. S; (727) 328-2720], with a crazy-fabulous beer list and homey, healthy Mexican during the week. On the weekend, they crank up the pizza oven for unfussy pies. Practically next door is Pia's Trattoria, pictured at left, [3054 Beach Blvd. S; (727) 327-2190] with a lunch and dinner menu weighted to crusty pressed panini and pastas. And who says you have to go to Tampa for the archetypal Cuban sandwich? Try Habana Cafe [5404 Gulfport Blvd. S; (727) 321-8855].

What really puts Gulfport on the map is quirky Gecko Fest, coming up Sept. 1. No doubt the charming stores like Domain [3129 Beach Blvd.; (727) 302-9299] and Bo-Tiki [3015 Beach Blvd.; (727) 498-8757] have already stocked up, so be the first to shop for the good stuff.

5. Dunedin: This town is another charmer, with a tremendous breadth of dining options, from the funky Day of the Dead-themed Casa Tina Gourmet Mexican & Vegetarian [365 Main St.; (727) 734-9226], to the charming Living Room [487 Main St.; (727) 736-5202]. Not far away is the tiny and romantic special-occasion Black Pearl [315 Main St.; (727) 734-3463], with dishes like a crispy pork belly osso buco ravioli. For beer lovers, don't miss Dunedin Brewery [937 Douglas Ave.; (727) 736-0606]. The stone-walled brewery that looks a bit like a highlander's castle has ginormous vats that produce phenomenal, award-winning beers like the Redhed Red Ale. Dunedin is also very dog-friendly, so don't be surprised to see water bowls outside the artsy shops.

Compiled by Kelly Smith and Laura Reiley, Times staff writers

A guide to avoiding the RNC crowds in Tampa Bay 08/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 9:50am]
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