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Tampa Bay diversions: Get in the car and check out these tourist spots

As you look around for more cultural diversions, rest assured that the Tampa Bay area has many to offer. We're used to showing visitors a good time.

In addition to the more obvious Tampa Bay entertainments, from Busch Gardens to the Gulf beaches, there are other venues that you might want to visit to get the full, rich impact that Tampa Bay and its surrounding counties have to offer, just a few miles down – or up – the road.

You might have to fill up the gas tank to check out some of these spots, but it'll be well worth the cost. Have fun. And don't forget to send a postcard home.

Ringling Museum Complex: As Sarasota's main attraction, there is much to see here. Top of the list is the Ca d'Zan, once the John and Mable Ringling home with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms. The 5-story estate features period furniture, mementos from the bygone era of the 1920s and even a basement, a Florida rarity. The complex also features the world's largest miniature circus, thousands of tiny figures, human and animal – a full recreation of a traveling circus, handcrafted piece by piece by Howard Tibbals.

Chalet Suzanne: For more than 70 years, the Hinshaw family has been serving fine food to guests who arrive by car or plane (there's a private landing strip). While there's also a 26-room inn, many people make the drive up Interstate 4 for the food alone. Meals are served Tuesday through Sunday, with brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner starting at 5 p.m. Known for its "prix fixe" menu, now Chalet Suzanne also offers an a la carte menu.

Gatorland: Rightfully billed as "The Alligator Capital of the World," this old-fashioned Florida tourism venue delivers what it promises – tons of gators, big and small, lounging in typical reptilian fashion or lunging at food tossed by trainers. There are daily shows at the 100-acre attraction and more than just gators on view. There are also lorikeets (Australian parrots) on the wing and a typical Florida souvenir shop.

Dinosaur World: Just outside Plant City, north of Tampa, visitors can find sprinkled throughout the outdoor attraction's pine trees and palmettos 150 life-sized statues of dinosaurs, both vegetarians and carnivores, each with its own explanatory sign. There are also dino bones in the Skeleton Garden, and visitors can tour the on-site dino museum that features everything from dinosaur eggs to raptor claws. Children can pretend to be a paleontologist and take part in some field work or just dig for fossils.

Cedar Key: This is Old Florida unspoiled. The town sits on a barrier island three miles out into the Gulf, about 120 miles north of Tampa, via State Road 24. It is a primo birdwatching destination because it sits along major migratory routes. But there are also shops, galleries, restaurants and nature paths. Guides are available for private tours of the area's natural history, from salt marshes to Indian shell mounds or out to the outer islands for fishing.

Florida Southern College: The Lakeland campus of Florida Southern offers not only the spacious landscape of a small liberal arts college but also the largest collection in the world of buildings designs by Frank Lloyd Wright. There are self-guided tours of the 12 buildings. While the campus is open daily, some buildings are locked when not in use.

WonderWorks: Fairly easy to spot once you get to Orlando. It's the only upside down building in town. It features more than a hundred hands-on interactive displays and exhibits. Visitors can experience everything from virtual reality or rock climbing to designing – and riding – their own roller coaster. The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show features a meal and comedy improv (for a separate admission charge).

Winter Park: This is Orlando's cultural corner, almost untouched by the mega-growth the rest of the city has experienced over the decades. Winter Park still has that small-town flavor, with antique shops, outdoor cafes and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which houses the world's most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including jewelry, pottery, paintings and art glass.

Bok Tower: The Florida hills are alive with the sound of music. This is clearly a place to listen – as well as see. Located east of Tampa, near Lake Wales, Bok Tower Gardens offers spacious landscaped gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. , a 1930s era winter estate and the "Singing Tower." The center piece is 60-bell carillon atop Bok Tower that can be heard ringing out over the 250 acres of gardens daily at 1 and 3 p.m..

St. Armands Circle: Locals know that the best shopping cluster on the West Coast, aside perhaps from International Plaza, can be found at St. Armands Circle, just south of Sarasota on U.S. 41. Thanks to Charles St. Armands' wise purchase of three acres in 1893 (for $21.71), visitors will find 130 boutique, shops, galleries and gourmet restaurants, in a circle. It's a good way to spend an afternoon – or a full day. Some shops have similar versions in New England.

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary: Birds ahoy! Somewhat easy to drive by, unless you spot the giant pelican statue out front, the sanctuary is a rescue and rehab center for all wild birds but especially the brown pelican. In fact, it's the largest wild fowl sanctuary in the U.S. Visitors can not only see birds who are now permanent residents but also get tours of the on-site bird hospital. If you're timing is right, flounder Ralph Heath will share you the sanctuary's long and variety history.

Gamble Plantation: Located in Ellenton, south of St. Petersburg, off U.S. 301, this antebellum home belonged to Maj. Robert Gamble and acted as the headquarters for a thriving sugar plantation in the 1800s. It's the only surviving plantation house in South Florida, and its history includes close ties to the Confederacy during the Civil War. The house is furnished in mid-19th century decor. Guided tours are scheduled six times a day, Thursday through Monday.

Tampa Bay diversions: Get in the car and check out these tourist spots 01/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:01pm]
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