The holidays are upon us — and so are the visiting relatives. If you don't want the kids plugged into the Xbox all day or you have relatives getting on your nerves, we have a number of reasonably priced ways to explore the Tampa Bay area.
Check out the new garden
Make a day trip to Sarasota (they already have a Trader Joe's there!) and swing by Selby Gardens, the renowned botanical gardens on the shores of Sarasota Bay, that recently opened a brand new Children's Rainforest Garden.
Offering a taste of treetop living, this innovative garden and play area has a dramatic waterfall cascading down a rock face with lush plants, a suspended rope bridge, caves for exploring, trails and even a research station where kids can see what Spanish moss looks like under a microscope.
Don't miss the nook in the back where colorful hammocks are available to visitors, and there are kid-sized trails that go under the boardwalk to the edge of the mangroves.
Tucked throughout are caverns and canyons and play stations that allow children to play games among the plants, while the adults can relax in the shade of the giant banyon trees.
The rest of the gardens, located on the former estate of oil tycoon William Selby and his wife, Marie, is spread across 14 acres with a world-class collection of orchids, bromeliads and ferns, in addition to special exhibits and education programs. There's also butterfly, fragrance and edible vegetable gardens, and you can get free samples in the tea-tasting room in the Carriage House.
If a walk through the gardens gets your green thumb itching, there is a garden shop on the way out that offers a gorgeous selection of orchids, bromeliads, tropical plants, garden accessories, botanical books and even puzzles and gifts for children.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 900 S Palm Ave., Sarasota, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas. Regular admission is $19 for ages 12 and up, $6 for ages 4-11, under 3 free. (941) 366-5731 or selby.org.
Other Tampa Bay area diversions for the family
Art on the House: Friday is a good time to take advantage of the Tampa Museum of Art's perk, called Art on the House on Friday evenings from 4 to 8 p.m. when admission is "pay as you will" (it's normally $10). The museum's current exhibition is a crowd pleaser, too: Fragile Waters, 119 black-and-white photographs by Ansel Adams, Ernest H. Brooks II, and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly communicating the beauty of water. It runs through Jan. 19. The museum is at 120 Gasparilla Plaza. (813) 274-8130. tampamuseum.com
Manatee Viewing Center: Nothing impresses those Northern relatives more than a herd of manatees lolling about. This time of year, the gentle lugs love the warmer water coming out of TECO's Big Bend power station. The company's Manatee Viewing Center is open to the public to see the sea cow hangout. The center is closed Thanksgiving Day, at 3 p.m. Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day, but otherwise open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Best of all, it's free at 6990 Dickman Road in Apollo Beach. See tampaelectric.com/manatee for live webcams.
Take a hike: Take a brisk 2.8- to 4-mile walk on the longer trails of the Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs, 3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs. Or check out the coastal mangroves and upland ecosystems of the Weedon Island Preserve, 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg. Chances are good you'll see a gator, as well as Florida's beautiful wildflowers in a stroll through the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. Admission is $3 adults, $1.50 children and there is a lot to explore besides the nature trails, like a Pioneer Settlement that operates as a living history museum and also a birds of prey aviary with owls and hawks. Over at Lettuce Lake Park, 6920 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa park rangers hold themed hands-on workshops on the weekends that incorporate nature and art that are $5 per child and one adult; $2 park entry up to eight people. At 10-11 a.m. and noon-1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Go fish: The Sunshine Skyway fishing piers are rich with fins around the old bridge, which has been turned into fishing piers on the north and south sides with snack bars and picnic areas open every day of the year, 24 hours a day. You don't need a fishing license because they have a pier fishing license that covers all guests. Rod rentals are $8 a day with deposit and they'll even loan you a bucket. Pier admission is $4 per car, plus $4 per adult, $2 for children 6 to 11, 5 and under free. Not a fisherman? You can get a sightseeing pass for one hour at sunrise or sunset for $3. Entrance passes are good for 24 hours and valid on both piers. You may come and go as you please. skywaypiers.com.
Sponge Docks: The humble sponge may not seem like a big draw, but the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks make them road-trip worthy. You can kill a day and get some great Greek food checking out the quirky shops (the Spongeorama museum is a great retro place for souvenirs), explore an affordable $7.75 admission aquarium at 850 Dodecanese Blvd., see sponge divers in action and even rent a bike to hop on the Pinellas Trail. spongedocks.net.