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Gas is cheap. Your car is isolated. Here are 9 ways to take a scenic drive around Tampa Bay

Going crazy in your house during the coronavirus? Pack a lunch and take a cruise on these roads.

Editor’s note: The reaction to the coronavirus pandemic is changing daily, even hourly. As of press time, we were still able to get in our cars and take a scenic drive. But that could have changed by the time you’re reading this. Heed the latest recommendations and orders from the state. We’re keeping you informed with the latest at tampabay.com/coronavirus.

You’re avoiding public spaces, practicing social distancing and working remotely. You’ve stocked up on snacks and have an endless variety of movies to stream as you stick close to home.

And yet, you can not stop thinking about getting away from your house, or even your immediate neighborhood, for just a little while. You’ve even started to miss your commute.

Maybe it’s time for a drive. A scenic cruise behind the wheel to nowhere in particular. You don’t have to get out of the car.

According to AAA, the average price of gas in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater as of today is $2.06. Traffic has thinned out pretty much everywhere. As long as you’ve got a reliable vehicle and some food for an in-the-car picnic, you can get away briefly and still avoid contact with other people.

Yes, taking advantage of inexpensive fuel may require a trip to the gas station. Take the precautions you would normally take when venturing out to a store for supplies right now. Keep your hands (and form of payment) sanitized and away from your face. Mind what you touch, and what you touch it with.

A car ride might open up a chance to talk about things with your family. Or maybe you need to cruise solo and silent to clear your head. Maybe you’ll get engrossed in a deep podcast or a new audiobook. Roll the windows down and get some air. You’ve got options.

Sunshine Skyway bridge

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is now illuminated at night. [ BRANDON MEYER | Times ]

There is no shortage of beautiful drives over water in Tampa Bay. One of the best is the Sunshine Skyway bridge connecting Pinellas and Manatee counties. If you time it right, you can drive south over the span and park right near the water at the South Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier and rest area to watch the sunset.

The north fishing pier and rest area at the other end of the bridge has an equally breathtaking view of the bridge itself, which is now illuminated at night.

Courtney Campbell Causeway

The Courtney Campbell Causeway is one of 26 roads officially designated by the state as Florida Scenic Highways. If you’ve ever crossed the 9.5-mile bridge between Tampa and Clearwater, you know the aqua blue water sparkles, especially in March when the water is usually clearest. It’s also not unheard of to see dolphins there.

Bayshore Boulevard

Same for Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, if you’re headed north. If you turn around and take it back south, it’s all mansions and palm trees, and Ballast Point Park near the southern end has parking spaces that face the water. A perfect spot to sit in the car and eat or watch for pelicans.

Suncoast Parkway

The northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway often don't get much traffic. Times (2017)

The Suncoast Parkway (FL-589 Toll) is the only other Tampa Bay road in the state designated as one of Florida Scenic Highways. It runs 42 miles, from Lutz, where it splits from the Veterans Expressway, up through Odessa, and becomes really desolate as it passes through Starkey Wilderness Preserve in Pasco County. You can also get on in Spring Hill and drive south. The Tampa Bay Times has previously said “the road’s wide, open space and lack of 'visual pollution’ contributed to its calming atmosphere.”

Toward the beaches

A drive toward the beach is always kind of magical, even if you’re not able to go to the beach. One of the absolute best views in Pinellas County is the final stretch of the Pinellas Bayway bridges heading west after Isla Del Sol toward St. Pete Beach. There is at one point a simultaneous view of the waterfront homes along the Intracoastal and the Don CeSar resort on the beach.

The view of waterfront homes, boat docks and the Intracoastal Waterway from atop the Pinellas Bayway bridge heading west toward St. Pete Beach. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Once in St. Pete Beach, the gravel lot at grassy Larazillo Park is a good place to park for a minute.

Go rural

If the bridges and waterfronts are not your thing, driving through farmland can be equally peaceful. Agricultural southeastern Hillsborough County has plenty of it.

If you start at the north end of Balm Riverview Road at its intersection with U.S. 301 in Riverview and drive south, past the high school and the planned communities, you’ll find the scenery grows progressively rural until it becomes nothing but woods as you pass through the 969-acre Triple Creek Preserve.

When you come out on the other side, it’s wide open farmland and a few grazing cows in Wimauma. If you follow the fork left and east onto County Road 672, a.k.a. Balm-Picnic Road, you’ll soon drive past the University of Florida Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, a research campus and farm where scientists breed new types of strawberries, and Tampa Electric’s massive Balm Solar Farm.

Related: The scientist making Florida strawberries bigger, sweeter and sometimes grape-flavored

Keep driving a few hundred yards and you’ll find a good spot to park, the Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve parking lot (15102 County Road 672, Wimauma), which is where hikers and mountain bikers leave their vehicles before heading into the 4,900-acre preserve.

At this point, you could head back, or meander in any direction and drive past thousands of acres of more farms: strawberry, blueberry, citrus and fish. The area is home to dozens of fisheries that produce tropical fish for pet stores.

Head east

If you’re willing to venture even farther into the state’s interior, you could set out east from Tampa on Interstate 4 and exit north on U.S. 27. You’ll pass through what years ago was once the heart of Florida’s famed citrus groves. Keep an eye out for the Showcase of Citrus, a kitschy, old Florida, gift shop with “U-Pick Citrus” painted in orange on the roof, and eventually the 226-foot Citrus Tower and Presidents Hall of Fame, built to look like a miniature White House.

Head west a five-minute drive from there, and you can park in the parking lot along Lake Minneola at Clermont’s Waterfront Park to eat. Take a short cruise through Clermont’s historic downtown before you turn back, and you’ll be in Tampa in about an hour and 15 minutes.

Cruise downtown

You don’t necessarily have to leave the city. Stpetemuraltour.com has a map of all the urban murals in St. Petersburg. You could pick out a couple you haven’t seen in person yet and drive by. A great place to park and stay in your car is the lot behind the Vinoy Park Beach Volleyball Courts. On one side of the lot is the arboretum. On the other side is the bay.

Drive-in movies

How about a scenic drive-in theater? The nation’s largest theater chains, Regal and AMC, will be closed until further notice, but Tampa Bay’s three operating drive-in theaters will be open this weekend. All three allow you to bring your own food and tune in to the movie’s sound through the radio.

The Ruskin Family Drive In plays first-run movies. The sound comes through your radio. [ Tampa Bay Times (2010) ]

Tampa’s Funlan Swap Shop drive-in (floridaswapshop.com/tampa) is $7 for adults, $2 for kids and has two screens. The Ruskin Family Drive-In, which focuses on family-friendly films (ruskinfamilydrivein.com), is $6 per person and $1 for kids, with a $5 fee for bringing food (cash only). The Joy-Lan Drive In (joylandrivein.com) in Dade City, which sometimes shows classic movies, is $6 for ages 10 and up and $2 for younger.

Check each drive-in theater’s website for details on their movie schedule. Show up early to get a good spot.

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