20 February 2013 by Luke McCormick
Words by Esme Fox
Southern Live Oak trees dangle hauntingly over the verandas of large wooden houses, bald eagles and turkey vultures circle the sky, while cute art galleries and ice cream parlours line the almost empty streets. This is not the typical Florida of brash colourful theme parks and glitzy high-rises of Miami, this is a laidback, more natural side of the state, where art, culture and wildlife thrive.
I was on the west coast of the state in the area known as St. Petersburg/Clearwater, close to the small village of Ozona. The area has a different vibe to the rest of Florida, and one that I've not experienced before.
Driving over the causeway, we passed into one of the area's many state parks - Honeymoon Island, so called because a number of honeymooners' beach huts were built here in the 1930s. The well-marked trails led us around scrub and bush land, enclosed by mangrove swamps and wild white sand beaches. Moments later, an osprey soared overhead and a rather tame armadillo could be seen snuffling around in the undergrowth.
Every turn in the trail led us to something new - a raccoon bounding across the path, or a pelican diving for its prey, its beak bulging with water. As evening drew in and the bright hues of orange and purple streaked across the sky, one lone dolphin fin could been seen in the water, rising and falling in front of the setting sun.
To the south, the city of St. Petersburg itself is a vibrant and lively urban sprawl, full of many art galleries, museums, stylish bars and restaurants. Surprisingly, the city is in fact home to one of the best Salvador Dali collections in the world; its strange architectural egg-like shape, synonymous with the artist, gleaming across the harbour. The museum, which started out as a private collection, houses a vast array of Dali's work, from traditional oil paintings and sketches, through to some of his more famous surrealist pieces.
A half-hour drive north-west, across another dazzling causeway and the turquoise sea, you'll arrive in Clearwater - your more typical American beach town, filled with seafood shacks and beach-themed diners lining the promenade. Thronged by roller-skaters, joggers and dog walkers, the town has a distinctly laid-back vibe that you'd perhaps find in places like California. Yet Clearwater offers a touch of luxury too, with many classy beach resorts, hotels and excellent seafood restaurants serving traditional grilled grouper.
At Clearwater marina, Captain Will took us out on a dolphin cruise, pointing out glamorous celebrity homes, small islands and sea birds along the way. Even though it was the middle of winter, a warm breeze was blowing and the sun shone brightly in the sky. It wasn't long before we came across two dolphins, their sleek smooth bodies dipping and diving through the surf.
As another boat load of tourists, 'Little Toot', came up to view the dolphins too, Captain Will said: "Let's try something. If this works it will be very cool." He then signalled to the captain of the other boat, who began to rev up the engines and sped away, creating large waves in her wake.
"Now just watch," said Captain Will. After a couple of minutes the two dolphins we had been watching earlier started to slowly rise to the surface and then began jumping playfully along behind the boat. We sped up too, riding parallel to 'Little Toot', which offered us perfect views of the dolphins behind, splashing in the surf and showing off by flipping into the air. I was reminded by the fact that someone once told me "dolphins were like eternal teenagers" - always ready to play and have a good time.
By evening, Clearwater comes alive in a different way, with nightly sunset celebrations on its famous Pier 60. Here, artists and performers gather to set up stalls, sell homemade jewellery and put on small skits and magic shows.
The beach here is long and wide with sugar-like white sand, dotted with shops, lifeguard stands and games of beach volleyball. If you want a more natural beachside experience, head to nearby Caladesi Island, only accessible by boat. The island was named the number one beach in the whole of the US by Dr. Beach - America's famous beach expert. Covered in powder-like sand and wild mangrove swamps, which fringe an emerald green sea, this was certainly a million miles away from the hip and noisy beaches of Miami.
"The area holds the record for the most consecutive days of sunshine too," reports local David. "768 in total - can you believe that? That's over two years of nothing but sunshine!" Thinking back to the grey blanket almost permanently hanging over London, it was hard to imagine.
But the things that really make the area of St. Petersburg/Clearwater truly unique are the small towns like Dunedin, Tarpon Springs and Ozona, dotting the coastline in between the two cities. Like miniature enclaves protecting distinctive cultures, the towns emanate Scotland, Greece and the Deep South respectively. In Tarpon Springs, capital of the sponge diving industry, Greek words float along the town's streets and restaurants with names such as 'The Acropolis' serve Greek staples of gyros and borek. While Dunedin, founded by Scottish immigrants in 1899, is filled with eclectic art galleries and is well known for its flamboyant Scottish celebrations.
If you think you know what the state of Florida is all about, then think again, this is a Florida that will both surprise and confound, and you'll never associate it with Mickey or Minnie again.