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Fun in the sun for many or one

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image Three lifeguards were on duty July 6 at the swimming area of E.G. Simmons Park. Photo Penny Fletcher

If you're looking for ways to entertain visitors — or yourself — there are abundant nearby options.

BY PENNY FLETCHER

Are the kids out of school, or are your parents or grown children visiting during summer vacation?

Could be you’re just seeking a fun way to spend a day.

Maybe you’ve seen all the major attractions like Busch Gardens and Adventure Island or just don’t like all those crowds. What then, are some of the most unusual things you can do with about a 50-mile driving limit that doesn’t cost you a full month’s rent or mortgage payment?

I’ve lived in this area since 1979 and still can’t say I’ve seen anywhere near all of what the 50-mile surrounding area has to offer. You can live here for years and still not have seen (or done) anywhere near everything even once.

So I recently spent some time on the Internet, talked to the staff at local chambers of commerce, drove around and picked up brochures, and finally came up with a list of unusual things our readers might enjoy.

Of course, there are more. This list is only offered as a variety of suggestions. I’m sure you have plenty of your own you’ll add once you get behind the wheel of your car.

E.G. Simmons Park, 2401 19th Ave. N.W., Ruskin, has a lot going on. There are leashed pet areas, ADA accessible restrooms, covered shelters, fishing piers and shoreline, a swimming beach, 87 individual camp sites, barbecue grills and picnic areas on its 258 acres of open land and intertwined waterways. Wildlife lovers can also find an additional 200 acres of mangrove swamp that’s been preserved as a bird and wildlife sanctuary, and boaters have public launches for access to saltwater fishing upriver or in the Bay.

Other parks in South County also offer whole days of fun, like Lithia Springs Park at 3932 Lithia Springs Rd. in Lithia, less than a mile north of where FishHawk Blvd. meets Lithia-Pinecrest Road, and the Little Manatee River Park, 215 Lightfoot Rd., Wimauma, five miles south of Sun City Center just west off U.S. 301, both of which offer more of an Old Florida-type experience.

Lithia’s cold water springs and surrounding woods and the upper end of the Little Manatee River are great places to canoe or kayak or walk safe trails into the woodlands examining the native wildflowers and plants and perhaps see some wildlife as well.

In fact, there are lots of out-of-the-way places in South County along both the Little Manatee and the Alafia rivers. Meandering inlets and mangroves and small islands and trails offer plenty of places to explore both on land and on water.

There are 18 miles of hiking and biking trails in the 4,933-acre Balm-Boyette Scrub Nature Preserve as well, and, at last count, 14 licensed fishing tour guides and 10 places to launch your boats.

If you’re looking for any of these, or others, two good places to start are by visiting www.tinyurl.com/observerfun1 or www.tinyurl.com/observerfun2.

But right here in South County you can find the Outdoor Learning Center at Camp Bayou, 4140 24th St. S.E., Ruskin, with its “Nature Experience” interpretive tours and special events. Since it is only open on certain days and hours, a call there is always good at (813) 641-8545 or check out the events section at www.campbayou.org.

For those who wish to visit any of the other areas of Tampa Bay — which tourism experts say includes all of South County, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Bradenton-Sarasota (even though Sarasota doesn’t actually touch the Bay) — there are many other types of things to do besides those connected with wilderness or water.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is always a good bet for fun for the kids, and adults, too, who want to see safari-type animals in habitats created especially to match the ones they have in the wild. Located at 1101 W. Sligh Ave., the zoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Those people who especially like “big cats” have several places to choose from that feature only those: Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St., Tampa, is a 55-acre nonprofit sanctuary dedicated to big cats that have been abused or abandoned. It offers daily tours for adults, and special tours for children under 10, where you can see lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, cougars, lynx, and servals and more. Since children are not permitted on all tours, it’s best to call (813) 920-4130 first.

Meanwhile Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, 7101 Palmer Rd. in Sarasota, has tours daily Wednesday through Sunday but schedules change with the seasons, so calling there is also advised. Its number is (941) 371-6377.

Here you’ll find not only tours but also educational animal training demonstrations and shows with a focus on fostering appreciation for animals and stressing the importance of habitat preservation.

Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Wimauma also offers three tours every Saturday. For information, visit www.elmiraswildlife.org.

There’s plenty more to see just south of us, like the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and circus memorabilia, and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, but for now, let’s go in the other direction, across Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg, and mention the Salvador Dali Museum at One Dali Blvd.; the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. N.E.; and if it’s raining, you can always browse through Haslam’s Book Store, at 2025 Central Ave., which has been a landmark in St. Petersburg since 1933 with its more than 300,000-item collection of new, used and rare books.  

There are two ways you can see the area from the air up close and personal. For $35 a person you can hover over the area in a helicopter leaving from the Peter O. Knight Airport, just south of downtown on Davis Island and for the more adventurous, there are biplane rides also available. These are open-top, old-fashioned World War II aircraft that do both sightseeing and aerobatics, depending on the one or two passengers that can ride. Biplane rides can be arranged by calling (321) 392-4125.

A different type of experience could be touring the Mixon Fruit Farms on the Orange Blossom Tram that travels through the groves, wetland refuge, butterfly garden and wildlife areas. The entrance to this is at 2712 26th Ave. E. in Bradenton.

Or maybe a winery is more to your taste, at Rosa Fiorelli Vineyard, 4020 County Road 675, Bradenton, where you can see how grapes are grown and harvested and taste various varieties of wines.

The Tampa Bay History Center, a Smithsonian affiliate, at 801 Old Water St., Tampa has three floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Also in Tampa are the Tampa Ghost Tours, leaving nightly from 514 N. Franklin St.; and TECO’s In-Town Trolley tours that run a loop from downtown to Harbor Island or the streetcars that link the Florida Aquarium to historic Ybor City. To find out more about Tampa’s streetcars, visit www.tecolinestreetcar.org.

If you don’t mind driving 32 miles to the northwest of Tampa, you could go to the authentically Greek sponge docks of Tarpon Springs, or drive almost straight north, 56 miles, to Weeki Wachee Springs. These aren’t even whole-day trips but once there, can provide a whole day’s worth of entertainment.

Thirty-nine miles northeast of Tampa, at 38650 Mickler Rd. in Dade City, you can see an honest-to-goodness Giraffe Ranch that currently has two tours a day, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., where not only giraffes are kept, but rhinos, camels, lemurs and many other exotic animals. Not a zoo or theme park, Giraffe Ranch is a real, working game farm and wildlife preserve where animals have lots of room to roam.

Guides can allow you to feed some of the animals including giraffes and zebras and other African and Asian animals right from the safari-type vehicle they use for the tours.

Now, if you’ve tried some of the things that attracted you and you’re still looking for things to do, perhaps a day at the beach or a night on the town might be just right to complete your guest’s summer vacation trip. 

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