It was Pablo Picasso who said “art washes out the dust from everyday life.”
But it was Florida who turned that from a laundry chore into bathing in an iridescent sea.
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Florida’s beaches, and of course her waterways, are well known and well loved.
Even the names describe them: Crystal River, Clearwater.
But what’s less well known, to me at least, was the cascading art you can find along the road.
And, how easy and free it is to pull over and reach the sea.
We drove south to Sarasota for #thinktheusa, a two week Fly Drive Florida project that formed part of a larger mission to try to explore and understand this great big country which has such a great big influence on the world.
Like everyone with a pulse and an internet connection, I had heard of Florida’s sunshine and her love affair with the mouse in red shorts with big ears.
I’d visited her before, swishing up art deco hedonism in Miami before heading south along palm-fringed roads to the closest point to Cuba in Florida’s Key West.
I’d even, if I’m honest here, had the arrogance to think that perhaps I knew what she was about.
So, when I was talking to people, looking for places that would fit the spirit of #thinktheusa, it wasn’t long before the state of Florida came up.
Which made me pause.
Everyone knows Florida, don’t they? Disney, Miami, Everglades, done!
Well, not so fast, it seemed.
“Florida’s Gulf Coast has quiet fishing villages," said one.
"Quiet, beautiful beaches," said another.
Recommended reading: Swimming with Manatees in Florida: At Crystal River Plantation
And, of course, it wasn’t long before I heard about Salvador Dali.
Dali, of course, is the man with the melting clocks and the trademark moustache, the surrealist with vivid paintings of bumble bees and oddly assembled objects.
He was also born in Spain, living most of his life on the Catalan coast of Costa Brava. He designed a purpose-built museum for his art that includes fairy turrets and a car suspended in the air and it’s possible to visit his tiny house that clings to rocks on the coast in Portlligat.
I’ve been. Inside, among the artefacts, you can see a stuffed bear. On the roof lives a giant egg.
So, with this in mind, why was I visiting a museum dedicated to a man who lived his life more than 4000 miles away?
Because, I have good sources, that’s why!
The Dali Museum in St Petersburg (St Pete, for short) sits on the sparkling Tampa Bay like a shark breaking free from a giant glass bubble.
It contains the largest collection of Dali’s work outside of Europe, with the museum’s interior spinning up and around like a pencil sharpening falling to an artist studio’s floor.
Outside (in the avant-garden) , a grassy, orchid-peppered place, the idea of a pretty, restful spot reveals layer upon layer of thoughtful meaning.
There is a labyrinth, a call to mathematics, a fountain of youth.
The rock garden pays tribute to Costa Brava (the rugged coast) and in it lies a solitary boulder of metamorphic pegmatite, a gift from Cadaques, Spain.
Yet Dali and his wife and muse Gala, spent eight years living in America after fleeing their home in Paris during World War Two.
America had a profound impact. And one of the most powerful pieces in the museum is the Abraham Lincoln piece, an image that changes as you look at it through your phone. Yet created before you could do that.
Up the road and around a few corners from the Dali Museum, but close enough to walk, is the Chilhuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center.
“I want people to be overwhelmed with light and colour in some way that they’ve never experienced.” Dale Chihuly
Chihuly, born in Washington, took the age-worn concept of glass and exploded it into bright and brilliant colour, swishing and swirling the material into goblets, vases, and indescribable spiders of light.
Where traditional glass craftsmen focused on symmetry and perception, he challenged this notion by striving for asymmetry and imbalance through his work.
And the permanent display at St Pete is the first of its kind to be shown in a building designed exactly and only for this.
The result is a vivid journey through darkness and light, colours rising up like ghosts and firework bubbles from the thick, thick gloom.
There’s Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, Persians and Tumbleweeds as well as Ivory Luster Basket and Capri Blue Seaform.
A glass workshop across the road demonstrates the basics behind the art: the dirty, sweaty, sparky business of melting silicon dioxide sand into glass.
Another magic trick that transports everyday toil into international renown takes place in Sarasota, just 40 minutes away at The Ringling.
Top Fly Drive Art Route Travel Tip
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The Ringling is the kind of place that is so large, so much an integral part of the landscape of a place once you see it, hear it and talk about it that it’s easy, oh so easy, to forget that a time existed when you’d never heard of it at all.
This is the state of Florida’s official art museum and it’s founded on a living example of the American Dream, embodying both its glorious rags to riches success and its cynical side involving chains of litigation and the perils and pitfalls of celebrity.
In the short version, the Iowan son of an immigrant farmer becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men through building an empire of travelling circuses (with a bit of oil and real estate on the side.)
On his death, Ringling willed his art collection and property to the people of Florida in an event that has become the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art today.
This place is less an art museum, more an illustration of a gigantic fantasy well funded.
It contains 21 galleries of European paintings, as well as Cypriot antiquities, Asian, American and contemporary art. There’s a theatre, a circus museum, playgrounds, gardens, a restaurant, library and conservation complex.
But the most striking feature of all is the salmon pink courtyard with its stone arches and copies of Italian fountains.
It’s a lot to take in during a single visit, with the heat, and if you have time spare in your itinerary, it’s best to plan for more than one trip.
Sarasota, it seems, attracted the wealthy and the philanthropic of the era. Beyond the Ringling, Sarasota houses the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, an astonishing complex rich in floral art, tranquil spaces and the leading site for orchid and other epiphyte research in the world.
Yet for all the world class accolades and attractions, I’m always moved to find art that binds its makers to its location.
And for that, I needed to work a little harder, stopping off in the riverside city of Bradenton.
Wind chimes, white picket fences and bicycles dripping with flowers signal the start of the Village of the Arts in Bradenton.
It’s a residential area that was down on its luck until authorities invited artists to become, well, artists in residence in these early 20th century houses.
Now it’s a mix of art galleries, studios, workshops and eateries, with a timetable of walks and guided events.
But the real joy, for me at least, is the spontaneous nature of the place.
On any given day, you can just walk along the street, popping into open doors and chatting with artists as they work.
You can see vinyl repurposed into wheels and skulls, the call of the sea through shells and sand sculptures and a series of crucifixes glittering on live oaks.
The buildings are low, the palms plentiful, the colours peachy.
The residents a mix of the culture and traditions that make up America today.
But what of yesterday's America? The land before the Europeans arrived and the events of history took place.
Where could I find Native American art?
It turns out that Native American history in Florida has been undergoing a rethink over the last decade or so.
Previously, standard beliefs held that most original American Indian tribes became extinct by the 18th century in Florida “and that the ancestors of the modern Miccosukee and Seminole people were Creek Indians and others who moved into the state in the mid-18th century.”
Now that version of events has been called into question.
In fact, the more you look into Native American history, and art, the more questions you find.
One place where you can walk, quite literally, in the footsteps of the people who used to live here is at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park.
An unassuming place, these 61 acres of coastal marsh used to attract more than 7500 people a year for burial and trading purposes.
When we visited, we were alone.
As one of the longest continually occupied sites in Florida, it’s also a United States National Historic Landmark with quiet trees and green covered mounds.
But these mounds are not what they first appear.
They’re actually manmade, from shells and perhaps broken pottery, and the oldest is well over two thousand years old.
Today, a wooden staircase leads to the top, steep and suddenly revealing the coastal landscape in a rush that reminded me of climbing the flat-topped pyramids in Mexico.
And I'm not the only one to make that observation. While the debates continue, there are links with the materials found here and those in the Caribbean, South and Central America.
But what about the art?
Well, it's a subtle kind of affair. A single limestone slab with the shadow of a human face and torso, long hair slung over one shoulder.
The instagram selfie from around the time of the birth of Christ.
And I'm reminded of Picasso's words again and how similar in fact we all are.
Even then, art was required to wash away the dust of everyday life.
Happy washing, everyone.
Hey, we get it. You're busy! You want a neat shortlist of all the cool places there are to be inspired by art along Florida's Gulf Coast.
Here's the quick list. The full article is above.
And to find out how to put together your own two week road trip along Florida's Gulf coast, check out our itinerary over here.
The Hertz Road Trip Planner through the US also has plenty of great tools to help you plan.
Disclosure: We worked in partnership with some great companies to help put this trip together, while always keeping the right to write what we want, the way we want, of course (it gets a bit pointless otherwise.) We've mentioned them where appropriate in the text, but also the key partners were Hertz UK and Visit Florida, with internet access from Cellhire.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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