This Florida West Coast Road Trip itinerary brings you sparkling waters, world class art, tales of redemption, ancient history, Amish desserts and more. Buckle up and enjoy everything from manatees to mint-soaked cocktails.
TWO WEEK FLORIDA WEST COAST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
Forget dear old Mickey. Florida's Gulf Coast offers wildlife of a different kind. Gentle sea giant manatees and wild dolphins skitting through sparkling surf. Scorching pink flamingoes and American Bald Eagles.
Mile after mile of soft white sand bordered by mangroves and painted lifeguard huts. Just pull up and go for a swim, no organisation required.
I set off with husband and young toddler in tow for a two week Fly Drive through Florida's Gulf Coast as part of the #thinktheusa project.
Who is this for?
This Florida Gulf Coast road trip itinerary leaves time for you to slow down and enjoy life. With a toddler, it means there's time for naps and early bedtimes and not too much time spent in the car. There's the chance for a run-around or swim (or both) every single day.
Restaurants are close enough to the hotels to mean that little ones won't be too late to bed. But none of them are plastic fantastic fare.
That said, if you're travelling without children, you could pick up the pace. You could probably spend one less night in each of the places if you're determined to cram things in.
But pace yourself. Part of Florida's charm involves moving slowly through her landscape, across her water. When trying to see wildlife in the, well, wild, you need time. It's not like being in a zoo.
Florida West Coast ROAD TRIP Itinerary Day By Day - DRIVE THE GULF COAST
DAYS 1 - 4 - CRYSTAL RIVER
From Orlando Airport, it's a straightforward if unspectacular drive towards the west coast.
And then you get close to Crystal River, Manatee Capital of the World.
The streets drip with green, as branches from deep trees fall to the floor to meet a rug of tangled tropical greenness. It's the northernmost point of this trip and the place that reminds me the most of Louisiana's Great River Road, all lush vegetation, grand white houses and plenty of alligators.
The small, spread out area of Crystal River has risen to fame as the Manatee Capital of the World.
Make the most of jet lag by scheduling an early morning swim in the waters of Crystal River in search of manatees.
And then, explore the rest of the land around Crystal River.
- The Homosassa Spring Wildlife State Park, with its flamingoes, manatees and American Bald Eagles.
- The Crystal River Archaeological State Park and Museum that traces back thousands of years of human activity through steep pyramids of shells that overlook the water.
- And the beaches. Try Hunter Springs Beach or Fort Island Gulf Beach.
DAYS 4 -6 - CLEARWATER
If there's one place you MUST stop at on this section of the journey, it's Tarpon Springs.
Laced with kitsch, this tiny fishing village is, wait for it, the sponge capital of the world.
It's also home to a proud Greek community and the two are intertwined. Around 100 years ago, when the sponge beds were discovered here, young Greek immigrants had the skills to get them out and sell them. And if you're really lucky, you can hop on a boat for a demonstration of how this used to be done.
It's far more daring than it sounds.
From Tarpon Springs, it's just a quick 20 minute drive to Clearwater.
Clearwater is a fairly built up beach town, but the work from its aquarium inspired a Morgan Freeman Holiday film. Dolphin winter lost her tail in an accident and the work from the Clearwater Aquarium resulted in a prosthetic tail to help her swim. Not only did that work help develop the technology for humans missing limbs but it also connected with and inspired children with illnesses and disabilities.
- Top tip: try the grouper sandwiches at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill.
Where to Stay in Clearwater
The Hyatt Regency Clearwater Resort & Spa suits family travel with its spacious swimming pool and kitchenettes in rooms. With 287 rooms, it's far from boutique but staff are friendly and rooms still feel fresh and quiet.
It's just a short walk to the beach, local restaurants & Pier 60, the public mingling spot as the sun sets.
DAYS 6 - 8 ST PETE
Next up is St Pete, short for St Petersburg, and awash with classy charm.
It's only a 45 minute drive from Clearwater, making this an easy day on the road, but the characters of Tarpon Springs, Clearwater and St Pete are so different that it pays to spend enough time in each one.
The razzle-dazzle feature of St Pete is the Salvador Dali Museum. And if the thought of travelling so far to see something so close to home confuses you, it shouldn't.
This really is a remarkable museum, with thought provoking tours, stunning architecture and better gazpacho than I had in four years of living in Spain.
Showcasing more than 100 pieces, the museum made me realise just how much of a genius Salvador Dali was. And the bright airy space made his work feel a lot less creepy: it gave it the space to breathe.
Stand in front of the Abraham Lincoln piece and see for yourself.
MORE ART IN ST PETE
But Dali isn't the only big name in town. The Morean Arts Center hosts a permanent collection of Chihuly glasswork and lives on a whole avenue dedicated to exploring and understanding the arts.
Where to Stay in St Pete
The Vinoy Renaissance St Petersburg Resort and Golf Club shocks in salmon pink as a fascinating historic hotel with a modern extension.
With lavish rooms and a fantastic breakfast service, the Vinoy offers great views across the Marina.
You can walk to the Dali Museum if it's not too hot and you have time on your hands.
- Did you know? Fresh and funky Paul's Landing restaurant claims to mark the spot where oranges first reached Florida.
DAYS 8 - 10 BRADENTON
It's another short drive (45 minutes) from St Pete to Bradenton but it's the kind of drive that sums up driving in Florida. Water everywhere. Blue skies everywhere. And concrete bridges sweeping across great swathes of even more blue.
- Watch out for pelicans swooping as you make it over Highway 275.
Bradenton itself has a very different feel to the other stops on this Florida itinerary.
Most visitors, I sense, zoom on past to the well-heeled sands of Anna Maria Island, leaving downtown Bradenton with a quieter, more riverside feel.
From the 1930s historic Hampton Inn & Suites, you can walk to through Bradenton's Old Main Street and on to its new, creative Riverwalk, stopping off at Corwin's for ice cream along the way.
Here splash pads and art installations wait just minutes from the South Florida Museum, home to a planetarium and some rescued manatees.
Further afield, a car is handy for checking out the quirky Arts Village (see the video below) and making a stop at two very different foodie stops: the citrus Mixon's Fruit Farm, which claims to serve the state's best Reuben sandwich, and Farmhouse Donuts, which serves donuts called Sweet Squealing Pig and Cow Patties amid rustic home decor.
You can also, of course, drive to the coast to soak in the sand of the lovely Anna Maria Island.
When it's time to drive on to Sarasota, stop off in the intriguing Manatee Village Historical Park en route for a look at how buildings used to look back in the pioneer days.
Where to Stay in Bradenton
The Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton Downtown Historic District is an historic hotel with plentiful parking and an excellent location for local art, history, culture and the Riverwalk. Breakfast options are pretty simple so it's a good time to head out for brunch.
DAYS 10 - 14 - SARASOTA AND AROUND
It's the shortest drive to Sarasota, at only 30 minutes or so, but you're saving yourself for the drive back to Orlando, not to mention all the upcoming day trips. You'll find so many unique things to do in Sarasota.
But the highlights are these:
- The Ringling Museum - half museum, half Renaissance fantasy. Founded by circus magnates, John and Mable Ringling, expect to find vast art galleries, theatre performances and bayfront gardens and plan for a whole day here.
- The gorgeous Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, the world centre for orchid and epiphyte research with tranquil gardens that overlook the bay mixed in with truly creative floral art.
- The Mote - The Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island also hits research headlines with its work on endangered species and its 135,000 gallon shark habitat. But there is a danger of "Aquarium Burnout" with this itinerary, so if you think you could be afflicted then head outdoors instead with a
- Get on the water at Sarasota Bay with Sea Life Encounters Cruise with Sarasota Bay Explorers We saw dolphins, osprey, crabs and snapper fish - and that's not even the half of it (see the video above!)
- Reserve a day to drive inland to the moss and alligator wetlands of Myakka River State Park, stopping off in the Amish holiday enclaves of Yoder's on the way there and Der Dutchman on the way back for a legendary slice of pie.
- Shopping - new development St Armand's lines up chic eateries and concept surf stores into a compact, walkable circle (it's another legacy of the Ringlings, through both design and the Italian statues standing on the circle.)
- Lido Beach lives just a short distance from St Armand's, with white sand and blue water.
- Siesta Beach - ranked as the USA No. 1. Its quartz sand from the Appalachian mountains leave it white and cool underfoot, and the painted lifeguard stations give its horizon an iconic, timeless feel.
Beaches run for miles along Siesta Key; parking is pretty easy and access is free.
Where to Stay in Sarasota
The Hyatt Regency Resort Hotel Sarasota has beautiful views of the marina and easy parking. The swimming pool is great for kids and it's a good base for day trips into the surrounding area.
HOW TO END YOUR WEST COAST FLORIDA ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
If you can squeeze in an extra day then drive further south to Venice Beach.
Otherwise, it's time to pack up the car and head back to Orlando (leave three hours to be on the safe side if you have an international flight to catch.)
I hope you enjoyed this Florida west coast road trip itinerary. Please share or bookmark and have a great time in the sunshine state!
IDEAS FOR OTHER WEST COAST ROAD TRIPS
If you have more time available, consider visiting these key spots:
- Sanibel Island - popular for its shell beaches and wildlife refuges.
- Fort Myers - home to historical estates and access to Sanibel Island.
- Tampa Bay - innovative eateries in a large natural harbour.
OTHER FLY DRIVE FLORIDA IDEAS
Next time, consider heading east for your Florida road trip, to Miami and the Florida Keys, the Everglades National Park, Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Cocoa Beach and South Beach.
Alternatively, go north in search of national parks, national forests and, ironically, more of a "southern" vibe. Or race cars on the sand as one of the unusual things to do in Daytona.
More American Road Trip Ideas
Where to start when it comes to American road trips? Why, getting your kicks on Route 66, of course! Check out this Illinois Road Trip Itinerary from Luxury Columnist.
Don't forget the Deep South, with a New Orleans road trip itinerary that delves deep into Louisiana. Or, you can get your East Coast fix with a hefty dose of history by taking a road trip through Massachusetts from Boston.
FLIGHTS AND CAR HIRE FOR A GULF COAST ROAD TRIP IN FLORIDA
Florida's Gulf Coast is peppered with airports but the one with the greatest choice is Orlando International inland. That made getting to the coast the longest stretch of the drive but it was still no more than three hours (and the airport is well signposted on the return.)
For car rental, we booked through Hertz again and couldn't have been happier with the pick up and drop off service at Orlando International. They also have a handy American Road Trip Planner, which is not only useful for plotting out a Florida Fly Drive but also leads you into temptation by making you imagine other great road trip itineraries.
14 days car hire from Orlando with Hertz.co.uk costs from £400, based on room for two adults, baby, pushchair and luggage.
- Register with Hertz Gold Plus Rewards BEFORE you make your reservation. Not only do you get access to better deals but you skip the queues at Orlando Airport and get to sail through to the Gold Plus Rewards counter. It's free to register and takes about a minute.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR THE UNITED STATES
- Leave plenty of time to arrange your visa. Most standard visas can be arranged online for a small fee but you will be checked before you board your flight.
- Get ready to tip up to 20% for things you never imagined you'd need to tip for.
- Pack a US two-pronged travel adapter.
- Pack a lightweight jumper or cardigan. Air conditioning inside can be fierce!
- Watch out for "resort fees" - extra charges from some hotels for using the pool or other facilities. Always ask at check in to get some clarity.
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. If you book through links on this page, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.