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T+L's Ultimate Guide to Florida

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Photo: Claudia Uribe

The Gulf Coast: Apalachicola to Naples (459 miles)

Going west on I-10 across the Osceola National Forest, North Florida feels like the Deep South, particularly in Monticello, a tiny town with perky placards for sale (faith, trust, and dixie dust) in various shops. On State Road 65, passing through the Apalachicola National Forest, the road meanders by the town of Sopchoppy (where the sign reads sopchoppy and easy living go together). Highway 98, adorned with the Ho Hum RV Park and driftwood-encrusted shacks, hugs the Gulf of Mexico; it’s possible to take 98 almost all the way through the Florida Panhandle to Pensacola and on to Alabama. But to me, there’s no reason to go past Apalachicola, which is so eerily perfect it almost feels Photoshopped: the town is one big charm bracelet of antiques stores and quaint B&B’s like the 1905 Coombs House Inn ($). In the morning, from the veranda of my room at Water Street Hotel & Marina ($), I watch fishing boats puttering on the river. Apalachicola oysters are still harvested by hand with wooden tongs and shucked at processing operations along the waterfront. Along with crab cakes and grilled fish, oysters are eaten raw at restaurants like Up the Creek Raw Bar ($$), where you’ll see a manifesto of sorts on the wall: “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”

Apalachicola is just real enough—the ideal Florida town—so it’s not surprising that a sales clerk grimaces when I confess to being from Miami, as if the mere mention was a radioactive concept: “Oh, I’m so sorry for you.”

From Apalachicola, heading east and south on Highway 19/98, endless vistas of forest end abruptly north of Tampa, with the usual chain of drugstores and strip malls conceding to the great, good grace of Weeki Wachee Springs, where local women dressed as mermaids have put on shows since 1947. On occasion, manatees will swim into the spring, echoing their movements.

Tampa, like Jacksonville, is an urban revelation of DIY cool, commencing with the patinaed Ybor City area. At my hotel, the Don Vicente Historic Inn ($), a group of young women are setting up an old-school-themed bridal shower, with oranges and trinkets for place settings. A stroll around Ybor City uncovers vintage store La France (1612 E. Seventh Ave.), with 50’s organza dresses and coin purses adorned with old Florida postcards.

The Tampa Museum of Art is bathed in a luminous glow orchestrated by artist Leo Villareal when I drive by, en route to dinner in the emerging neighborhood of Seminole Heights. At the Refinery ($$), an intelligent farm-to-table menu includes braised hog jowl and shrimp hush puppies with butternut squash. The place for dessert: Bern’s Steak House ($$$), done up in acres of gilt and sin-red walls. Of the design a staffer notes, “We were going for Palace of Versailles, but it’s more like New Orleans bordello.”

The next day, lunch at BT ($$$)—a French-Vietnamese restaurant owned by BT Nguyen—is a fitting prelude to the drive south along I-75 to Naples, the Gulf Coast equivalent of Palm Beach. Naples is all about the clang and clamor of money, from the recently upgraded Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club ($$) to the club-level suites at Inn on Fifth ($$$$). The most fun place in town is the high-concept Peace, Love, & Little Donuts, situated in a gas station and serving such “groovy donuts” as “Saigon cinnamon,” proving that even in tony Naples, some of the best things in life are also the cheapest.

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