Just back from: The east and west coasts of Florida — Tampa Bay area and New Smyrna Beach.
Was it your first time? Robin: I grew up on the west coast of Florida and my mother still lives there. Nick: My parents spend half the year near Naples on the west coast, and my brother, nieces, and nephew live in New Smyrna Beach on the east coast.
How long were you there? Seven days.
Why did you go? To see family and to eat seafood, not necessarily in that order.
Who were you with? Each other and a slew of family.
What was the best tip you got before you left? We interviewed Florida chef Brandon McGlamery and discovered that he buys the clams for his Winter Park restaurant, Luma On Park, from a fish shack in New Smyrna Beach. Aside from supplying chefs, it turns out that JB's Fish Camp is also a local seafood restaurant overlooking the bay.
What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go? Head to the beach in the late afternoon/early evening. The wind is breezy, the sun isn't as strong, and the tourists have gone home for the day.
What did you do? We split the visit down the middle, so three and a half days on each coast.
In the Tampa Bay area, we took a break from eating (all our trips revolve around eating) and got a taste of culture at the Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. It's the most comprehensive private collection of Dali's work in the world.
North of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, which is a Greek sponge diving colony. It's old school Florida meets Mykonos, and aside from a few tacky T-shirt shops, it's a cool little town. Classic Greek food. Make sure to stop in the National Bakery (451 Athens St.; +1-727-934-5934) for baklava. Very little English spoken there. Be forewarned you'll find a heap of potato salad in the bottom of the Greek salads in the local restaurants. It's the way it's been served in Tarpon Springs for decades, so don't freak out and don't tell them that you think that it's not authentic. That will not endear you to the community.
We drove across the state and stopped in Winter Park for lunch. Even though it's in the shadow of the Disney empire, it's a quaint, historic preppy Southern town founded as a resort for wealthy New Englanders. The main drag, Park Avenue, is lined with outdoor cafes and gelato shops and is full of locals.
In New Smyrna Beach, it's all about surfing. It's like Malibu in the 1960s. It's also known as the shark bite capital of the world. If you need free wifi and a coffee, go to Chuckeyta's Surfing Sea Monkey Shack (411 Flagler Ave.; +1-386-428-2020) a few blocks from the beach. Surf boards on the walls, vintage mismatched 1950s furniture, and good muffins.
Were you there for the right amount of time? It was just the right amount of time to make us want to go back.
How did you get there? We flew into Tampa International Airport. It's one of the most efficient airports, even though it was built in the 1970s. I love riding the trams to the gates and seeing the planes take off.
This was especially great: The stone crabs at Sam's Fresh Seafood in Dunedin (900 Broadway; +1-727-736-1179). Sam caught them that morning. Sweet, briny... killer.
But this wasn't: The food court at the local mall. Still not sure why we decided to go that route and can't believe we're admitting to it. Reminded us to stay the course with chef recommendations.
Speed round of favorites:
1. Meal or meals:
ABC Seafood in Pinellas Park (2705 54th Ave. North, St. Petersburg; +1-727-522-1888) - A hidden gem run by a family from Hong Kong. The fish tanks are filled with live eels, lobsters, and fish. It's catch and cook. Order the salt and pepper eel, with fried backbone included, and you won't be disappointed.
Ted Peter's in South Pasadena (1350 Pasadena Ave. South; +1-727-381-7931) - Right over the causeway to St. Pete beach. It's a smokehouse that's been around for 50 years. Red oak smoked fish, icy cold root beer, German potato salad, and a side of smoked fish spread equals delicious. It's a little incongruous to order a burger from a smoked fish joint, but the locals rave about it.
Michelle Faedo's Sandwich Shop in Tampa - They're known for their devil blue crabs, which is like a Cuban crab cake. A very, very, very casual place.
Frenchy's Cafe in Clearwater Beach - They have a few locations, but for a more local experience and for the food, visit the Saltwater Cafe outpost where the must-have items include the grilled grouper sandwich, smoked fish spread, and, if they have them in season, stone crabs. Plus, they always have a good beer special of the day.
Frenchy's Rockaway Grill in Clearwater Beach - You'll see more tourists at this location, but you can also watch the sunset. Toes in the sand, margarita in hand.
Bern's Steak House in Tampa - Go for steak and wine. The wine list is so big it dwarfs the Manhattan Yellow Pages. The decor is neo-bordello, and they give you a tour of the cellar after you've finished a steak the size of your head. Wine geeks travel from all over the world to eat here.
The Taco Shack in New Smyrna Beach - Sit under the fan, sip an icy cold beer, and eat fish and pork tacos.
JB's Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach - Watch dolphins swim up to the dock while you eat clams and peel-n-eat shrimp.
Treats on the Beach in New Smyrna Beach (504 Flagler Ave. #F; +1-386-409-345) - Right downtown on Flagler Avenue, the walk-up window is great for an afternoon ice cream. It makes the kiddies very happy. And very sticky.
Site: If you're looking for a great bottle of wine, then stop into B-21 in Tarpon Springs. The depth and breadth of selection will have you shopping for hours. We spent far too long browsing for that perfect bottle. Or, in reality, six bottles.
What's the local speciality? On both coasts, the surf shops. We always love popping into Mandalay Surf Company (499 Mandalay Ave.; +1-727-443-3884) on Clearwater Beach. They carry Nixon watches. New Smyrna Beach (NSB) has a few good surf shops on Flagler, but the best are closest to the beach.
An hour south of NSB is the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, the hometown of surfer Kelly Slater. We brought back the T-shirt. Now officially tourists.
Let's talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed:
Robin: Flip-flops and sunscreen.
Nick: White linen shirt.
2. Wish you'd packed:
Robin: A hat.
Nick: Robin's hat.
3. Didn't need:
Nick: Dress shirt.
4. Brought back:
Nick: Wine, surf T-shirt, and a blister from playing soccer on the beach.
Would you go back? What would you do differently? We'd go back in a New York minute. Next time, we'd swim more.
Any surprises? They let you drive on the beach in New Smyrna Beach. Seems counter-intuitive to go the beach and then sit inside with the air-conditioner cranked up. Also, Greek coffee has the fine grounds in the bottom of the cup. We love the bitter and sweet combination, but don't drink it to the bottom.
What was your favorite moment? Playing shuffleboard. And not ironically.
You can't stop thinking about: Buying an old, open-air Jeep, perhaps to drive on the beach.
See all the loctions in this itinerary. (Google Maps)