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An afternoon on Lake Lettuce includes spectacular views. Photo: Britt Middleton

There are copious beach options in sunny Florida, but Tampa's emerald-green waters remain among the state's most popular escapes (largely thanks to the year-round favorable temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico). You get the feel of a booming metropolis like Miami, with a bevy of dining, shopping and entertainment options, yet Tampa maintains the unpretentious warmth of a true beach community.

Generally, mid-December to mid-April is considered peak travel season for the Sunshine State, but even then there's plenty to see and local gems to uncover around Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Fly into

Tampa International Airport, grab your bags and proceed directly to the counter to collect your rental car; you'll definitely need one to get around. Tampa is massively spread out, and public transportation can be unreliable in more suburban areas.

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are ideal options for evening drinks and dining downtown.

Drop your bags

… at The Westin Tampa Harbour Island. A lush tropical oasis located in the heart of downtown, The Westin is a stone's throw from the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Museum of Art, Amalie Arena, bars and restaurants.

For a stellar start and end to your days, spring for a room with a view of the private waterfront.

Escape the crowds for the day

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Emerald waters and perfect shoreline are just a few of the spoils of Treasure Island, Florida. Photo: Britt Middleton

… in the charming city of Treasure Island. Nestled on a barrier island, it's about a 40-minute drive out from downtown Tampa, but the peaceful beachfront real estate makes it a must-see.

The warm, placid waters are ideal for swimming laps and standup paddleboarding. While you're lying on the sand, take in the prime view of the fishing boats cruising in the distance.

Have a cocktail at Treasure Island staple Caddy's on the Beach. This shore-side restaurant offers complimentary beach chairs and picnic tables, plus corn hole and jumbo-size Jenga blocks if you're with a crowd. The frozen Rum Runners come highly recommended.

Pick up some gear

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Standup paddleboarding is king in Florida’s Tampa Bay. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Kathleen Bradley

… at Water Monkey Shop in St. Petersburg. In these parts, standup paddleboarding is king. Water Monkey offers a fully stocked selection of gear and rentals for all things SUP and kite boarding.

For first-timers, call ahead to schedule a SUP lesson for a group rate of $50 per person.

Grab your board

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Ft. Desoto Park Campground is doggie friendly and a destination for SUP enthusiasts. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Kathleen Bradley

… and head out to the dog-friendly Ft. Desoto Park Campground in St. Petersburg, and paddle out right off the beach. Separately, Water Monkey offers a two-hour guided tour through the scenic mangrove islands and Florida's indigenous bird sanctuaries, so count on some spectacular shots for the 'gram.

Extend your stay into the night by reserving a campsite directly on the beach.

Get up close and personal with wildlife

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The gators at Lettuce Lake Regional Park have so much chill. Photo: Britt Middleton

… at Lettuce Lake Regional Park in Tampa. The 3,500-foot wooden boardwalk cuts right through the water, providing a truly immersive experience. Do climb the three flights up to the central observation tower and take in stunning views of the lake and treelines.

There are more than 200 species of birds that call Lettuce Lake home, and you'll regularly spot young alligators sunning themselves on logs and fallen branches. The picturesque waters are a favorite spot for locals for canoeing and kayaking, too. You can rent both on site.

Fuel up

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Behold, The Revolution Ice Cream Co.'s Netflix and Chill, a salty-sweet blast of Butterfinger ice cream spiked with kettle corn. Photo: Britt Middleton

… with some of Tampa's best Cuban food at La Teresita Restaurant, an old-school West Tampa joint dishing out classics like arroz con pollo and tostones since 1972. The on-site cafeteria is open late, and the people-watching alone is worth the drive.

End your getaway on a sweet note with a visit to The Revolution Ice Cream Co. in Brandon. This eclectic creamery is famed for its one-of-kind concoctions, like Netflix & Chill, a mash-up of Butterfinger ice cream and real kettle corn.

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