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Florida’s west coast has long had a reputation for attracting oddballs in search of tolerant neighbors and retirees fleeing northern climes. Tourists and money, on the other hand, tended to head east to Miami and Palm Beach. That’s changing now, thanks to another group of transplanted eccentrics — namely art collectors — who transformed a 60-mile stretch bordered by Sarasota Bay to the south and Tampa Bay to the north into one of the only U.S. destinations where a day can start with Claude Monet’s light effects paintings and end on the sands of the country’s top beaches, admiring a sea sunset’s genuine light effects. The best strategy is to rent a car and keep the trunk stocked with towels, bathing suits and flip-flops — this is still Florida, after all — but have a jacket handy for that Southern tradition of arctic air conditioning. Start out in Sarasota, a former artists’ colony that has retained its appreciation for aesthetics. In addition to numerous art galleries, Sarasota is home to The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a 66-acre estate featuring a circus museum, a baroque art museum and the Ringlings’ Venetian palazzo, the Ca’D'zan (Venetian for House of John). The Ringlings were among the original “snowbirds,” searching for a winter haven for their traveling circus. The couple fell in love with the sparkling waters of Sarasota Bay and built the Ca’D'zan, overlooking the bay, furnishing it with art, tapestries, and furniture collected while scouting new circus acts. The Ca’D'zan has been restored to its original quirky grandeur, complete with a marble bathtub large enough for John’s significant girth, with three faucets for hot, cold and salt water. Take the time to sample some local delicacies at The Old Salty Dog, a fishing village relic where boaters dock nearby to feast on huge deep-fried hot dogs. A (slightly) more refined alternative is Alley Cat Cafe, set in an old Florida cottage, serving Southern cuisine on mismatched china to garden diners; head upstairs for drinks under the oaks at a bar dubbed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. After you’ve had your fill, drive north to the bayside cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. For extraordinary bay views, take Route 275 across the Sunshine Skyway suspension bridge to the St. Petersburg piers, on the bay’s west coast, where a cluster of three museums display collections that are worlds apart — sufficiently so to space tours over several days. The most traditional is the Museum of Fine Arts, the brainchild of another snowbird collector, New Yorker Margaret Acheson Stuart, who envisioned a museum honoring time-tested artists. As a result, though more modern masterpieces like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Poppy are on display, the museum is best known for nineteenth-century artists like Monet, Paul Cezanne and George Inness. The Florida International Museum set up shop in a converted department store. The museum primarily hosts traveling exhibits like November’s “Riches from the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.” The two permanent exhibits — the Kennedy Collection and the Cuban Missile Crisis — are the fruits of out-of-state collectors, this time JFK enthusiasts like his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. But the jewel of St. Petersburg hides in a waterfront warehouse: The Salvador Dali Museum, the South’s only museum to earn three Michelin stars. The museum boasts the largest Dali collection in the world, bigger than the artist’s own Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain. The life’s work of Cincinnati collectors Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, the collection showcases Dali’s entire career and includes paintings, photos and sculptures. Across the bay, next to the convention center, lies the Tampa Museum of Art center. The collection spans forms and regions, and is best known for its Greek and Roman antiquities and modern arts exhibits. For an outdoor museum, roam Ybor City, a historic district that once housed Cuban revolutionaries like Jose Marti and more than 12,000 tabaqueros (cigar makers), and today is the site of some the city’s best dining. But don’t forget those beaches. Fort DeSoto Park and Caladesi Island State Park are on the top 10 list of American beaches this year, and for good reason. The protected waters of the Gulf of Mexico stay warmer and clearer longer than the Atlantic, and rest assured that no one will look twice if you don’t have time to change from museum gear before wading in to watch the sunset. Like everything else along Florida’s nascent Culture Coast, a little eccentricity is just the recipe for blending in.

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