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Cities along Florida's west coast offer relaxing vacations

We all know Florida as the home of nearby beaches and family-friendly theme parks. The often-visited cities of Orlando, Miami and Tampa are tourist magnets, but along the state's western shores, there are a few smaller cities you need to get to know.

Brimming with natural exploration adventures, chic art galleries, and quaint boutiques and restaurants, the towns of St. Petersburg and Clearwater offer a relaxing vacation experience for everyone from art patrons to pet lovers.

We surfed the Web to find five of the best bets in these two towns, which line the Gulf of Mexico.

St. Petersburg Gallery Walks

St. Petersburg, Fla., is a city full of vivid colors and wild imaginations, and once month, the creativity of the city spills into the downtown streets. Gallery Walks, held the second Saturday of each month, feature area exhibitors who keep their doors open extra-late for art-lovers. The evening is a leisurely, self-guided stroll through local galleries that gives a taste of the area's best exhibitors.

Stop by The Arts Center, one of St. Petersburg's leading contemporary art galleries, for a view of cutting-edge, international exhibits. The Croatian Naive Art Gallery is one of the first galleries in the country to specialize in reverse oil paintings on glass, and the Davidson Fine Arts Gallery offers a wide display of '60s-era concert posters, featuring the likes of Janis Joplin, the Greatful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.

Visit www.stpetearts.com.

Great

Explorations

museum

The kids in the family will love Great Explorations in St. Petersburg. The children's science and humanities museum allows visitors to touch, play and discover in an effort to make learning fun. The museum's latest exhibit, the Child-Size Market, puts kids in a grocery store designed to teach them to be responsible consumers and healthy eaters.

An assortment of science- and engineering-related stations keep kids entertained as well as educated. Popular exhibits include a giant firehouse where children can explore the ins and outs of a fire station, and "The Veterinary Office: Be a Great Pet Vet," a hands-on approach to understanding pet doctors.

General admission is $9, but senior citizens get in for $8 and the museum is free for those younger than 1 year old. Visit www.greatexplorations.org.

Clearwater Dog Park

If you're traveling with a pet, be sure to head over to the Clearwater Dog Park.

The 3-acre park is made up of three double-gated dog play areas, where Fido can be let off the leash. Each area features a doggie drinking fountain, paw washers, waste-collection facilities and other essential supplies. There is also a beach where humans can play while the pups roam.

The park is open from sunrise to 11 p.m. daily. Call 727-562-4837.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

From the beach, you just can't see all the fascinating creatures that dwell in the ocean's waters. Dedicated to the educating the public on marine wildlife, the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescues and rehabilitates the area's ocean animals.

Bottlenose dolphins, otters, several species of sea turtles and other marine life are on display there in natural habitats. Admission to the aquarium is $9 for adults and $6.50 for children. Visit www.cmaquarium.org.

John's Pass

Village and

Boardwalk

John's Pass Village and Boardwalk, a quaint turn-of-the-century tourist haven, is a must for western Florida visitors. John's Pass is located on the waterfront between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island.

For adventurers, there are several options for dolphin-watching tours, parasailing and charter fishing expeditions.

Shoppers can meander through trendy, funky and sophisticated shops selling everything from local works of art to vintage attire and nautical gifts. Hungry tourists will find their fill in the village's marketplace of restaurants.

Seafood is a mainstay at many area diners, and live music, cool drinks and casual atmosphere are always in style. Visit the Web site at www.johnspass.com.