Steve McCabe leaves the famous Mouse behind to explore Florida's many other gems.

Visitors to Florida could easily be forgiven for imagining there is little more to the Sunshine State than Walt Disney World, the immense, sprawling complex that covers an area larger than some European countries.

But to make this mistake would be to miss Florida's many lesser-known gems. I've spent long enough in Florida to know better than to spend all my time in the company of The Mouse, so I leave Walt Disney's empire and head out on Interstate 4. Going east would take me into Orlando, but that's a city with little to recommend it — until Walt started his land-grab in the 1960s, Orlando was little more than a country village — so I head west toward Tampa.

An hour down the highway from Walt Disney World, Tampa is a youngster even by Florida's standards. It found its feet in the late 1800s, when Cuban immigrants decided the humidity and the soil made the area ideal for growing tobacco, and Vicente Martinez Ybor founded the settlement that now bears his name.

Ybor City, a suburb of Tampa at the western end of Interstate 4, is no longer the cigar-making powerhouse it once was. Before the Great Depression, Ybor City turned out 500 million cigars a year, but those days are long gone.

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Perhaps the district's most successful product today, true to Tampa's Cuban heritage, is the Cuban sandwich. Take a length of Cuban bread — a close relative of the French baguette — slice it lengthways and fill it with ham, pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and a dill pickle. Slap the whole thing on a sandwich press and you have a local delicacy; you can argue, as you eat it, whether Miami's Cubans are right to leave out the Genoa salami that you'll also find in a Tampa Cuban.

Tampa institution Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.
Tampa institution Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.

I make the mistake of asking my waiter, over a cafe con leche, where the best Cubans are to be found. His rant lasts longer than my sandwich; he sides, not surprisingly, with Tampa.

After lunch, there is little else to detain visitors in Tampa, but I'll come back here for dinner. Pressing on west, I pass through the city centre, a typically American collection of generic office blocks, on my way to the Courtney Campbell Causeway and, across on the other side of Tampa Bay, the city of Clearwater.

Clearwater's main claim to fame, I suppose, is as the home of the Hooters chain of restaurants, but I pass by the place, and its waitresses in unfeasibly tight tops and skimpy shorts atop shiny legs, carrying on along Gulf To Bay Boulevard, through the strangely charmless centre of town and the southern home of the Church of Scientology, because I'm on my way to the beach.

Strung out along the western coast of Pinellas County are a series of barrier islands with white-sand beaches that are among the finest in the world. Clearwater Beach, toward the northern end, is a town clearly geared to tourists; though there are, at the northern end of the island, a few rather expensive neighbourhoods, the dress code is beach-casual. I struggle to find a parking space, and so instead of enjoying the warm water and soft sand of Clearwater Beach, I head south. I have dinner reservations in Tampa tonight, so I'll miss the performers and artists' stalls of Sunset at Pier 60.

As I drive down the islands, through Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore, Redington Shores and Redington Beach, each town has its own personality. Clearwater Beach is overdeveloped and full of towering hotels; Madeira Beach - Mad Beach to its friends — is a little edgy and bohemian; Indian Rocks Beach is littered with slightly dodgy-looking motels.

In places, the barrier islands are barely wider than Gulf Boulevard, the road that threads and winds its way down through them. I look right, between buildings, and see the sun glinting off the blue of the Gulf of Mexico; to the left only a low barrier separates the roadway and the Intracoastal Waterway.

St. Pete Beach marks my jumping-off point. On previous visits, I've carried on to Pass-a-Grille for cocktails at the Hurricane Restaurant, but today I turn left and drive back across the water to St Petersburg and the Salvador Dali Museum. Home to the largest collection of deeply, almost disturbingly, odd Dali paintings outside Europe, the museum is definitely worth US$21 ($29), especially in the searingly hot Florida afternoon. As I try, and fail, to make sense of such surreal masterpieces as Lobster Phone, today's thunderstorm begins its pounding on the roof of the museum.

During the Florida summer, a season that lasts from June to late September, you can almost set your watch by the thunderstorms. They pop up at about 3.55pm, pretty much every afternoon, as the oppressive, crushing, dreadful humidity of the central parts of Florida, driven high by convective currents into cumulonimbus clouds as high as 15km crashes down in tightly-defined, compressed cells of lightning and rain. Twenty minutes later, the rain ends; I get back in my car and return to Tampa.

The traffic through the centre of the city, at the end of the working day, crawls and inches its way down Kennedy Boulevard, toward the Hillsborough River. The minarets of the University of Tampa tell me I've nearly arrived at my dinner destination; I'm back in Ybor City and the Columbia Restaurant. This Tampa institution has been serving traditional Cuban dinners since 1905, and though its clientele has gradually transitioned from cigar workers to tourists, the food remains authentically Cuban. Tonight I choose ropa vieja, beef simmered and stewed until it looks — just looks — like old rope. The meat is excellent; the fried plantains are a perfect side dish.

There is more, much more, to Florida than amusement parks and endless strips of hotels, chain restaurants and gift shops. Maybe tomorrow I'll return to the theme parks; for now a mojito, the tartness of the lime juice matching the sweetness of the mint and the heat of the rum, rounds out a Tampa day.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston, with onward connections to Tampa on partner airlines.

Further information: For information on the Dali Museum, in St. Petersburg.