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Tampa is often seen as just a handy gateway to the sunny
delights of Florida but this terrific city is fun in the sun and much, much
It is indeed a great way to greet the States, with what must
be one of the most user-friendly and efficient airports on the planet, but it’s
well worth lingering.
In the past, I’ve used it many times en route to see friends
on the cosmopolitan Cultural Coast to the south, by flying in with Delta after linking
Virgin Atlantic flight from Manchester to Atlanta, touching down in the
Baggage collection is about the easiest you’ll ever
experience in a big airport, and a few dollars’ tip will have it lifted onto a
trolley for you and taken to a handy car hire desk and car pool - from getting
off the plane to driving away in less than half an hour!
The easiest option then, I’ve found, is to stay nearby
overnight to charge the batteries before getting under way the following
morning. It only takes about ten minutes to drive from the airport to the Bay Harbor Hotel, where you can get
an amazing sunset view over Old Tampa Bay from your balcony to put you well in
the mood for relaxing and it won’t break the bank. You might even see your
first dolphins, as well as the always-fascinating pelicans.
Drive the short distance into the city of Tampa itself and you can find an ideal
base for exploring at the Courtyard
Marriott Downtown, within easy reach of all that’s going on, including a
huge selection of restaurants, in one of the most exciting, developing cities
I’ve seen in a long time.
A few minutes’ walk away, just across the street (and across
a street-level railroad line!) is the wide open green space of Curtis Hixon
Park, by the side of the must-see Tampa
Museum of Art and bordering the Hillsborough River, with its Riverwalk Amphitheatre,
the focus of events almost every day and an amazing sight when hundreds of
people arrive for an after-work yoga session.
The Tampa Riverwalk itself is a brave and inspired venture
which is really paying dividends, and gives locals and visitors alike a
fascinating perspective of an increasingly vibrant place, with interesting and
varied architecture adding to the long list of things to see.
It already winds nearly two-and-a-half miles in a corridor
that connects popular landmarks and
attractions, from the Museum of Art and its trendy (and very good) Sono Cafe at
one end, to the brilliant Florida Aquarium
near the other end, around the corner in the Channelside District, past the
Tampa Bay History Center, the American Victory Ship Mariners Museum and next to
Port Tampa Bay, where the huge cruise ships tie up.
Along the way, pause for a refresher at any of the eight
handy and popular pit stops on the Riverwalk itself (very civilized - you can
walk with your drink, which is served in specially-designated cups), or relax
for longer and maybe grab a bite at The Sail Pavilion. A stop here gave us a chance
to meet two very special lady visitors, life-size working replicas of the Nina and Pinta, two of the ships used by
Christopher Columbus on his first voyage across the Atlantic.
The Columbus Foundation ships, built using only hand tools,
like the originals, were dwarfed by
many modern craft moored nearby; and an informative tour underlined just how
courageous the early explorers were to set sail with 20-odd shipmates in
something that looked from a distance to be the size of an old flip-flop.
The feet started feeling the strain, so we stayed afloat for
the trip back, taking in a splendid tour around the harbour aboard a water taxi, with dolphins tagging along and
seeming to enjoy Captain Larry imparting decades of local knowledge just as
much as we did.
He took us beyond our ‘home’ stop next to the museum and the
huge Straz Center for the Performing Arts - there was a huge young luvvie
gathering during my visit - and cruised as far as the Waterworks Park, which is
poised to be another jewel in Tampa’s crown on the rapidly-extending Riverwalk
and already boasting trendy eateries, including one top restaurant that even has its own on-site
And talking of craft breweries, there are enough in the
Tampa Bay area to make many a CAMRA member think he or she had woken up in an
Hand on heart, I can say I did work quite hard to become the proud owner of a ‘Bay Crafted’ tee-shirt, even if only with sample-size tastes of some of the excellent brews on offer, ranging from Old Elephant Foot IPA and Moose Killer Barleywine Style Ale, to Reef Donkey American Pale Ale and Capt’n Jack’s Stone Crab Stout, and (just a few) more in between.
There was green beer on offer, too, along with all sorts of
green cocktails over a weekend of fun to mark St Patrick’s Day, when the
cheerful Mayor of Tampa, Bob Buckhorn, played his part during the hijinks at
Curtis Hixon Park and launched his signature River O’Green Fest, when
Hillsborough River is quite literally turned bright green with harmless,
An interesting take on St Paddy’s Day, with a distinct US
slant on a Celtic celebration making for a colourful, musical, noisy and above
all, friendly fancy dress party, with a smile on every face despite an almost
constant (very Irish!) series of rain showers.
Take a short detour from the Riverwalk to cross the coloured water and there’s another major green attraction, with immaculate, manicured parkland surrounding the amazing architecture of the Henry B Plant Museum, once a 500-room, mega-posh hotel frequented by the super-rich, it was also a base for the then-Colonel Theodore Roosevelt during the build-up to the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Today, the wonderfully-ornate building and its fanciful, silver minarets, which might well have inspired Willy Wonka’s Golden Wonkavator, is part museum and part University of Tampa and an iconic ‘low-rise’ part of the Tampa skyline; along with the nearby cantilever railroad bridge.
Graffiti also has its place on the Uni side of the river,
with the embankment walls ‘signed’ by visiting rowing teams, flagging up the
importance of the river, and life on the water, in the very heart of the city.
There’s more than just Downtown, of course, with the Ybor
City neighbourhood designated as one of
only two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida and well deserving a place on any list of
tourist hot-spots, especially if you want some nightlife. This bustling Latin
Quarter, best visited by retro streetcar and boasting more than 100 cafes and
restaurants, including Florida’s oldest, is steeped in Cuban heritage and was
once the cigar capital of the world, with millions still made there every year.
Also made by the million are Cuban sandwiches, first made
here for cigar factory workers and worth a try, if only once. The basis is
Cuban bread, similar in shape to a demi-baguette and baked with a palmetto
frond (to be discarded) along it to make a crease. Once split, the first layer
is thinly-sliced glazed ham, followed by slices of roast pork, Genoa salami,
Swiss cheese, dill pickle and yellow mustard, before the top is put on and it’s
sliced on the diagonal, then served up as it is, or crisped up in a panini
Any thought of a diet is best left back at the Marriott, where you can also get a great coffee, breakfast or snack in The Bistro (thanks Cece!) if you don’t want to go further afield.
When you do want to go out and about, the hotel has a
restaurant list and free shuttle-bus service; and there’s also a hotel walking
map listing another 20 restaurants all within a few blocks of the front door in
a very safe-feeling and friendly environment.
We tried quite a few, getting into the US mood on our first
night with sliders and a locally-brewed beer in Taps, a very much
‘upscale’ bar/lounge, with more than 25 beers on draught at any one time, and
another 350 in bottle and enough wines by the glass and by the bottle (around
200) to keep a party going for an awfully long time. Also ticked off our list
was Anise Global Gastrobar, where
the lamb lollipops with cucumber, tomato, red onion and feta; and a lobster
BLT, no less, with fried green tomatoes and candied bacon, helped show just how
easy it is to get away from a burger and fries.
Burgers were available, as they are in often the poshest of
eateries, but then they were build-your-own-burgers with a difference, with a
mouth-watering, and eye-watering, choice of ingredients.
A marvellous mixture, all tasty and terrific which pretty
well sums up Tampa itself. And I can’t wait to get back.
David Graham flew to Tampa, via Atlanta, with Virgin
Atlantic and partner Delta for an extended stay on Florida's Gulf Coast -
covering Tampa, St Petersburg/Clearwater, Sarasota and Venice. Look out for
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