by Lee Foster
Some travel destinations go through life like younger brothers or sisters, always living in the shadow of their larger and presumably more spectacular siblings.
Tampa, Florida, is one such city, located west of attraction-rich Orlando, home of Disney World, Universal Studios, and Sea World, to name a few.
This location creates some challenges, both for Tampa and for potential travelers, who might find this “younger sibling” city appealing. A younger sibling often has a way of being less pretentious and more accessible.
Tampa is like that. It’s easy to fly to, with a well-planned, passenger-friendly airport. It’s comfortable to cruise out of, which is why some cruise companies have positioned ships there for many years. And Tampa can be warmly engaging when you make her acquaintance.
What I like about Tampa for a traveler might be summarized in three categories–its Access To Nature, its Special History, and its Celebration of the Good Life.
Tampa’s Access to Nature
Everywhere one travels in the world today, the increasingly urbanized person yearns for satisfying contact with nature.
When thinking of nature in Florida, Tampa may be the best place of all to get an overview and then plunge right in.
The overview comes at Tampa’s brilliant Florida Aquarium, which traces the route of a drop of water from its origin in the heart of the state. The drop meanders through the rivers and wetlands until it eventually mingles with the sea. Along the way, an observer meets the denizens of this watery milieu, from alligators to roseate spoonbill birds, mangroves to coral reefs, and turtles to sharks.
After enjoying the Aquarium, stop at the Lowry Park Zoo to see another Florida specialty, the manatee. At Lowry, keepers maintain a rehab center in case any of these endangered, large mammals are found injured in the wilds and can be saved.
After this nature overview, consider going canoeing down the Hillsborough River, passing through the dense swamp forests of Florida. A company called Canoe Escape can make the arrangements, providing canoe and paddles, transportation, and a guide if desired. The paddle trip down the serene Hillsborough River can take a couple of hours or a day, depending on the section of river chosen. Expect to see alligators, soft-shell turtles, snakes, and woodpeckers.
The beaches and inland waterways south and west of Tampa, such as Indian Shores, are inviting. Continue your nature tour at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a beachfront haven for injured birds. Open daily, visitors may view egrets, herons, cranes, and even owls and eagles on occasion, as they are cared for at indoor and outdoor recuperation areas.
After watching the frenzied feeding of birds at the sanctuary, relax at one of the many small restaurants along the beach. Keegan’s would be a good choice and grouper with West Indian spices is a local fish to try.
Truth-in-advertising requires that anyone commenting on nature in Tampa should mention the summer heat. It is hot here and muggy too. This is the “value” season. The other months are more appealing. Florida has sunshine, of course, and sunshine without oppressive heat is the ideal. It is said that the Tampa NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, has one of the higher beer consumption rates at its stadium. With that sun beating down, a cold beer is a welcome antidote. When the weather gets wild here, the lightning pyrotechnics in the sky are remarkable to observe. The word “tampa” is said to come from a Native American term that describes this lightning as “sticks of fire.”
During the winter, the area near the beach is bumper-to-bumper Canadians and Midwesterners trying to escape their hometown wind chill factor. Politically and culturally, this creates an intriguing situation, an area populated by part-timers.
Tampa’s Special History
Tampa’s special history happens to have a Cuban connection. In 1886, a Cuban refugee and cigar-making tycoon, Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, moved his operations from Key West, Florida, to the palmetto-lined dunes of Tampa, which became known as the Cigar Capital of the World.
Thus was born Ybor City, a distinct section of Tampa, where some cigars are still rolled by hand today. However, almost all the cigars made today are rolled by machine.
Ybor city became a lively enclave, populated by about 20,000 people of several ethnic backgrounds, from Italians to Germans, and Cubans to Spaniards, primarily supported by cigar manufacturing. Each group had its mutual aid society and a gathering spot for socializing. These structures still exist, such as the Italian Club on Seventh Avenue. There was even a tri-lingual newspaper printed in English, Spanish and Italian that continues to be published. The Columbia Restaurant, founded in 1905 and dubbed Florida’s oldest restaurant, still flourishes today and occupies a city block.
Ybor City was a world unto itself, where the locals took care of themselves, even developing an HMO for health care. The legal requirements of the outside world, especially during Prohibition, were applied selectively. Much of the history can be felt as you walk the defined Ybor City area. Details of the story are portrayed at the Ybor City State Museum, which tells how Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders embarked from here to Cuba during the Spanish American War. Adjacent is La Casita House Museum, which displays a renovated cigar workers’ cottage.
Like many earlier settlements in American cities, Ybor City went into decline, though it was declared a National Historic Landmark District. But the good news, for travelers, is that Ybor City revived by the 90s, and that story leads into The Good Life description of Tampa. Ybor City has the authentic history and a Latin flair preserved in its brick-lined streets, historic street lamps and decorative wrought iron balconies. Ybor, however, also boasts the vitality of modern restaurants, shops, and galleries to support this historic patina.
In Ybor City today you can find some inventive art galleries. In the evening, Ybor’s Seventh Avenue is ablaze with festive lights, a kind of all-year Christmas look. You can hear blues and jazz music. Craft beer and brewpub food is the specialty at Ybor City Brewing Company.
If strolling Ybor during the day, and hungry, you could drop into Carmine?s and order a Cuban Sandwich, which is a loaf of Cuban bread filled with meat, cheese, and tomato. You’ll be startled when asked if you want it “pressed” or not. They press and heat the sandwich or serve it cold, as you like it.
Two other interesting historic aspects of Tampa should be mentioned.
The Moorish minaret-topped buildings near downtown are now the University of Tampa, but were once the grand design of railroad magnate Henry B. Plant as he sought to put Tampa on the tourism map in 1891 with his Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant’s hotel was Florida’s first “magic kingdom,” where a traveler could find everything desired in that day, from a horse track to an indoor pool, boat rides to world-class entertainers. A fascinating museum on the campus, the Henry B. Plant Museum, tells the story of this early phase of Florida tourism, when the swells from New York came down to this opulent establishment.
The other interesting historic area of Tampa is a residential section that boomed 1910-1925. The area was called Hyde Park (after the developer’s Chicago home). Hyde Park presents many beautiful homes from that earlier period, some of which front Hillsborough Bay and its waterfront walk, Bayshore Boulevard. Old Hyde Park Village is a boutique shopping and dining complex set in this venerable residential area. The Wine Exchange would be a good choice for a salad lunch and a glass of Chardonnay.
Bayshore Boulevard walkway is a major amenity in Tampa, extending six miles, offering a good place to walk, jog, or bike.
The backdrop for a Bayshore Boulevard walk is the city skyline, Tampa’s future, where a heavy investment has been made in a Performing Arts Center, Convention Center and a professional hockey arena, called the Ice Palace. The water, Hyde Park houses, and the city skyline make Bayshore a pleasing outing.
Tampa’s Celebration of the Good Life
Dining well, major entertainment, and annual festivals are part of The Good Life in Tampa for visitors and residents. Tampa is Florida’s third most populous city (after Miami and Jacksonville), so there is enough of a population base to support cultural efforts.
Some traditional dining options in Tampa should be mentioned, such as Bern’s Steak House, with its good steaks and one of the world’s largest wine lists, presenting some 7,000 separate choices. The wine list book is thicker than the local phonebook. Already mentioned, the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City serves up its signature dishes, such as chicken with yellow rice.
Among newer, innovative retaurants, two to try are Mise en Place and Exodus.
Tampa has some special festivals to consider if your schedule is flexible. The Gasparilla Festival is a late January event in which the buccaneer fantasies of Tampa get fully exercised, with a boat and land parade and plenty of parties. Ybor City has a Halloween street party, called Guavaween, becaue Tampa is sometimes called The Big Guava.
Throughout the year Tampa hosts major concerts and shows, especially at venues such as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Ice Palace, a sports facility that also hosts concerts.
Of course, when comparing Tampa to Orlando, keep in mind that Tampa does have its own major mega-attraction, which is Busch Gardens. Of special interest here is the Gorilla habitat, featuring mountain gorillas from Africa and its Edge of Africa exhibit that enables visitors to watch hippos cavorting underwater and look into the face of a lion. Every white-knuckle thrill rider has heard that the Kumba spiraling ride at Busch Gardens is in the big leagues of rollercoasters, along with Montu, a coaster that whips around and upside down. The legs of riders dangle freely in all directions.
Tampa isn’t like the dominant sibling, Orlando, located an hour’s drive to the east. Nor should it ever try to be. Sometimes in life the dominant sibling isn’t the best company. As travel becomes truly international, Brazilians, for example, have taken a fancy to Tampa. Tampa is quieter and more peaceful than Orlando, and has access to nature, a special history, and enough elements of the good life to make it a rewarding destination.
Tampa, Florida: If You Go
For further information, contact the Tampa Bay and Company, www.visittampabay.com.