Tampa is big, bold and ambitious — and investment has been pouring in to encourage tourists to also pour in through its constantly-improving and user-friendly airport.
But there’s much more to the city than just being a gateway to the theme park joys of the Sunshine State or a handy place to catch a cruise ship to the Caribbean.
It’s certainly been talking the talk when it comes to attracting visitors, especially within the States, and it’s a place where you can walk the walk in some style to enjoy one of Tampa’s key attractions.
The Riverwalk is an inspired piece of lateral thinking, snaking alongside the city’s Hillsborough River for more than two and a half miles, stretching from parkland beyond the bustling, popular Sail Bar and restaurant near the Convention Centre at the south end, in through the safe and accessible Downtown district and on past the vibrant Straz Centre for the Performing Arts to some of the relatively new places to the north, where (so I was told) you must go to see and be seen.
Duty bound, we duly strolled round to one of the important stopping-off points and ordered drinks at the hip Ulele restaurant and bar by the Water Works Park and enjoyed them under the welcome shade of a brolly on the lawn.
Our visit coincided with US Father’s Day, so it was very much a family occasion with lots of dads of all ages being treated to brunch, so it seemed churlish not to join in, even though my offspring were back home and it wasn’t really an English celebration in any case.
There’s now more to enjoy further along the Riverwalk from the excellent Ulele, with an exciting new dining and entertainment development at what was the old Armature Works, with its historic shell saved and restored, but rather than look at what was then a work in progress, we decided our legs had done enough in the heat and we headed back, determined to save the rest of the walk for another time.
We didn’t have too far to go to unwind and change for an evening out, as our HQ in Tampa was the evocatively-named Barrymore Hotel, adjoining the showbizzy Straz complex in the Arts District and smack on the Riverwalk only yards from the river on one side and from the fringe of Downtown on the other.
Certainly no shortage of places to eat in Tampa within easy reach of the Barrymore, which also has a handy in-house restaurant and bar.
From this great home base — thanks for your help Belkis, Donna and Lisa! — you can head off for the SoHo district or the always-bouncing original Cuban quarter of Ybor City if you want to travel a bit by free trolley or on a replica streetcar, but the friendly reception will happily hand you a walking map with nearby recommended restaurants and bars.
You can even see one or two of these and a great deal more thanks to the floor-to-ceiling window of your room if you are high enough (we were!), with the Barrymore in a prime spot to look along the river with its historic lifting railway bridge among others, and across it to the outrageously ornate Henry B Plant Museum, with its gleaming silver Moorish minarets visible all over the city. Commissioned by railroad magnate Plant as a mega-luxury hotel in the late 1800s, the historic waterfront landmark is now part of the University of Tampa, with one wing a museum packed with original features and well worth a detour.
Legs recovered (to a degree) from our Riverwalk, we decided against a water taxi to go in search of food and instead we made the monster trek of a couple of hundred yards to our favourite Anise Global Gastrobar, flagged up as a ‘swanky, spacious restaurant’ and featuring a menu packed with small plates inspired by tastes from all over the place.
There are distinct echoes of its roots in a fusion food truck, but the finely-presented super-snacks mean it’s far from being a fast-food diner, with a classy range of cocktails as well. (not driving, see!)
A choice of small plates is such a welcome change to the more usual run of huge helpings even in upscale restaurants, which can often make a meal of even just starters a daunting prospect.
Our anise treat began with retro ‘stinky bunz’, feather-light Korean-style steamed dough pockets stuffed with gently-spiced pork or other fillings. A serving of three of these, plus some papaya slaw, was plenty for Mrs G, while I opted for lamb lollipops, a small rack of cutlets, French trimmed but very Greek in taste thanks to them being flame grilled with a blend of aromatic herbs.
A cocktail to finish off and then it was time to stroll back towards the hotel, meandering through Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with its interactive fountains and ‘great lawn’ sloping gently down towards the river, next to the Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art.
The eight-acre park across the water from the grounds of the Plant Museum is used for all manner of events as well as for just chilling out and sitting around on its terraces, with regular and very popular open-air yoga sessions as well as concerts and special events like the huge celebration for St Patrick’s Day, when everyone finds out they have Irish connections.
That’s the day when the green of the grass is eclipsed by the colour of the river as part of the Mayor’s River O’Green Fest, when eco-friendly dye turns the water bright green and the park is full of all things green and Irish, including the beer — although thankfully, the ice-cold Guinness on tap is still the right colour, as we found on a previous trip.
The riverfront and a lively Downtown have been championed for years by enthusiastic Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and we felt perfectly at ease to use the park and Riverwalk late at night on our way back to the Barrymore, even when crossing the railroad tracks in a lively Arts District which was once a run-down industrial area.
Sounds daft, but one of the most lasting impressions about the park and the development around it centres on the steps which gradually connect various levels from the street down to the Riverwalk — they’re oh-so easy to negotiate for the fit and the not so fit because of the thought that’s gone into their design.
The individual steps aren’t very high and whether walking up or down, there’s just the right amount of space between them to walk comfortably without breaking stride.
It might seem trite, but it’s this sort of attention to detail which makes Tampa so special — the impressive sum of so many different parts make it a ‘must see’ place to stay awhile and not just shoot through.