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 more.
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 afternoon.
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. Tremendous.
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 craft brewery.
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 amber-tinted paradise.
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, biodegradable dye.
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 press.
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 features!