The Port of Tampa is just a 25-minute drive from the airport. Both taxis and shuttles are available. Contact Tampa Airport ground transportation for details (813-870-8718.)
Tampa Bay is located on the west coast of Florida. Orlando is 98 miles (157km) to the east and Sarasota is 66 miles (107km) to the south.
Tampa Bay, as well as nearby Clearwater and St. Petersburg, have a wide selection of hotels chains to choose from like the Hyatt, the Hilton, the Comfort Inn, Wyndham, and Best Western.
Tampa Bay and the area between Orlando and Tampa is a great place to spend a few days. While the beaches of nearby Clearwater and St. Petersburg are the most obvious local attractions, the Tampa region is full of sights and activities to take in.
If you land in Orlando and drive towards Tampa, the real heart of Florida gradually opens and the line between theme parks and reality becomes blurred and then vanishes altogether as you experience life as real Floridians live it. Or even if you land in Tampa, spend some time driving through Polk County towards Orlando.
Drive the off-freeway paved roads and you wind past orange groves, small towns, and past buildings that look as though they’ve been produced for a 1930s movie set. But they aren’t part of a theme park. They’re real and that’s the joy of Polk County.
In the spring, you can sit in classic baseball parks, watching millionaire ball players loosen their muscles for the real thing during the Grapefruit League season in February and March. Lakeland hosts the Detroit Tigers, Haines City the Kansas City Royals and Winter Haven the Cleveland Indians.
Ask at any tourist office and get a map that leads to wildlife parks, state parks, and off-beat historic sites that aren’t usually found in travel agent guidebooks.
Little known, for example, is that Polk country has the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in America, located on the campus at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. While the 10 buildings are in daily use, you can tour them for free and regale in the stories about the architect who continued to create buildings with leaky roofs throughout his career.
And there’s the small, creaky Railroad Museum in downtown Lake Wales that traces the railway’s history of the area in a series of photos from the mid-1920s. Remarkably, the town that surrounds the station looks virtually the same. Across the tracks and the old renovated rail cars that serve as restaurants, is a heritage house being converted to a museum/gallery.
The major acquiescence to theme parks is just outside Polk City, where there’s an aircraft museum called, Fantasy of Flight where old airplanes sit spotless and carefully restored. You can walk through a Second World War B-17 bomber and understand the perils that went with those who flew in the surprisingly thin-skinned aircraft.
Once you’ve left Polk Country and approach the city Tampa, the more contemporary Central Florida comes alive until you find yourself once again in the world of theme parks and make believe. And as much as you can enjoy the pleasures of Busch Gardens with its magical rides and where you can take an open-vehicle tour among African wildlife, it’s a walk out of reality and into the world of make-believe.
You prefer spectator sports? Cheer on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the 2004 Stanley Cup winners, the Tampa Bay Lightening. And remember to leave time for an afternoon at a waterside café nibbling on a plate of fresh shrimp. Just watch out for the hungry pelicans.
Tampa has a restaurant scene as diverse as the cultures that settled here, that’s why it’s no surprise that visitors list dining out among their favorite activities while in this area. With Florida specialties like blackened grouper and key lime pie, the taste buds will awaken when dining at Tampa’s memorable restaurants.
But it’s not just about the food — it’s also about the experience. At Bern’s Steak House, a cut-to-order steak comes with a 65-page dessert menu, the world’s largest wine collection and a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar. At the Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest and the world’s largest Spanish restaurant, boliche, picadillo and sangria have been served up with a side of flair and flamenco dance for the past century.
Tampa Bay also lays claim to a number of restaurant firsts. From neighborhood sports pubs to renowned steakhouses, Tampa is home to a number of original locations of national and international franchise restaurants.
The vibrant downtown:
Once lined with warehouses, banana docks and parking lots, Tampa’s downtown waterfront has reemerged as a vibrant entertainment district complete with attractions, hotels, restaurants and shops.
The redevelopment of the downtown waterfront was jump-started in 1991 with the opening of the Tampa Convention Center. In the mid-90s, the Florida Aquarium was christened and the St. Pete Times Forum opened. And in 2000 the Tampa Marriott Waterside began welcoming visitors adjacent to the convention center and Channelside Bay Plaza at Garrison Seaport Center was complete with theatere, an interactive arcade, restaurants, shops, nightclubs and the official Tampa Bay Visitor Information Center.
The cruise ships that sail from the port along with a healthy convention business contribute to the vitality of the downtown waterfront and create a daily flurry of activity. The latest development is the TECO Line Streetcar System, that transports passengers to Ybor City.
Florida has only three National Historic Landmark Districts, and Tampa’s Ybor City is one of them. Step back in time in the Latin Quarter once called the “Cigar Capital of the World,” where 12,000 master tabaqueros handrolled 700 million cigars a year at the neighborhood’s peak.
Italians, Cubans, Spaniards and Germans made their way to Tampa to work in the cigar factories, creating a vivacious “cultural collage” of a community. Immerse yourself in the taste of Cuban bread and Spanish paella, the sound of flamenco dancers’ castanets, the aroma of hand-rolled cigars and freshly brewed café con leche, and the sight of the brick streets, wrought iron balconies and old-time globe street lamps.
Visit the district by day to experience a history tour and see how the old cigar city is thriving again with new developments such as the Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn and Centro Ybor entertainment complex, or experience the district at dusk with a guided ghost tour or enjoy the many hot spot.
There are ample places to swipe your credit cards in and around Tampa. An interesting place to start is Old Hyde Park Village (1509 W Swann Ave,) full of great shops like Downtown Dogs or Restoration Hardware. Also in Tampa, take a look around the eclectic shops on Harbour Island. In nearby St. Petersburg visit The Pier, a unique triangle-shaped shopping mall, or head to Beach Drive, another popular shopping area.
More to do:
Excitement is just a short ride away at all times. Get off the ocean and into the air on the rides at the Busch Gardens (3605 E. Bougainvillea Avenue,) where you can also visit the Florida Aquarium.
Play a round of golf at one of the great public courses in Saint Petersburg, like the Mangrove Bay Golf Course (875 62nd Avenue) or the Cypress Links at Mangrove Bay (875 62nd Avenue.) After the 18th hole, head to the Salvador Dali Museum (1000 3rd Street, Saint Petersburg) to view incredible, original works of art by the famous surrealist figure.
Rev it up with water sports. Take a day trip on a boat to watch the manatees (727-859-0213) or greet a dolphin with a dive group (727-345-4500.) The opportunities for aquatic fun are endless. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
Just a couple hours away, Orlando has plenty of adventures waiting for you. The original Orlando theme park, Disney World (www.disneyworld.com) offers thrills for kids of all ages. Next, head to SeaWorld Orlando (www.seaworld.com/orlando) for some splashy fun that is guaranteed to be a “whale” of a time for the whole family.
You want to go one step further and actually swim with the fishes and dolphins? Discovery Cove (www.discoverycove.com) is a must-see for adventurers.
Universal Studios also has a large complex in Orlando and is constantly expanding it entertainment offerings (www.universalorlando.com).
— Ray Chatelin