By: Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Our Tampa trip was very hectic. We essentially went from the airplane straight to the International Plaza, the prime shopping destination on Florida’s west coast. This engaging mall offers devoted shoppers anything and everything at three department stores and more than two hundred boutiques featuring the most exclusive brands. There are also varied options for relaxation, such as Bay Street at the Plaza: an open-air street lined with renowned restaurants, cafés, and bars in a sophisticated and intimate setting. When the mall closes, this area becomes a nightlife hub, with two very popular discos: Bar Louie and Blue Martini. Most of the restaurants stay open late.
But we have other plans for the evening. We leave the shopping center before dusk, drop off our gear at the hotel, freshen up, and set out to conquer the night. We head for the historic neighborhood of Ybor City, considered Tampa’s old quarter, which is home to one of its greatest icons: the Columbia Restaurant, which opened in 1905, making it the oldest restaurant in Florida. It has been owned and managed by five generations of the same family. The restaurant’s history reflects that of the surrounding neighborhood, which was founded in 1885 by cigar makers and populated by Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrants. We learn all this while touring the impressive property. The food is as delicious as the venue is marvelous, and each of the multiple dining rooms has its own ambience and anecdotes. It all adds up to a splendid evening.
The following morning, our genial hosts suggest we skip breakfast at the hotel because they have a special place for us to eat. We have been eating our way through the city, but work is work, and this is an occupational hazard we just have to accept.
Still, the suggestion is just the thing. Our friends take us to Sunday brunch at the Oystercatchers restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. Now, this is what I call a brunch: a dazzling display of quantity and variety. The exquisite dishes provide a taste of the flavors of the Gulf of Mexico. The seafood is just-caught fresh and the seaside location creates a lovely setting. The morning is sunny and beautiful and I would consider myself well-served even if our trip ended here.
But there is more to this story. Our adventurous spirits spur us on and we continue to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), which is one of Tampa’s greatest draws and considered the best science museum in Florida. Perhaps the most apt way to describe the museum is to call it a vast science playground, with 450 interactive activities to stretch your mental muscles. Although it is intended to entertain children and families, it turns out to be a good reminder of forgotten bits of knowledge for anyone. One of the most popular attractions is “Gulf Coast Hurricane,” which lets visitors experience high winds and learn how to prepare for tropical storms. There is also the permanent exhibit “The Amazing You,” showcasing the intricacies of the human body, from DNA to the organs. This museum has the only IMAX® Dome theatre in Florida.
We leave the museum and head out to lunch…No, I won’t try your patience by talking about food again. Then we head to one of the city’s major attractions (and one of my favorites): The Florida Aquarium. There is a good reason this is one of the ten best and five most kid-friendly aquariums in the country. It houses 20,000 plants and animals, including otters, rays, crocodiles, and pythons, organized in ten permanent exhibits. One of the most impressive is the Coral Reef Exhibit, which exposes visitors to a habitat normally accessible only to expert scuba divers. The exhibit simulates a dive of around sixty-five feet and every window presents a micro-habitat that reflects the changes in depth. This fascinating experience of being surrounded on all sides by water and marine life is like stepping into a two-story fish tank that measures nearly 250,000 square feet.
Since we seem to have arrived at the Tampa Convention Center pier, we decide to enjoy a twilight ride down the Hillsborough River in a modern electric boat. This fairly new service is popular with tourists, but has proven a hit with residents as well. This is the perfect time to glide down this pretty river and admire the beautiful view from an eco-friendly boat powered by rechargeable batteries. Visitors could not ask for a better opportunity for a sunset picnic onboard; it’s a charming and romantic water excursion for couples or groups of friends. It gives tourists a novel and pleasant way to see the city and take gorgeous photos of the river, downtown Tampa, the historic campus of the University of Tampa, and Waterfront Park, home to the Museum of Art and the Glazer Children’s Museum. The boat ride wraps up an unbeatable day.
The third day, we tour Busch Gardens, one of the most famous theme parks in the world and one of the largest zoos in the United States. The zoo covers over 335 acres and is home to more than 2,700 animals. It highlights Africa and gives visitors an outdoor experience by allowing them to interact with animals and nature. Our tour begins with a morning safari, on which we get a close-up look at zebras and giraffes and learn a little about other African species. However, as you might expect in any good U.S. amusement park, the famed roller coasters are the main attraction. I remain safely on solid ground and laugh my head off while the rest of the Panorama of the Americas team allows themselves to be persuaded to board the two jewels of Busch Gardens: Cheetah Hunt and SheiKra. Judging from their screams and terrified faces, they seem to be enjoying themselves.
To put the final touch on a busy day of touring, our hosts take us to another family attraction: Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, rated the best zoo in the United States by Parents Magazine, and selected as the best family zoo by Child Magazine in 2004. It is also a recognized center for conservation of Florida fauna and biodiversity, because of its large collection of native species. Here we have a chance to feed white rhinoceroses, since this is one of the few places where visitors can come so close to these animals. We also visit Primate World, another favorite stop. The most enjoyable spot is the marsupial station, where we come face to face with a koala. Another must-see is the manatee aquatic center, which exhibits these animals that live along the coasts of Florida, and includes a large manatee hospital.
I’m afraid I need to break my promise about not mentioning food again, because I can’t resist sharing two excellent options for the best of local cuisine. One is Boca Kitchen and Market (or simply Boca), a “farm to table” restaurant that offers a menu featuring locally-grown seasonal ingredients. Located in historic Hyde Park, the restaurant’s lovely atmosphere is conducive to spending time with family and friends. The other option is The Refinery (in Seminole Heights), which works with local farmers and food artisans to serve innovative fresh cuisine. Weekly menu changes make the experience even more interesting. The open-plan restaurant incorporates the kitchen into the decor, giving the place a punk chic look. Well, “Bon appétit.” Sorry, I mean to say, “So long for now.”
This article was written with the support of Visit Tampa Bay, a tourism promotion group in Hillsborough County:
In Tampa we enjoyed courtesy lodging at the Westin Tampa Bay hotel:
Copa Airlines offers four Boeing 737-700 flights to Tampa every week. The flight departs from Panama City Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 6:34 p.m. and arrives at 9:53 p.m. (Tampa time). The return flight leaves Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7:02 a.m. and arrives at 10:12 a.m.