Your visit will be well spent in this Florida Gulf Coast city that offers a major theme park, great museums, opportunities to see animals and sea creatures … and that’s just for starters.
By Kimberly Button
When many people plan a Florida vacation, their thoughts turn to the theme parks of Orlando, the beaches of Daytona, or the cultural heritage of Miami. Yet there’s a destination that combines all of these attractions and much more to create one of the Sunshine State’s best all-around vacation destinations: Tampa.
Located on central Florida’s Gulf Coast approximately 80 miles west of Orlando, Tampa has grown from a small Indian fishing village to the third most-populous city in Florida.
Ponce de Leon sailed into Tampa Bay in 1521, but for three-and-a-half centuries after that, the area remained largely unsettled. In 1884 Henry Plant, the man primarily responsible for the tourism boom in Florida, brought the railroad to Tampa, started a steamship line sailing to Key West and Cuba, and opened the Tampa Bay Hotel. Visitors flocked to the area and haven’t stopped since.
To further appreciate the man who started Florida’s tourism revolution, visit the Henry B. Plant Museum, housed in the original Tampa Bay Hotel. The opulent 1891 resort, a National Historic Landmark, is furnished as it was during Plant’s time with European home decor and striking pieces of art. A tour of the museum is the perfect way to explore the background of Tampa, as well as that of the hotel and Henry Plant. A small donation is requested for admission. Visit www.plantmuseum.com or call (813) 254-1891 for more information.
Of course, Henry Plant wouldn’t have had much reason to promote Florida as a tourist destination if it did not have miles of white sand and abundant sunshine. The Tampa area boasts a variety of public beaches ideal for anyone seeking a lazy afternoon spent lying on the sand.
Visitors who enjoy walking and biking will want to try the 4½-mile Bayshore Boulevard along Tampa Bay, billed as the world’s longest continuous sidewalk. It offers panoramic views of downtown. In addition, the 2.6-mile, wooden Friendship Trail Bridge, over Tampa Bay is said to be the “world’s longest over-the-water recreational trail” and is part of a 12-mile path that stretches from Weedon Island nature preserve to Picnic Island Park.
Florida is also renowned for its theme parks, of course, and one that you definitely don’t want to miss is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. With death-defying roller coasters and a chance to experience an African safari without ever having to hop on a plane, you’ll want to devote an entire day to exploring this place. Busch Gardens features more than 2,000 animals in their natural habitats.
A train ride through the “Serengeti Plain” will transport you to a spot where a curious camel might block your path and zebras stare. Then again, many visitors to Busch Gardens are interested only in its exhilarating roller coasters. SheiKra, the newest such ride, is the only dive coaster in the nation (and only the third in the world) that hurls you 200 feet toward the ground at a 90-degree angle.
Don’t worry, though, if you’re not a roller coaster rider. Busch Gardens appeals to the entire family, with water rides, cultural shows, musical concerts, and even the opportunity to attend the “Budweiser Beer School” and become a certified Beermaster.
In the warm-weather months (March through October), you can bring the kids and grandkids to Adventure Island, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s 30-acre water park, which features more than a dozen rides and slides. Separate admission is charged for the water park, but combination tickets can save money on both. Visit www.4adventure.com or phone (888) 800-5447 for more information.
Another great place for exotic animal encounters is the Lowry Park Zoo. More than 1,600 animals live in eight distinct habitats. In the Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center, you can observe manatees and glimpse into one of the three Florida facilities that are helping to save this endangered species. Visitors to the zoo also get the opportunity to interact with the animals by feeding a giraffe or brightly colored lorikeets; touching a kangaroo; or riding on a camel. Visit www.lowryparkzoo.com or call (813) 935-8552 for more information.
If you would like to watch manatees in their natural habitat, visit Tampa Electric’s Big Bend Power Station Manatee Viewing Center, an official Florida manatee sanctuary. During the winter, these lovable “sea cows” flock toward the warm water discharged by the electric plant. An observation platform allows you to watch the animals, and an education building with exhibits and videos will teach you about the slow-moving, gentle creatures who are often injured or killed by boats speeding through their natural habitat. The Manatee Viewing Center is open November 1 through April 15, and admission is free. Visit www.tampaelectric.com/TEEVMVCFront.cfm or call (813) 228-4289 for more information.
The many miles of Florida’s coastline are teeming with sea life, and there’s no better place to learn about this underwater world than at the Florida Aquarium. Considered among the top aquariums in the world, Tampa’s version showcases more than 10,000 plants and animals in a variety of colorful galleries at its location overlooking Tampa Bay. The Coral Reef gallery, modeled after the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys, features an observation room where visitors can relax in wooden rocking chairs as they watch colorful fish swim through intricate coral behind the floor-to-ceiling glass panels that surround the room. The massive Shark Bay exhibit allows you to come face-to-face (yet stay safe) with numerous types of sharks, while the touch tanks give you the chance to feel the soft skin of a stingray or the rough texture of a live starfish.
If you’re so inclined, you can even don a suit and swim with the fishes in the gigantic Coral Reefs exhibit, or scuba dive in the Shark Bay exhibit. The aquarium also offers a relaxing Ecotour boat ride into Tampa Bay. More Florida Aquarium info is available at www.flaquarium.org or by calling (813) 273-4000.
Sometime while you’re with the kids or grandkids, be sure to mosey on over to the MOSI “” the Museum of Science & Industry. This facility is the largest children’s science center in the United States. Kids love hands-on experiences with science. A variety of intriguing adventures awaits the entire family, including experiencing 74-mph hurricane-strength winds; riding on a high-wire bike 30 feet above the ground; walking through a butterfly garden; or enjoying a planetarium or IMAX movie show.
A variety of combination tickets for special exhibits, IMAX films, and MOSI general admission also can be purchased at discounted rates. Visit www.mosi.org or call (800) 995-MOSI (6674) for more information.
Finally, while you’re in Tampa, treat yourself to a visit to Cuba “” without leaving town. Ybor City (pronounced EE-bore), a National Historic Landmark District, is pretty close “” and if you like, this “close” comes with a cigar.
Ybor City’s rich history began in 1885 when Don Vicente Martinez Ybor fled Cuba to start a cigar factory in Tampa. Immigrants from around the world flocked to the city, which, at its peak, had 200 cigar factories with more than 12,000 workers hand-rolling 700 million cigars a year.
The Cuban heritage remains strong in Ybor City. Visitors can watch cigars being hand-rolled daily in several locations throughout the blocks of shops, restaurants, and factories that comprise this tiny cultural oasis. To learn more about the cigar industry here, stop by the historic district’s visitor information center, which is designed like an open cigar box. It’s actually inside the Cigar Museum, where you can view a film on the area’s cigar history. Visit www.ybor.org or phone (813) 248-3712 for more information.
For a true taste of Cuba, don’t miss dining at the famed (original) Columbia Restaurant. Florida’s oldest eatery celebrated its 100th year in business in 2005 and has grown from a corner cafe into the world’s largest Spanish restaurant, encompassing an entire city block. Spanish/Cuban cuisine is wonderful in any of the restaurant’s 15 dining rooms, but you definitely will want to make reservations for the dining room that features a flamenco dinner show. While you’re eating paella and drinking café con leche, you’ll be captivated by the fast footwork and colorful costumes of flamenco dancers who perform in the intimate dining room. After dinner, you might be tempted to continue dancing in the streets as Ybor City’s popular nightlife scene heats up after dark.
The Columbia Restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. The flamenco dance shows are presented nightly Monday through Saturday. A cover charge is levied per person in addition to the cost of food ordered off the menu. Visit www.columbiarestaurant.com or phone (813) 248-4961 for more information.
If you visit Tampa in late January or February, you might be able to boast that you’ve experienced a pirate invasion. For more than 100 years Tampa has celebrated the legend of Jose Gaspar, a ruthless pirate who terrorized the western coast of Florida. The hundreds of pirates who invade Tampa nowadays are more friendly, but they still appear menacing as they float into Tampa Bay on a fully rigged pirate ship with cannons booming and smoke billowing through the air. After they’ve “conquered” the city, the costumed pirates parade through the streets, throwing doubloons and beads at the crowds and kicking off a long festival. Visit www.gasparillapiratefest.com or phone (813) 353-8108 for more information. (The 2006 event took place in late January.)
If you’re searching for a Florida that has its share of tourists but is still rich with entertaining things to do “” amidst a beautiful backdrop “” plan a visit to Tampa. You’ll be surprised by what you’ve been overlooking.
Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau
400 N. Tampa St., Suite 2800
Tampa, FL 33602
(800) 44-TAMPA (448-2672)
Following are just a few of the many campgrounds in the Tampa area. Please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Bay Bayou RV Resort, C10414
12622 Memorial Highway
Tampa, FL 33635
Camp Lemora RV Park
14910 Dead River Road
Thonotosassa, FL 33592
10314 N. Nebraska Ave.
Tampa, FL 33612
Encore RV Park Tampa East
4630 McIntosh Road
Dover, FL 33527
Happy Traveler RV Park, C7664
9401 E. Fowler Ave.
Thonotosassa, FL 33592