Big Cat Rescue in Houston Chronicle

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Digging hidden treasures

April 25, 2008, 1:48PM


TAMPA, Fla. — In theory, the Gasparilla Pirate Festival is a nod to
José Gaspar, a Spanish naval officer turned pirate who, according to
legend, roamed the west Florida coast in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries and nicknamed himself "the last of the buccaneers."

But as I witnessed earlier this year, it's actually a huge,
pirate-themed party with a parade, fireworks, beads, beer and ample
misuse of the word "booty."

And in essence, the festival — held each January — illustrates a
grander point about this area: Despite being known for major
professional sports teams such as the Buccaneers and attractions such
as Busch Gardens, the Tampa Bay area is a surprisingly good place for
a fun-filled — and affordable — weekend escape. It was my first choice
for a new Travel section series on cheap trips.

If you avoid the beaten path, you'll be rewarded with extraordinary
sights such as mermaids in nearby Weeki Wachee Springs, exotic tigers
at Big Cat Rescue and the surreal fantasy world that is the Salvador
Dalí Museum — all for a fraction of what you'd spend at the large
amusement parks that Florida is famous for.

"It's very difficult to compete against the big boys, and by no means
will we ever attempt to do so," said John Athanason, spokesman for
Weeki Wachee Springs, which features "live" mermaid exhibitions,
riverboat cruises and educational animal shows. "But our park is a
little piece of Florida history, and that's something worth seeing.
It's natural. It's beautiful. It's Florida, the way it was meant to be

A big fan of Dalí, I make a point to seek out his artwork whenever I
travel. When I dropped by the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg
during my first visit to the Tampa Bay area last year, I was thrilled
by the mix of his famous works — like Gala Contemplating the
Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes A Portrait of Abraham
Lincoln — and his lesser-known pieces.

Anthony Rainier, a Houston native who now lives in Tampa, says one of
the area's main charms is the diversity it offers — and attracts.

"There's all sorts of people with different backgrounds here," Rainier
said. "It's a big melting pot."

In part, that melting pot can be attributed to cigarmaker Vicente
Martinez-Ybor, who moved his factory from Key West to Tampa in the
1880s and helped establish the city as the cigar capital of the world.
As Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants flocked to the area of Tampa
now called Ybor City for work, an interesting blending of cultures
occurred, said Chantal Hevia, acting director of the Ybor City Museum

"All the cigar workers congregated from all these different cultures
and their cultures amalgamated," Hevia said. "They picked up different
aspects of their food and their language."

During our stroll through Ybor City, which is officially a National
Historic Landmark District within Tampa, we saw hand-rolled cigar
shops bordering trendy restaurants, sports bars and live music venues.
Just outside the Tampa Bay Brewing Company, where we enjoyed delicious
pizza and beers brewed on-site, streetcars modeled after those used in
the late 1800s and early 1900s cruised by.

"Side by side you have culture and entertainment," Hevia said. "You
come here and you get history, you get art, and then you have some
wonderful restaurants, many that feature Cuban and Italian foods that
were prevalent when the town was first founded."

Back on the beaten path, if you want a sports-centered weekend, you
can time your visit for a pro baseball, football or hockey game. And
those big attractions — such as Busch Gardens, the Florida Aquarium
and even Orlando's Disney World, located about 85 miles away — are
always fun choices.

Oh, and if you don't happen to make it to town during Gasparilla,
don't fret — there are a wealth of swashbucklers, scoundrels and
scallywags available to show you Tampa's pirate side year-round.

At Gaspar's Grotto, a pirate-themed bar in Ybor City that claims to
celebrate Gasparilla every day with rum tastings, pirate merchandise
and free beads for all ladies, the motto is "loud music, indecent
dancing, riotous laughter and raucous good times."

Shiver me timbers!

Are you ready, matey?

For the cats,

Carole Baskin, CEO of Big Cat Rescue
an Educational Sanctuary home
to more than 100 big cats
12802 Easy Street Tampa, FL 33625
813.493.4564 fax 885.4457

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