Beaches, boardwalks, bistros in laid-back Sunshine State city
March 10, 2008
If you’re over Miami’s fast pace and Orlando is just too Mouse, Tampa may be the place to drop anchor in the Sunshine State. It’s got the beaches and the roller coasters but evades the frenzy that marks Florida’s more prominent destinations.
It begins with a vigorous federal presence.
In addition to the U.S. Postal Service, big government employers include MacDill Air Force Base, the FBI and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office, according to Tim Dose, manager of customer service operations for the Tampa post office, which serves about 366,000 homes and businesses.
Federal employees play an active role in the community. In addition to participating in the Combined Federal Campaign in large numbers, agencies get together to sponsor an educational day devoted to diversity issues, and also deliver up large numbers of people for an annual United Way volunteerism day.
A highlight for many is a monthly swearing-in ceremony, in which the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services welcomes hundreds of new immigrants.
“It makes you swell with pride to be an American,” Dose said.
One of the nation’s top beaches, nearby Fort De Soto Park, serves up seven miles of waterfront, gleaming white sand and nearly 3 million visitors a year.
At the more highly developed Clearwater Beach, attractions include a fishing pier, pirate cruise and aquarium.
In addition to its half-dozen public beaches, the town of Madeira Beach is known for John’s Pass Boardwalk Village, an amiable old fishing village offering more than 100 specialty shops, dining, entertainment and 1,100 feet of boardwalk.
If 1,100 feet of boardwalk sounds impressive, how about 4½ miles of sidewalk? Billed as the world’s longest continuous sidewalk, Bayshore Boulevard runs along Tampa Bay and is the daily domain of skaters, bikers, joggers and strollers.
Down these pavements, pirate Jose Gaspar and his band of ruffians annually invade the city in the Gasparilla Parade.
In the shadow of Orlando, Tampa boasts its own theme park, Busch Gardens Africa. Sister to Old-World-themed Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Va., the Tampa version offers diverse entertainments including the Serengeti Express, a replica steam engine that takes visitors on a two-mile perimeter ride around the park with stops in Nairobi, Congo and Stanleyville theme areas.
For speed, we like Gwaiz, a 90-foot wooden roller coaster named after a mythological tiger/lion thing. For splash, the Stanley Falls Flume with its 43-foot drop. For kids, Land of the Dragons. But mostly, we like indulging our sweet tooth at Sultan’s Sweets in Morocco-land.
In case you still have change jingling, you can unload it in style at International Plaza and Bay Street, a shopping mall anchored by Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus which offers a slew of stylish shops and restaurants.
In the evening, consider the Channelside complex downtown where you can find restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Gawk at 3-D IMAX. Peruse the art gallery. Imbibe on the patio with palms.
Take a morning visit to the Bok Tower in nearby Lake Wales. Set amidst lush and meandering landscaped gardens, the so-called Singing Tower is known for the peal of its 60 carillon bells, which ring out daily.
For a day trip, many are drawn to Tarpon Springs, about a 30-mile drive northwest. With the nation’s largest Greek-American population, the town has a distinct Old World feel, with cozy cafes and shops in abundance.
Another foray outside of downtown Tampa is nearby St. Petersburg, known for endless sunshine and miles of beach. Also attractive: Shopping, nature preserves, and a museum dedicated to Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali.
Back in Tampa, a true taste of local culture is to be found in historic Ybor City, a Latin Quarter that seems to blend past and present seamlessly. Architecture in the former cigar capital of the world still is dominated by the awesome cigar factories, wrought iron balconies and brick sidewalks. This architectural pedigree stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the city’s hottest nightlife, with tens of thousands of visitors shaking things loose in the local bars and nightclubs on a typical weekend night. In keeping with tradition, Ybor City still is a necessary stop on the itinerary of any serious cigar smoker.
There are more gardens and aquariums, an automobile museum, performing arts center, a big-cat rescue facility and lots of golf.
We mention these things only as a reminder that while this is neither Miami nor Orlando, you surely will not be bored in Tampa. Less flashy, a little quieter, Tampa offers a satisfying taste of everything you came to Florida for in the first place.