Off Duty: Tampa

Why the capital of Florida cool is coming into its own
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The Independent Travel

Even by the standards of sybaritic Florida, “The Big Cigar” is not exactly a cultural centre. But it’s a friendly place to visit, with a gorgeous Cuban Quarter in Ybor City and a healthy zest for good food and music throughout the conurbation.

Tampa is situated on low ground between two stretches of water, Old Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Bay, which together form Tampa Bay, a small inland sea flowing out to the Gulf of Mexico. Its sheltered shoreline has always made Tampa ideally situated for trade but it’s also vulnerable to inundation. The highest point in the whole city is only 40ft above sea level.



Many corporations have regional headquarters in Tampa, particularly the larger banks and America’s telecommunications companies. Several Fortune 1000 companies are based here, including OSI Restaurant Partners (Fortune 535) WellCare Health Plans (Fortune 551) and the energy giant TECO (Fortune 582). Though Tampa grew to prominence on tobacco and railways, the major players in the city’s economy today are finance, insurance and real estate.

But Tampa’s great export is baseball players, of whom it has produced a disproportionate number, and its major asset is its sunshine: 361 days of clear skies even in a bad year. As well as being a pleasant city to wander around, it’s also a gateway to the Gulf Coast with St Pete's Beach and the resort of St Petersburg only half an hour’s drive away. And that’s not to mention the roller-coaster delights of Busch Gardens, which deserve a day in themselves.

WHY?

For too long Tampa has been upstaged by glitzy Miami and kid-orientated Orlando. But the capital of Florida cool is coming into its own these days.

Never mind the "Girls Gone Wild" videos shot in Ybor City or the fact that Fort De Soto County Park was recently named the best beach in America by "Dr Beach", Tampa is laying claim as the Democratic heartland of Florida. The West Tampa Sandwich Shop, at 3904 North Armenia Avenue (001 813 873 7104) has been host to John Kerry and Tipper Gore in recent months.

Forget the notorious hanging chads, Tampa is laying claim to be the thinking person's Florida. It's certainly one of the most exciting places to be in the state during this election year. But go soon. In July and August temperatures soar and bad things happen at sea along this part of the Gulf Coast. Not all Floridans are convinced that global warming is anything more than a theory but they sure believe it in low-lying Tampa.

WHAT?

Busch Gardens Africa (813 987 5082 buschgardens.com) on Busch Boulevard aims to combine the fun of a modern amusement park with a re-creation of colonial Africa. In a mixed bag of thrills, it offers a replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, a very convincing African safari ride with real lions, and SheiKra, America’s first 90-degree roller-coaster drop. Anyone brave enough to try will find themselves plummeting vertically down a 200ft drop at 70mph before looping the loop and splashing down in a lake of water. There’s live music across six locations throughout the day. Admission: $64.95 (book online to get adult tickets at child prices).

Ybor City is Tampa at its most charming - a place to window-shop, eat well and buy cigars. Known as Tampa's Latin Quarter, Ybor City still retains much of its 19th-century Cuban origins, which was when a group of cigar manufacturers chose to relocate their business there. Ybor City Museum (001 813 247 1434; ybormusuem.org) on 9th Avenue is a good introduction to the district. Admission $3. El Sol (001 813 248 5905; elsolcigars.com) on La Septima is the oldest working cigar store in town. The Ritz on 7th Avenue is a movie house from 1917 turned into a nightclub.

The Henry B Plant Museum (001 813 254 1891; plantmuseum.com) is housed in a splendid hotel constructed by the wealthy railway magnate to lure people down to Florida. Its architecture is a Victorian take on Moorish fantasy and the Grand Hall is still illuminated by 1891 Edison carbon filament lighting. President Teddy Roosevelt, Sarah Bernhardt and Babe Ruth all stayed here. Most of the hotel is now part of the University of Tampa, but the entire south wing of the ground floor has been restored as a tribute to 19th-century gracious living. (Admission $5)

Look out also for the Rivergate Building, a cylindrical building across from the University of Tampa. Intended to echo the design of a lighthouse and with its dimensions based on the Fibonacci scale, the building has been embraced by locals as the “Beer Can”. It was featured in low-grade John Travolta revenge movie The Punisher.

WHERE?

This is a great city place to eat. The original Columbia Restaurant (001 813 248 4961; columbiarestaurant.com) at 2117 East 7th Avenue was founded in 1905 and is renowned for its flamenco floor show. It also has a footnote in American history as the hangout for the Trafficante family (Santo Trafficante Jr, along with the mob bosses of New Orleans and Chicago and Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, has been repeatedly linked to the Kennedy assassination).

Bern’s Steakhouse (001 813 251 2421; bernssteakhouse.com) on 1208 South Howard Avenue is probably the most famous restaurant in Tampa. It started as a mere steak diner but has morphed into a palace of beef eaters with the décor of a French bordello. Its cellar is claimed to be the largest on earth. The Harry Waugh Dessert Room is named after the English wine expert who was wine buyer to St James and the QEII. The inscription reads “Thank you Harry Waugh for your passion and dedication to excellent wine and food. You inspire us.”

Bernini’s (001 813 248 0099; berniniofybor.com) at 1702 East 7th Avenue in Ybor City is named after the Italian sculptor and is situated in a stylishly revamped bank building. Its claim, “the cuisine compliments your surroundings without compromising your wallet”, makes it a good place for lunch.

Tampa is not a city for destination hotels. However, the Tampa Hilton Garden Inn 1700 (001 813 769 9267; . hiltongardeninn.com) on East 9th Avenue is great for access to the delights of Ybor City. And the Tampa Best Western (813-971-8930; book.bestwestern.com) at 3001 University Center Drive is very well placed for business travellers and anyone who wants to visit Busch Gardens. In fact, it’s so close that it’s been nicknamed “that Parrot Place” because of the local jokes that Busch’s bird life escape to stay there.

WOW!

Fancy some down-time taking in real live 'gators? Canoe Escape (001 813 986 2067; canoeescape.com), just ten minutes from Busch Gardens, sends you up the Hillsborough River with a paddle. For $22.50 a head, enjoy some serious R&R among the raptors, turtles and friendly alligators of this beautiful cypress swamp.

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