In the first of a two-part Florida feature, Ruth Brindle discovers Tampa’s diverse history and its exciting modern transformation…
When Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates puts his cash into the expansion of a city it’s time to discover it for yourself.
The city in question is Tampa, Florida. Bill’s $3 billion, 50-acre redevelopment of the downtown Water Street district in conjunction with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, will transform downtown with the city’s first five-star hotel, 3,500 homes, business space and new parks.
And while this long-term, 10-year project is an exciting and huge addition to Tampa’s waterside area, there are already many reasons for us Brits to spend some quality time here right now.
During my own short stay in the heart of the city I found a vibrant and hip restaurant scene that reflects the area’s very varied history and embraces influences from many different cultures mainly Cuban but also including Italian, Spanish and German.
Together with a growing cultural offering, this makes Tampa a super destination as part of a longer holiday in Florida.
Visitors to the Sunshine State may more traditionally think of a two-centre holiday starting in Orlando, but a stay in Tampa before heading to the gorgeous Gulf coast resorts has just as much to offer.
Firstly, Tampa airport is a great place to fly in to from the UK. It feels more relaxed, understandably, than Orlando and you can pick up your hire car easily and be on your way quickly. We stayed at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, which is just a short walk to shops, restaurants and many of the city’s leisure and cultural attractions. It also has a rooftop swimming pool which I took full advantage of during my stay.
Our first day began with a short stroll to the first of many excellent eateries in the centre of town. Bizou Brasserie in what was once the area’s courthouse and is now Le Meridien boutique hotel where guests sleep in the former judges’ chambers. The restaurant itself was once the main courtroom and offers dishes with a French and Creole flavour. Find out more.
From here, fueled by our hearty breakfast it was a short stroll to Tampa’s 2.4 mile Riverwalk which provides a natural focus of activity along the Hillsborough River and a great place to wander, cycle or just linger. While we preferred to walk, hiring a bike is easy using a smart phone and a credit card with Coast Bike Share.
Here you’ll also find Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park a city hub and site of many events and activities. Beside the park is the Tampa Museum of Art which is a beautiful place to spend an hour or two discovering its permanent pieces and travelling exhibits, which have included art by Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. It’s a wide ranging collection from ancient Greek objects to pop art.
The museum’s Sono Café is also a popular place to sit, relax and people watch. From here you can catch a glimpse of the very distinctive minarets of the H.B. Plant Museum and Plant Hall that was once the Tampa Bay Hotel and now also houses the University of Tampa. It has a fascinating collection of Gilded Age furnishing, art and items brought together by the 19th Century railroad baron Henry B. Plant during his travels around the world. He helped to turn Tampa into a centre for business and tourism, much as it is today. Again, an easy walk from our hotel across the river, this was a delightful place to browse and walk in the footsteps of some its famous guests which included Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Babe Ruth and many more.
Nearby is yet another great place to eat – the Oxford Exchange, itself housed in a beautiful building and a great place to enjoy breakfast, brunch or lunch. As well as a restaurant and coffee bar, it has a book shop and home décor store.
Back over the river it was time to board the TECO Historic Streetcar for a short journey to a very distinct and vibrant area of Tampa – Ybor City. It was founded by 19th Century cigar magnate Vicente Martinez-Ybor and has been a melting pot of immigrants for generations, originally from Cuba.
From the 1880s to the 1940s millions of cigars were made here. Although cigars are still hand rolled for a small number of shops, wide scale industry finally stopped in the 1960s when imports of tobacco from Cuba ended.
But the area still retains its unique atmosphere along the brick streets of its historic Latin district. It has an edgy and grown-up atmosphere and has become Tampa’s top night-time destination for dinner, dancing and clubbing.
It was fascinating to watch cigars being hand-rolled in Tabanero. Visitors and locals alike could be seen enjoying a coffee and a smoke at the local cafes. But we were keen to return to a favourite haunt of ours in Ybor, the fabulous Columbia Restaurant, the oldest eatery in Florida.
This restaurant is as big as it is beautiful taking up an entire block on 7th Avenue. Even though it now has 1,700 seats, it’s advisable to book as it’s extremely popular. I love the story of the restaurant which has been owned by the Gonzmart family since 1905.
Reading through the retro-looking menu you can learn all about the family and enjoy the old photographs illustrating its connection to what is now a virtual restaurant ‘empire’ with seven venues in Florida, including two more in Tampa. The Columbia itself started as a bar and sandwich shop serving the Cuban population and expanded over the years retaining its distinct architecture and decoration not least the colourful wall and floor tiles.
On most nights there’s also flamenco dancing, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the food. The choices are extensive but most have a Latin American or Spanish twist with the most famous dishes including Spanish Bean Soup, the original 1905 salad, the original Cuban sandwich, and the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquette. It took us a long time to choose from the tapas, fish, meat, and paella dishes not to mention the traditional flan dessert. The Columbia is a must-do experience in Tampa.
Also in Ybor, take in Jose Marti Park, a Cuban-owned oasis on US soil; stroll along Seventh Avenue for its shops and cafes in the day and after dark for its vibrant night life; visit Ybor City Museum State Park to see how the early immigrants lived and worked.
Picking up the streetcar just around the corner from the Hilton, is also a great way to get to one of the city’s other biggest attractions, the Florida Aquarium.
It’s a very well set out environment to learn about Florida’s aquatic ecosystems and discover sea life around the world. The aquarium also runs dolphin-spotting trips out into Tampa Bay several times a day. Great for adults as well as youngsters.
This goes for another favourite mode of transport in Tampa, the Pirate Water Taxi. Pick it up along the River Walk to be transported by, yes you guessed it, a pirate to various destinations along the Hillsborough. A day ticket allows you to hop on and off at various points along the river. Why pirates?
The city has a long association with these seafaring scoundrels and each January the Gasparilla festival celebrates that with gusto.
We were headed to another Gonzmart-owned eatery, Ulele. Very different from the Columbia in that it’s a modern $5 million conversion from the original water pump house. It’s truly hip and amazingly popular (and very loud with excited conversation).
A favourite from the menu inspired by early native American and Spanish dishes are the charbroiled oysters. The restaurant is named for Ulele (Yu-lay-lee) a native American princess. Once again, book up to secure a table.
On our third full day it was time to split up. As my husband discovered what’s on offer for golfers in the area (more of that later) I found a charming area to shop and relax. Hyde Park Village is a pretty district with leafy streets and pretty Arts and Crafts bungalows just off of Bayshore Boulevard, the city’s most desirable residential district along the beautiful shoreline. This area also boasts the world’s longest unbroken sidewalk at 4.5 miles along the bay, an ideal jogging, cycling and walking destination.
The small, upmarket, open-air shopping district in Hyde Park is the place to go to pick up something unique whether it’s clothing, jewellery or gifts. I loved Paper Source for its beautiful stationery. This is the also the only time I’ve ever seen an ATM for cupcakes for those who simply can’t wait for their sugar hit until the Sprinkles bakery is open. For refreshment try Buddy Brew Coffee or take a step back in time to the beautifully restored 50s-style interior of Goody Goody, an iconic burger restaurant originally opened in 1926 and a household name in Tampa not least for its exquisite pies.
While I do seem to be dwelling a lot on Tampa’s food scene, it’s impossible not to. It’s an exciting and cutting edge scene reflecting the fact that both the Gulf Coast locals’ and visitor tastes are becoming ever more sophisticated and demanding.
So I must mention two other very different Tampa restaurants where we enjoyed fabulous meals.
Haven, is sister restaurant to the famous Bern’s Steakhouse, and steps from the internationally renowned Epicurian Hotel, all three owned by the Laxter family. To maintain its high standard of offering the freshest ingredients available the dinner menu changes every day. The main focus is on charcuterie and we enjoyed a huge platter of the best meats and cheeses – the restaurant has 60 types of cheese to choose from. Haven’s bar is also a signature attraction with more than 300 varieties of bourbon and 40 different wines on offer. Great as an alternative to steak or seafood.
But if really ‘different’ is what you are searching for you must also try Edison Food + Drink Lab. Chef Jeannie Pierola could be Tampa’s answer to Heston Blumenthal as she’s known to push the boundaries of cookery to produce groundbreaking dishes, including those produced with the use of liquid nitrogen. Inventiveness also applies to the drink offerings too. Your menu choices come on a clipboard which is fun, just like putting together a food ‘experiment’. Our server was super attentive and knowledgeable and seemed genuinely passionate about the food. The Buffalo Cauliflower hot starter is a favourite.
So my message about Tampa is linger longer to discover its diverse delights – you’re losing out if you just fly in and fly out. It’s also just a 45-minute drive away from one of the jewels of the Gulf coast – Anna Maria Island.
For more information on Tampa, visit www.visittampabay.com
Watch out soon for details on the second part of the trip to Ann Maria Island, www.bradentongulfislands.com
How to get there
Prices from £1,289 per person for a 10-night holiday staying in Tampa and Anna Maria Island. Price includes direct flights from London Gatwick to Tampa, room only accommodation based on 2 adults and economy car hire for the duration. Travel in June 2018. Subject to availability. For more information or to book call 020 3355 2957 or visit www.myamericaholiday.co.uk
Where to play golf
Just a 35-minute drive north of downtown is the Tampa Bay TPC – a course that has been rated the 13th best public golf facility in the entire country, writes Nick Jones. And if you want to walk in the footsteps of golfing legends Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Bernhard Langer while on your visit to Tampa, this is the place for you.
You know you are in for a great day as soon as you arrive at the clubhouse. The welcoming bag drop takes care of your clubs and the friendly pro shop staff get you ready for play and advise you to buy some more golf balls (this, it turns out, is good advice).
The practice facilities are first-rate as you get to grips with the pace of these Florida greens (a touch quicker than Hertfordshire in January!) and once you are on the course, which opened in 1991, you quickly realise one thing – you will not play to your handicap unless you have one of those all-too-rare special days.
Many of the holes have water to negotiate and most of the greens have fearsome borrows. But it is a superb challenge and the starter will happily advise you which set of tees to play off – they cater for pretty much all standards.
My favourite hole, on a course which has hosted Champions Tour events where the likes of Nicklaus, Watson and Langer have triumphed, was the 17th. A terrifying but beautiful par three where the ball has to carry a lake which runs up to the front of the green.
After all that I needed a drink and then came another pleasant surprise. Most American courses seem to have magnificent clubhouses but absolutely no one in them. I finished my round at lunchtime and was delighted to walk into the bar and hear that familiar hum of conversation as players discussed their hard luck stories and moments of triumph over something cooling. It was great to see that, in this corner of America at least, the 19th hole is as important as the other 18.
As for those golf balls? Well I lost the last of my allocation of six with a foolhardy attempt to clear the water on the 18th but I still left smiling from ear to ear.