So finally 2019 has arrived, and happy New Year to everyone.
To celebrate New Year we went on a short “staycation” trip to a little city called Tampa, which it turns out is not that little after all. Now I know what your thinking, Busch Gardens and other “amusement” parks. Yeah, no. At least this time.
My goal for this trip is to go the more “adult” amusement park called Ybor City and get to know Tampa a bit more. I looked forward to Cigars, Mojitos, and to venture out of the south to visit our northern neighbour city.
About 3 1/2 hours north of the South Florida Metro area, Tampa is close enough to visit without the worry of a major trip and far enough to experience a different culture. Of course, I’m a slow driver but It did not take long for us to arrive.
Our first stop was our hotel, “The West Wing.” This updated modern hotel is just a few miles away from the University of South Florida (Tampa Campus) and is centrally located along a huge shopping strip. Yes, anything you want is at hand. We weren’t there for shopping, but just sayin’…
The West Wing was low in price and high in value. It’s better priced than other hotels in the area and much cheaper than hotels located downtown. In the courtyard, you’ll find a relaxing zen garden, and on the inside, a modern updated well-designed room awaits you.
But yes there is even more. They have a real breakfast, and yes I do mean real with eggs, bacon, pancakes and huge spread for everyday people and morning foodies. But the highlight of the hotel was ‘Wes’ the robot. Call from your room and Wes the robot will deliver whatever you need. He can even take the elevator all by himself. It won’t be long until robots rule over us. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my story.
Our first visit in Tampa was the historic Tampa Theater. Built in 1923 this exquisite theatre will make anyone into a movie lover. The ornate theatre is so outside the mainstream ‘pack-em-in’ corporate movie theatres that it is a completely different world. It makes you want to be here, not just for the movie, but for the experience. We saw “Mary Queen of Scots” and watching a movie in this theatre was delightful. The volume was not absurdly loud like at every movie theatre I’ve ever been to, the seats were fantastic and the experience was second to none. They frequently feature notable speakers and have plenty of networking fundraisers. Surely I would become a member of this non-profit if I ever wind up living in Tampa.
Later that evening we visited the riverfront area known as the Museum district. It’s a superb area with a long meandering 3 mile (or so) walkway along the river with amazing neon views. The trolly streetcar system stops right at the waterfront and in addition to all the restaurants and shops, you can see The GlazerChildren’s Museum, The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, The Tampa Museum of Art, and many more. Most of them are wisely situated in one area, on both sides of the river, and a few others will be moving soon to the same area. Tampa it seems has a growing AND well-planned downtown area.
On our next day we stopped into USF (Go Bulls!), and to an amusing park called Dinosaur World, which is made for kids, but fun for two so-called adults. After that we went to see the Tampa Museum of Art, right along the waterfront I mentioned before to see the Robert Indiana: A Sculpture Retrospective exhibit. It was wonderful but I enjoyed the ancient Greek and Roman artefacts even more. I’m actually surprised at the level of art and intellectuality that I found in Tampa. The city is not as much of a backwater as some suspect it might be with a thriving and growing art and theatre scene. You should come here just for that alone.
Naturally, I had to sample some of the downtown restaurants and quite frankly they rock. The night before we had dinner at Siam Thai, which was located right next to the Tampa Theatre. This evening we had a bit more time to take a walk in the downtown area. Our pick was the Anise Global Gastrobar, located at 777 N. Ashley Dr.
With a sign saying “Everyone Welcome” and non-gendered bathrooms, I knew this would be hipster heaven. It seems the ‘Bible belt” is becoming much more diversified. So naturally, I had to get the ramen, which I believe to be the third commandment in the hipster bible. It comes right after the commandments to listen to vinyl and to order craft beer. All kidding aside it was awesome. I’m also glad it was available with a base of chicken as opposed to pork. The meal itself was priced very reasonably compared to South Florida, but every bit as good. Clearly, there is no lack of serious food skills and serious foodies in Tampa. I love to go to new places and see world-class restaurants. Anise was certainly a highlight of the food portion of the trip.
Of course what night of gluttonous eating would be complete without ice cream… but not just any ice-cream, we had to have ice cream with cookie dough. Because – Cookie Dough – does there have to be any other reason?
Just a few blocks from Anise was Dough Nation. It’s an ice cream and edible dough shop that also functions as a charity. Of course, when it comes to ice cream I’m sure Democrats would give to Republicans and Republicans would donate to Democrats if ice cream was the fundraiser. But I’m happy the thousand or so calories we consumed went to a good cause. Reminder – I have to get back to the gym.
Finally, on our third full day of our “stay-cation,” we are going to Ybor City. A land of cigars, mojitos and nightlife, it’s an adult amusement park. I love the history that still functions in the modern world. On our walk down 7th avenue in Ybor City you can still see the original buildings from the late 1800’s early 1900’s that seem to have disappeared even from the wonderful Tampa downtown area. True to the cause of history our first stop was a restaurant which began operations in what one might consider ancient times. Yes, before most people in this nation had electricity, running water, or a phone, people were sitting in this very restaurant, drinking, laughing, dining and taking selfies. Ok not taking selfies, but everything else is the case.
One of the most highly rated restaurants in Ybor City is the Columbia Restaurant. Opened in 1905 this family-owned landmark serves the most authentic and very best Cuban and Spanish dishes.
My wife did much better than I with her choice of the Spanish inspired eggplant dish. As an amateur cook, I’ve found it very difficult to get to that sweet-spot of softness in cooked eggplant verses mushiness. I’m sorry I can’t think of a better word, but this is an art. And Columbia mastered that art. I had a Cuban sandwich, but instead of ham, it was chicken. It was fantastic too, but not as good as the eggplant. I’m glad to have experienced this destination, and I am not alone in admiring this rare gem of a restaurant. This is certainly a restaurant for special occasions, dates, or just for buddies to go out before hitting the streets of Ybor City.
The nightlife in the historic area of the city does not fail to disappoint. New clubs, loud music, and quiet cigar bars give so many choices to visitors. Our night began in an undercover secret “speakeasy” known as The Lions Den, which is so undercover that it doesn’t even have a website! You’ll have to go to the second floor to get there, but it’s well worth the cardio staircase journey. The bar does everything right, with knowledgeable bartenders, who know their drinks and an old-world vibe. Anyone from the 1920s or ’30s would feel at home here, sneaking away from prohibition. More recently born people who can appreciate outlets for their cell-phones will still love the architecture and the attitude too. Except for the wrong choice of music – way too loud pop dance tunes shouldn’t be here – this place would make a perfect evening. I really did appreciate the “Old-Fashioned” bourbon drink, which was so well made that I would nominate it for an award. All in all, a must climb up the stairs and visit.
Next, we found ourselves, after many recommendations, going to the King Corona Cigar shop. I would love to call this a bar as well, but they only serve beer and wine, and, traditional fare with cigars, Cuban and American Coffee. We, however, settled on beer. With a knowledgeable and very understanding staff, I was guided to the right cigar for me this evening. I admire their patience with me. I am not entirely familiar with cigars; I do love them but I rarely indulge – so I don’t know what I like yet. I had a mild Nicaraguan “New World” Cigar. The flavour and aroma were exceptionally satisfying. There was no way I would have known what to get and I’m grateful for the guidance. Our night puffed away but this is an experience to be remembered and hopefully returned to.
On our way home we stopped off in St. Petersburg. It’s another charming city on the West Coast of Florida. Our visit was to be short and sweet, first the famous Saturday morning farmers market, which I am told is one of the largest in the area would be our first stop. After that, we were off to the Dali Museum. While crowded, it contained some of the largest works from the famous artist, with everything except the most well known “melting clock” that everyone seems to associate with him. I particularly liked the background information about Dali and his wife and their associates.
Then to the Chihuly museum located at 720 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, FL 33701. His glass sculptures are simply beyond compare and his legend has inspired legions of glass blowers. Walking thru the museum I felt at home with his one of a kind works that challenge you to think of their cause and your reaction. The Chihuly Museum is located on an upbeat revitalized street filled with coffee shops, eateries, and “ketchy” artsy stores. Right before our long ride home, food was calling us. And there was Central Melt beckoning us to come on in. Just think if a food truck like Ms. Cheezious suddenly had a storefront restaurant. Then you’d have a little restaurant on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg that could offer you the most delicious grilled cheese sandwiches. And such a place does exist and it’s worth the trip.
In fact, this whole trip was worth the trip. So next time you think you need a big vacation, stay here in Florida, it’s bigger than you think.
Leonard Goffe is an author, writer and journalist based in South Florida. He is available for your public relations, content development, SEO and technical writing needs.