Traveler's USA Notebook

Your guide to travel news,  discoveries and  pleasuresYour guide to travel news,  discoveries and  pleasures







Tampa : Easy, Bland & Growing


Tampa is a slow city with (usually) soft, sexy weather. Pretty, it ain’t, though they're trying, and the bay is nice. Interesting, it is. Still you must scratch hard  to find any intellectually ecstatic experiences here. Maybe the hard-core intellectuals, beatniks, poets, artists, actors or writers here are in hiding. But when you find them, Tampa celebrates them. And hey, there’s a Barnes and Noble with good coffee. 
Credit: Tampa Bay CVB and Jeff Greenberg
And an Indigo Coffee, drive-thru. Here is the new middle America, with knobs on…. and the endless sprawl of K-Marts, Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs to prove it. 
But Tampa’s growing fast. With that growth, there is the sense that Tampa is trying on new duds. Maybe it'll be a pirate. Maybe it'll be good ole boy. Maybe it'll be a grand dame. Maybe it'll be a button down biz guy. Tampa residents love the city because "it's a slow and easy place to live in;" "it's growing" and 'it's full of hidden treasures. That means a better range of goods and services from hairdressers to human rights groups, more choices, a growing international mix of people (so the food's getting better), and even - hey, hey - a couple of art cinemas.  
Meanwhile The weather (87° F in early November), and Tampa's bland, easy, sleepy ways seduce new immigrants, bubbas, and mall-loving middle Americans. If you have a laptop and a lot of work to do, this is the spot---because the various and diverse treats can be explored with great fun and much speed. 
Oh, there is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival (average attendance: 400,000). and the fantastic Barbara Forgione Salon, the only place to get your hair a brilliant cut, color and condition in all of Florida, and there are concerts and plays---Cher was here---and don’t forget the twelve-plex movie malls---and the predictable dead cow restaurants, but mostly it’s the Pizza Huts, Targets and cookouts in the sunshine that appeal to locals. 

And geez, we forgot to mention Busch Gardens. Oh well. But you and I and most of us are tourists and you may not want to sleep in the Busches. For that luxury touch click here. So, for the rest of us, before we go completely out of our minds, here’s our list of.

What’s Wonderful in Tampa  
(And what's not so bad)

The Florida Aquarium

"If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water."
 - Loren Eisley, The Immense Journey, 1957
 If you have only one day in Tampa, and you don’t catch this aquarium, you have missed a little piece of paradise. Tampa's Aquarium may be the first and best thing to do and see in town. No thrill ride at Busch Gardens can match the delirious pleasure of seeing your kids (or your date) crawl along the huge glass walls of this turtley, fishy, watery blue world, making kissy-face with Things With Bulging Glassy Eyeballs. Nothing. Not Ybor City. Not even having a drink on the beach. Go to the Aquarium first. That’s not a recommendation – it’s an order.

It isn't the biggest, most famous, best stocked, or even the most noteworthy architecturally, but Tampa’s lovely little Aquarium becomes a must-see for its excellent collection of springy, juicy, beautiful animals you’ll long to take home and pet (or at least take out for dinner and a movie), and for its excellent design, amusing signage, gracious visitor-friendly touches and wide, inviting glass walls that invite face-making, creeping, crawling, sitting, sprawling and playing with the creatures on the other side of the glass. A special spot...
As in . . . a pair of comfy rocking chairs in a quiet blue corner in front of glass walls invite the visitor to slow down, rest, creature-watch and feel like a fish for awhile. Rocking chairs, people. We’ve never seen that anywhere else in the world. Seniors, moms and weary travelers, take note. Many thanks!
.As in . . signs throughout, with well-written, entertaining explanations of exhibits: we haven’t seen such clear, friendly, sparkling writing since visiting Chicago’s Field Museum. Nice one, Tampa!
As in . . .those long, long ledges by the big glass walls that dare you to sit up against the glass and play fish-face with the animals. Your reporter was just beginning to do so when a six-year-old visitor pressed himself up against the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of the shark tank, waggled his flippers and yelped, “Eat me! Eat me!" to a passing shark. We couldn’t have said it better.
The Loren Eisley quote greets you as you reach the top of the stairs (or exit the elevator) and before you enter the Coral Reef exhibit. Prior to entering, however, stop first at a small tank where all sorts of (Pacific Northwest) red or purple waving anemones, and every one unearthly, are waiting for you to touch them. Touch with two fingers only please, gently gently. There’s another touch tank for petting velvety gorgeous Southern and Atlantic stingrays.. Don’t worry, when they’re not in the mood to be cuddled, they swish off  tantalizingly out of your reach. Do touch: they’re gorgeous. Next time this reporter is definitely coming back as a fish.
Enter the coral reefs, entire underwater cities bustling with grunt, parrotfish, everybody, and hard-working tiny squishy polyps which do most of the reef building. These coral buildings are alive, though, and noisy. Snapping shrimp make clicks and pops as they chomp. 100 year old sponges  in all sorts of colours add to the mystery of undersea life.
Fish sleep with their eyes open, drifting on the gentle currents. Many are nocturnal, and here you’ll see the night shift, squirrelfish and redfish and — sounds like a Dr. Seuss book — and many of our finny friends looks like the characters in one, too. There’s the green queen parrotfish, who sleeps in a big bubble ball of mucus. There are Medusoids, ghostly, gelatinous and gorgeous, drifting, drifting, oh so gently, 94% water. And the dear jellies, with centres that resemble lighted transistors. And stripey cuttlefish, whose big eyes make them look so wise.
But of course we have come to see the octopus. Who isn’t a sucker for these intelligent, sneaky, brave creatures? And we are not disappointed. Mama octo sits and waves a few tentacles over a wall of her tiny milky translucent eggs. her huge purple head watches us watching her. Ooooooooooh....
Who needs creatures from outer space when we’ve got them weirder and wilder and wetter than anything anyone can imagine right here on earth? And who needs a boat show,  auto show, or stupid fashion show when there’s a fish show in town?. 
The gift shop has a good range of fish toys, many with googly eyes.
701 Channelside Dr. (Near the downtown Tampa port where the cruise ships leave) 813-273-4000.More information? Swim here.


Tampa Airport

Absolutely number one. It’s gorgeous, well-located, and has a whiz-bang monorail.  Flights even go overseas from here. There's a massage therapist at the shoeshine stand. Gosh! More details? Click here.

 Ybor City

A wonderful bit of architecture here, sort of New Orleans-y, and a pleasure to walk around, especially in the evening where there are music bars and restaurants and weird shops. Weird for Tampa, that is. We’re grateful.  And so we click.

The Columbia Restaurant 

The old historic Ybor City Cuban restaurant serves the best food, including many delights suitable for vegetarians, in Tampa/Ybor City. Don’t miss this. Of course it’s a chain now. Thank heavens we’ll have another reliably good meal to look forward to elsewhere. Click here  2117 East 7th Ave (813) 248-4961.
     For cheaper (and blander) Cuban eats, there's nearby Carmine's. 1802 East 7th Ave (813) 248-3834 

MOSI (Museum of Science & Industry)

  Walking about in this vast ductile space that looks as if it were designed by Aquarian robots in love is far more entertaining than the non-stop, belly-churning rides, rides, rides of the nearby Busch Gardens. The space even includes a small and good planetarium with shows, and, of course, an IMAX programme. Click here to see what’s cooking at MOSI right now.
4801 East Fowler Avenue, Tampa Tel. 813 987 6300

Nearby Beaches

St. Petersburg, Indian Rocks Beach, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs. Go for a drive. Check ‘em out. Good Greek grub abounds in Tarpon Springs, a charming beach hamlet. Don’t forget to give yourself a Gulf-side loll, drink in hand, on the patio of the Don Cesar Resort in St. Pete.

Absolutely the Best Hair Cut, Color and Conditioning in Florida: Barbara Forgione Salon

To get the best hair color, conditioning,  hair treatments and the best haircuts  in Florida, dash to Tampa. That's what you all have to do to maintain a gorgeous, shining mane in the tropic heat without the frizzies. When you find a great colorist - and I really mean great - who also has great in-house hair cutters, that's heaven. I discovered this delightful head trip for your coconut when I heard one of the local hotel execs rave on and on about  Barbara, Barbara, Barbara...who turns out to be a spectacularly talented  master colorist who decided to make her home in sultry, sleepy Tampa.  It seems that Barbara, a Vidal Sassoon graduate, trained in Los Angeles (Vidal Sassoon), New Jersey and New York (with Beth Minardi). She transforms all kinds of hair with the most brilliant, subtle, gentle hair color we've  seen: ask for a peek at her  inspiring "Before and After" book. Movie stars, spies, TV anchors, ladies who lunch, authors on tour, and fashionable and fussy locals are Barbara's regulars, as are our fashion-forward fighting women at nearby McDill Air Force base. And prices are good.  If  Barbara's doing your color or treatment and her stylists are doing your cut, you'll never have to worry.  You're safe. Barbara's known as the go-to girl when your last hair stylist just wrecked your hair --- she fixes bad hair all the time, with thermal reconditioning, the Japanese hair relaxing and hair straightening YUKO reconditioning treatment,  that's tout le rage in New York, without big city prices. It's worth going just for the conversation: world events, music, fashion, astrology, wazzup in Tampa...she's switched-on and sassy, and knows what color's all about. Well worth a trip down to Tampa on JetBlue just to get your hair done. Next time, I think I might. Barbara Forgione, 4317 El Prado Boulevard in fashionable South Tampa (33619), between West Shore and Dale Mabry.
To book, call  (001 outside the USA)   813 832 1115 best haircuts best cut. Click here.

A Soft Landing

It is big. It is black, and very very shiny: all glass. A  dark, mysterious monolith smack in the middle of the chilly corporate concrete canyons of sleepy downtown Tampa (neighbors include Verizon, NBC, the convention center and the Bank of America building).                                                                       
Welcome to the surprising Hyatt Regency Tampa, the secret treasure of Downtown Tampa, an official oasis for the business traveler. The 17-story luxury hotel and convention center offers plenty of pampering and oodles of amenities. Its downtown location (Two Tampa City Center) gives  hotel guests easy access to the sleepy but calm Franklin St. Pedestrian Mall, University of Tampa, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (TBPAC) and the Convention Center. Also, you’re just minutes away from Ybor City and Hyde Park.
            At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Mondays through Fridays, the little delis pull their shutters down  and  Downtown Tampa’s nearly deserted. Yikes. (There is even a local bar called “Stranded Downtown.”) 
             So what makes this hotel the buzziest one, the one so often chosen  by film directors, movie stars and celebrities from Michael Moore to George W. Bush, as the easiest spot to rest, work, live,  play and  hide away in Tampa? It’s whispered that Jimmy Smits made the Regency  his Tampa home while preparing for “Anna In The Tropics." The hotel is famed for its discretion: they won't tell you who's staying here-- or who stayed here. A nice touch, that. Ethical and caring and classy. And that's probably why the famous love to stay here. Comfort and crackerjack service.  Lovely pillows. (We've had hoteliers show us the beds where movie stars had their affairs. Quel horreur! We certainly wouldn't stay in a place like that... again.)
It’s not just the suits and stars who come here. Others are drawn by special TBPAC theater and concert events; sports at local arenas; expos at the convention center; Busch Gardens; and there's the Gasparilla festival. (Book very early for this one.) The festival’s two parades (one for families and one for the grown children of dysfunctional families — okay, adults) come very very very close to the hotel. The hotel warns guests who book during the festival that –well, there will be quite a lot of whoop-de-do going on.
       The Hyatt Regency offers a number of packages for its various special interest guests. Click here
Hyatt Regency Tampa
Two Tampa City Center