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)




Credit: Tampa Bay CVB and Jeff Greenberg 


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.





Credit: Tampa Bay CV

Tampa Airport


ght:.3in;margin-bottom: 0in;margin-left:.3in;margin-bottom:.0001pt;text-indent:.5in">  Absolutely number one. It’s gorgeous, well-located, and has a whiz-bang monorail. The flights here can be dirt cheap, like $49 from New York, one-way on Jet Blue. 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. One amazing shop is The Spitting Gargoyle (1717 E. 7th Ave., 813.247.7877). In business since 1994, it specializes in medievally inspired architectural accents and accessories such as gargoyles, cherubs, pedestals and columns. More info? Clickkkk


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


A Nice Massage

Crystal Price (License # 3405) has extremely good strong fingers and healing hands. She trained not in Tampa, but at the well-known Florida School of Massage at Gainesville, FL. Sorry travelmelers, her massages are for women only, and house calls only. Lucky us, Girlfriends. Highly recommended. Hers is the best massage we've found in Tampa. The day after, no more aches, no more worries. Oh, Crystal! We'll book another. Hurry. Call ahead to book. 24 hours notice or more  advised. Also available : Neuro-Muscular,  Deep Tissue, Pregnancy Massage, and Lomi-Lomi.  

Cell 813 380 6157  and  email
$75 one blissful hour. (Cash only until you’re a regular.)


Super Car Whiz

It happens. You're passing through and unchuk-unchuk unchuk. Here's the place to fix your ride. Mazin is a great - and honest Tampa auto mechanic. He'll even tell you what the last crew did wrong. And when it's time to trade in your old Toyoyo. He even knows where the best restaurants are hiding. Call the amazin' Mazin at 813.882.0776 or 813.966.3421. He's ASE certified.



















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.) But the locals will tell you Whitney Houston was 'ere. 

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.
            This madly popular and pleasant hotel is over twenty years old, has had one renovation and is preparing for its next makeover.. While the rooms are quite comfortable, expect to see a change of colors, a bit of a redo in the pool area, and an upgrade of the business center.
       The Hyatt Regency offers a number of packages for its various special interest guests. 
Hyatt Regency Tampa
Two Tampa City Center

La Terrazza Ristorante

In Ybor City, a wonderful treasure of a Northern Italian restaurant. Not surprisingly, the Weekly Planet rated it  Tampa Bay’s “Best Italian restaurant” in 2002. (Luigi, the owner, is from Ricione.). In addition to its luscious cooking (primo pesto, and a must-have, ethereal eggplant appetizer),  its super-soft ambience, candles and low lights will melt you like mozzarella.. 1727 E. 7th Ave. 813.248-1326 Click here,

Franklin Street News

Aha. That rare Florida treasure. A good magazine store with a wide selection of magazines (including some imports) and newspapers (including some New York ones). Go on…buy a Florida Lottery ticket. You’ve gotta be in it to win it, folks.  813-276-1710 604 N. Franklin Street.

Udipi Cafe

They're all raving about this joint. We haven't checked it out yet, but it's another vegetarian Southern Indian restaurant in Florida, so why fool around? There's a lunch buffet Tuesday-Friday, chomp, chomp, chomp.
14422 North Dale Mabry Hwy   (813) 962-7300  or click 








Skipper’s Smoke House 

 An alt consciousness refuge for southern hippies, deadheads, free thinking and even freer dancing sorts. Its centerpiece is an outdoor  theatre that features sharp local players ( a favorite is Bill “the sauce boss” Wharton  gumbo who expertly and exquisitely plays Dixie rock lines, heavily steeped in Johnny Winters and Allman Brothers. His popularity stems equally from his sound and from his gumbo. (He cooks it all night on stage and then serves to the audience. Some quite good  national acts also play Skipper’s. These  include Marcia Ball and Iris Dement and Buckwheat Zydeco.We happened to see Wharton during a special event that included a costume contest. (Two of Skipper's regulars are seen left).
910 Skipper Road..813.971-0666 or click

Viva La Frida

If you’re looking for the throbbing heart of the art/activism axis of Tampa’s creative community, rush directly to Viva La Frida, restaurant and much, much, much, much more. The eccentric, whimsical clientele come here two, three even four times a week for poetry, plays, save-the-world activities or just a good laugh over a pitcher or two of sangria with friends.

As we approached the restaurant's  doorway we heard voices. Looking to the right, we saw an outdoor stage (complete with actors) and an audience. It was a  performance of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” inside posters and fliers describe opportunities for community activism and significant events.

With so many vegetarian-friendly dishes on the menu, the starving artist/University student/crunchy Granola crowds feel instantly at home here. And the sangria’s good. The food's well,  Mexicanesque,  as Mexican food is merely the jumping-off point for the eccentric, generous  cook who just can’t resist tweaking everything on the menu, down to  the beans and rice, until it’s something else again. Big portions, though. (Skip the guacamole, though  - was that cheese in it? Aiye!)
5901 Florida Ave. 813-231-9199   or click aqui  


NS Foods and Gifts

Nobody knows about this place. Nobody but the happy people---mostly Indians and Pakistanis and knowledgeable Brits --- who pop in and out of this grocery store garnished with a few picnic tables.
It isn’t even listed in the local hip Weekly Planet newspaper, or anywhere else. But man, can they cook! The owner is rumoured to be a brilliant mathematician...the elegance and complexity of the flavours is definitely a winning formula. This one is worth a special trip. The menu changes daily, and is ‘purely vegetarian’, they will proudly tell you, when you ring up to check the hours. (Happily, they are open 7 days a week.) We paid just five bucks for a surprisingly subtle all you can eat buffet, set up in crockpots on a small picnic table; this included three desserts, millions of papadums, one chapati, a sensationally succulent mango rice, curries, sambars, delicate, succulent, thin crusted samosas and a generous selection of fruits. They also make superb dosas.
in Cacciatore Plaza, on Hanley Road, just off Hillsborough Ave. (between Hillsborough and Waters Ave. Cross Street is Paula.
5522 Hanley Road, Tampa Tel. 813 243 1522

Piccadilly Cafeterias.

Are we serious? Yes. Vegetarians (and would-be healthy eaters) driving throughout the South find sanctuary and sanity in this healthy haven of a chain, the champion of the early-bird specials. The veggies are fresh and sometimes interesting, with carrot soufflés, many many salads, strawberries in a goopy red sauce, jalapeno cornbread and hot apple cobblers, pecan pies and coconut cake. Did we say healthy? Well, there’s broccoli every day, green beans, okra, corn, mashed or baked potatoes, marshmallow candied yams, macaroni and cheese and more. When you’ve a car full of kids, the Piccadilly chain is a godsend. Don’t forget to pick up one of their booklets at the cash register and pop one in the car. Meanwhile click here.
Tampa Area Piccadillys
West Shore Plaza
299 West Shore Plaza
(813) 876-6894

11810 Dale Mabry
(813) 963-1660

717 S. Dale Mabry Highway
(813) 877-7119

13702 Bruce B. Downs Boulevard
(813) 971-2130


Shalimar  Restaurant

A few blocks from the hotel, our Indian restaurant detector went into full alert. According to our readings, there were greater than average traces of turmeric in the air. We turned a corner and there was Shalimar and two wonderful surprises: A $7.95 luncheon buffet with diverse vegetarian choices (aloo gobi, chana,horgeous saag paneer with big pieces of paneer) Even better,  the food actually tasted good. If Shalimar were in New York, we would not be embarrassed to take friends there.  Since we are such snobs, this is high praise. 204 South Morgan St.  813.222.3400


Word on the Streetcar

Tampa has two officially charming streetcars lines: the Hartline rubber wheel babies and the two-year-old TECO old-fashioned trolleys. They’re inexpensive rides, and almost, kind of get you from downtown to Ybor City, fun, bit not necessarily convenient . However, we are told that the routes will be expanding.


An attractive official shopping and entertainment site sits next to the aquarium. Stores offer cigars, cigarettes, paintings, food, and moving picture shows. 615 Channelside Dr. For more information,  813-223-4250. or click here




International Plaza

This upscale shopping plaza (don’t call it a mall.) has nearly 200 shops (including Nordstrom’s and a mess of  high-stylin’ shops) and more than a dozen restaurants, uh, eateries. Its food court even has a food court. One restaurant, The Gallery Eclectic Bistro (813 353 3838) is rather gorgeous and a good place to relax over drinks. It’s a circular room with blue lights, peppy wait staff and $12 martinis. The International Plaza is an in-and-out, all-weather affair, a nice outdoor consumer village look up…those puffy white clouds are real. But it still feels like Las Vegas, with the clouds painted on the blue vault above. To its credit the International Plaza is near that wonderful airport. For information about this plaza, call 813 342 3790 or click here

First Watch

One of those early breakfast places you can’t live without, though you wish you could, First Watch does help break the $30 hotel breakfast habit, and it’s open every day (which is big since most of downtown Tampa is closed down.) The breakfast and brunch menu supports veggie craving diners. There's a veg-out omelette and an astonishingly dull Eggs Florentine. Moderate prices ($5.75 and $6.95 respectively) were welcome, and offset  by the $1.60 coffee cost). First Watch is part of a chain which means there are standards which it will neither miss nor exceed.
First Watch 520 Tampa St. 813-307-9006


Tampa Theatre

The Tampa Theatre is one of the nation's preservation success stories and one of the city's bright gems. Its style can only be described as Florida Mediterranean (includes touches of Italian Renaissance, Byzantine, Spanish, Mediterranean, Greek Revival, Baroque, and English Tudor)" (And perhaps a tad of kitchen sink?) Opened in October, 1926 as a magnificent “motion picture palace,” the John Eberson-designed venue went into decline and near extinction by the '70s. Tampa, in partnership with the community, saved the theatre in 1973. Now it is open throughout the year with a rich schedule of film, concerts, special events, corporate events and tours.  813-274-8981. And even if you're not at the mighty Wurlitzer, click here.
Also in the night on the town category is the Tampa Bay Center for the Performing Arts. It has a steady stream of musicals, plays, concerts, dance programs, holiday events and other such stuff. For info and current schedule, click here.

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