Come to Tampa
With pristine, secluded nearby beaches and a lively, colorful downtown Tampa, Florida, you need not even have Super Bowl tickets to make this an epic warm-weather getaway. Even if you’re not an NFL fanatic, the medley of the Bruce Springsteen halftime show, some of the nation’s best beaches, and a Mardi Gras-like atmosphere is motivation enough to start planning an unforgettable vacation.
World-class rock concerts form the centerpiece of Bud Bowl 2009 at Channelside on January 30 and 31, the Friday and Saturday nights before the big game. For the latest lineup, check the Channelside Bay Plaza website.
Join the NFL Experience (January 24, 25, 29, 30, and 31) in the parking lots adjacent to Raymond James Stadium, the site of the Super Bowl. More than 50 interactive games entertain, including free sports clinics (measure your passing and kicking against the pros, call a game play-by-play), autograph sessions with the players, and NFL Coaches Chats. (Admission $18.50 adults. www.superbowl.com)
Yo ho, yo ho. The annual month-long Gasparilla Festival just happens to fit into the Super Bowl time frame. Saturday, January 24, welcomes the kiddie fest―with a children’s parade and vintage aircraft and parachute team displays. Stick around the week after when the adult fest invades Tampa with the very grown-up pirate ship invasion, pirates parade, and street fest. Maurading buccaneers spread their wealth of treasure, beads, drink, and merriment, to end the party.
Save gas and ride TECO streetcars when you’re in town. It costs only $4 a day or $9.75 for a three-day pass along the 2.5 mile route from downtown to Channelside to Ybor City (www.tecolinestreetcar.org or 813-254-4278).
Ybor City (pronounced E-bore) was once home to thousands of Cuban cigar makers and dozens of factories. Now the buildings along La Setima (East Seventh Avenue) are abuzz with shops, restaurants, and dance clubs. By day the streets are filled with tourists. By night they're nearly as raucous as Bourbon Street.
Start the day with breakfast at La Tropicana Café, a favorite morning gathering place for locals. Order the traditional Ybor breakfast―Cuban toast, café con leche, and an egg Cuban; (813) 247-4040.
Empty cigar boxes make great souvenirs. Most of the shops sell them for $2 to $10 each. You can find stacks at King Corona Cigars; (813) 241-9109.
Dine on Spanish/Cuban fare and watch flamenco dancers at Columbia Restaurant, the oldest dining establishment in Florida. Try the house specialty version of paella ($21.95) or La Completa Cubana ($17.95), a feast of roast pork, plátanos, empanada de picadillo, black beans, and yellow rice. While waiting for a table, see artisans make hand-rolled cigars at Gonzalez y Martinez Cigar Company in the same building as the restaurant.
Walk over to the Ybor City Museum State Park to see exhibitions about the cigar industry and tour a home where workers lived.
Browse the shops at Centro Ybor, an open-air entertainment complex, which once was home to Centro Español, the first Spanish club. For trendy fashions and funky home decor take a look at Urban Outfitters and Metropolitan Deluxe.
Downtown is walkable so sport comfy shoes. The good news: Winter hotel rates are normally considerably lower.
The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg ( 894-1000) offers great views of the Art Deco pier on Tampa Bay, and it's within walking distance of downtown. On the Gulf, The Don CeSar Beach Resort ( 360-1881) towers like a giant wedding cake above St. Pete Beach. For a more budget option, there's also a nice Hampton Inn & Suites downtown St. Petersburg.
If you prefer white tablecloths and candlelight, try Redwoods. The menu changes frequently, but we loved the grilled escolar with chorizo-mussel broth and lobster oil.
After dinner, join the crowd at BayWalk, an outdoor plaza with restaurants, bars, a movie theater, and shops that stay open late.
Pictured at left: At Adobe Gila's Cantina, the laid-back atmosphere might push one to do something crazy - like try a 64-ounce margarita.
For lunch, head downtown for tropical fare at Tangelo's Grille. Try the Cuban sandwich with black beans and rice.
Spend the afternoon exploring the shops along Central Avenue and the art galleries on Beach Drive. Cherie's Eklektika specializes in irresistible kitsch, from mermaid paraphernalia to windup sushi toys. In addition to the paintings at Trinity Gallery, you may find an original photograph of Marilyn Monroe, a piece of estate jewelry, or a $10 photograph by an unknown artist. Visit one of the city's five museums; our favorite is the Salvador Dalí Museum.
So what's with those women and men in black? They're students at the Aveda Institute St. Petersburg, the best place in town for a splurge on the cheap: a $40 facial, which includes a scalp treatment and a foot massage. You must sign a waiver, because the students are not licensed, but you can't beat an $11 haircut. Call for appointments; (727) 820-3199.
Dine downtown at Café Alma, where you'll find a great combination of sultry ambience and trendy Mediterranean-inspired international dishes. Try the tender sautéed calamari.
Before retiring, relax to live jazz at The Garden, where you might just catch some dueling trombones.
Before Going Home, Linger Over Brunch
Even if you don't stay at the Vinoy, make reservations for its lavish brunch. It's a splurge, but listen: paella with lobster, roast duck, crab, and a dessert bar with too many blessings to count. Go ahead, raise that glass of Champagne (or fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice) to the winning team.
Pictured at left: For a cheap and authentic taste of real Florida, head to Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish and Co.
Most cities would be happy with one pristine subtropical island, but Dunedin has two: Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island State Parks.
Caladesi can be reached by boat, including a ferry that departs from Honeymoon Island. A concession stand on the Caladesi offers food and drinks, as well as beach supplies, kayak and umbrella rentals, and souvenirs.
Honeymoon Island earned its name as a honeymoon destination and received national fame when its then-owner held contests in cities throughout the country to send newlyweds for free stays in the island’s thatched-roof cottages.
Honeymoon is accessible by a causeway from the mainland and offers 9 miles of shoreline, a dog-friendly beach, and trails through some of the last of Florida’s virgin slash pine forests.
For more information visit www.floridastateparks.org.