When my family and I spent a previous winter vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida, we found ourselves commuting to nearby Tampa on a fairly regular basis for shopping and dining. We liked what we saw and were sure to make it our base the next time around.
The hip, urban heart of Florida’s Gulf coast beats in Tampa Bay (www.visittampabaycom). Here cultural gems mingle with authentic history to create an atmosphere that inspires awe and adventure. Whether your quest is for art spanning antiquity to the modern era, sensational live entertainment or other untold delights, imaginative and inspiring thrills await around every corner.
WHERE TO STAY: It was very nice to stay in the downtown area and the gorgeous Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (www.tampamarriottwaterside.com), only eight minutes from the airport. Offering spectacular views, stellar service and a high-quality experience all around, this upscale hotel is particularly well-situated for guest convention-goers or if you want to attend an NHL game with the host Lightning across the street at the Amalie Arena. And as I found out, it is a pretty good choice for a family vacation as well, with its central location, superb facilities and top-notch customer service.
This striking, 27-storey high-end property has more than 700 non-smoking rooms and suites that feature private balconies overlooking Harbour Island, downtown and the hotel’s 32-slip marina. All rooms include high-end signature bedding, flat-screen TVs that can connect with laptops and large, luxe bathrooms with the softest, fluffiest white towels and sleek granite counter-tops.
High-speed in-room internet is available for a daily service fee, and it is free in public spaces. General amenities include a palm-studded pool and groovy hot tub and a full-service spa/gym on the third floor, a business center and multiple newly renovated options for wining/dining that include white tablecloth fancy, sports bar casual, poolside grill and a lobby-side Starbucks cafe. There’s valet parking for a daily rate. At night you can enjoy live music, adding to a very uplifting atmosphere.
Following $2.5 million in improvements in 2013, the hotel is currently in the midst of a $40 million upgrade. Every single room is getting a makeover, as will the lobby. The check-in desk will move to a pod format and a full service Starbucks is in the works, along with an expanded outdoor patio, an outdoor beer garden and an extremely popular Topgolf simulator, using real golf balls.
The Marriott Waterside is owned by businessman Jeff Vinik, who plans to build two more hotels virtually next door and each within breathing distance of his pride and joy, the Amalie Arena. Vinik also owns the Lightning.
My family really fell in love with the pool setting. For starters this is a good sized pool with plenty of seating options. Besides standard lounge chairs, there are many chairs and couches with soft and ultra-comfort cushion covers and standalone large cushioned lounge chairs located next to gigantic umbrellas which will shield you from the sun. You can order drinks and food from the bar.
Boasting a prime Channelside location, this waterfront hotel is tucked between the Tampa Convention Center and the arena. The marina and the popular Riverwalk are right outside your door – The Riverwalk being a 2.4 mile path connecting culture and entertainment. I walked its distance several times and noticed plenty of bikers and those on Segways using the area as well.
We stayed in one of the magnificently newly renovated luxury suites on the 22nd floor. I must say that when the bellman opened the door we were left speechless by the space and beauty of what would be our home for five nights.
All rooms feature featherbeds and duvets, as well as flat-screen TVs and Plug-In technology. There was a pretty master bedroom, with a huge walk in closet and a door that closes leading to a very large living room that features a comfortable couch and two doors leading to an outdoor balcony with a beautiful view of the harbor. The room contained a small fridge, enabling us to pick up some groceries at the nearby Publix and make our own breakfast.
In our case, a request for a two bedroom suite was actually upgraded via a connecting room. This provided our family with the kind of personal space we are not usually accustomed to in a hotel room. The renovations include sophisticated artwork, boasting a nautical theme (inspired by the waterfront location); textured flooring, replacing carpeting; and luxurious bathrooms featuring a unique barn door for added flexibility and a shower you will want to stay in all day.
New elevators feature neat touch screen pads to push what floor to go to.
The lobby bar offers cool cocktails and a stunning view of the marina and waterfront. Champions Bar and Grill showcases new additions in its impressive collection of sports memorabilia and décor, as well as offers the biggest games on new flat-screen TVs. For a quiet meal, Café Waterside features new intimate seating arrangements along with stunning water views and a delicious menu. Champions is about to be transformed into an American Gastro Pub format,
While we did take advantage of the 24 hour room service, one night we chose to stay at the hotel and have dinner at the Waterside Grill. Let me strongly recommend this as a dining choice whether you are staying at the hotel or not. The restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere and delicious American cuisine. You can feast on fresh seafood, prime steaks, expertly crafted cocktails and decadent desserts. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you can dine inside or on the terrace facing the Tampa waterfront.
A couple of glasses of wine, pino grigio and chardonnay, allowed us to toast to a good evening ahead. Executive Sous Chef Rich Willerer has worked in the kitchens of many top restaurants in North America. For the past nine years he has called this hotel in Tampa home. He is very proud of an initiative he took with other local chefs to form a coalition and help Tampa restaurants get better suppliers and more farm to table artisan ranchers, growers and farmers.
Chef Willerer personally greeted us with some of his homemade appetizers and a special order of devilled eggs with caviar. As there were three of us, he suggested we consider sharing some items, to which we agreed. It was a good decision and made for a very enjoyable dining experience.
First came some pistachio crusted sea scallops with lemon marmalade and bacon jam. That was followed up with some refreshing bowls of fruit and vegetables mixed together with a vinaigrette sauce. Next came a grilled local swordfish with coconut risotto, bok choy and guava cream. I have always been a fan of swordfish and this combination with the risotto was just perfect. The chef recommended we try some steak. The wood-grilled Delmonico was cooked an absolutely perfect medium, with sherry creamer potatoes, rainbow carrots and a delicious sauce.
For dessert we shared an outstanding piece of apple pie with vanilla gelato, a tasty order of flan and a decadent piece of chocolate cake. This was a meal that indeed exceeded our expectations. You can read the menus on the hotel website or call 813-221-4900 for reservations.
CITY PASS AND ATTRACTIONS: Like other cities when you want to play the role of tourist, get the CityPass (https://www.citypass.com/tampa#6QcVgMcR8yS4QVcg.99). It is only $143.29 for adults and $129.77 for children. This includes admission to Busch Gardens, The Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marina Aquarium and either the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) or the Chihuly Collection.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (www.buschgardenstampa.com) is the ultimate family adventure, offering 300 acres of fascinating attractions based on exotic explorations around the world. A unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country’s premier zoos with more than 12,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, this spot provides unrivaled excitement for guests of every age. Normal park hours are 10 am to 6 pm. with a 365-day operating schedule. Hours are extended during select weekend, summer and holiday periods. Strollers, wheelchairs, lockers and pet kennels are available for rental. Wheelchair seating is available at all facilities, and assisted listening devices are offered at several attractions. Diaper-changing and baby-nursing areas, first aid, an automated teller machine and taxi and bus parking may be found on-site. The park’s newest attraction puts a spin on family thrills with Cobra’s Curse. This one-of-a-kind spin coaster features a 70-foot vertical lift and takes riders on a whirlwind adventure of exciting explorations. Located in the Egypt area of the park, explorers will come face-to-fang with an 80-foot snake icon, and discover the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation. Busch Gardens® welcomes guests to closely observe and even take part in the animal care experience in the Animal Care Center. From nutrition to treatments, X-rays to surgeries, much of Busch Gardens’ animal care is now conducted in guest view in this new state-of-the-art facility. The Moroccan Palace Theater is home to Busch Gardens’ spectacular, year-round ice skating shows. This summer, the Palace debuts the hottest show on ice, Turn It Up! This all-new ice show vibrantly celebrates summer with contemporary performances, aerial moments and eclectic pop music. Tour packages are available and they create fun and fascinating behind-the-scenes explorations that give guests a unique insider perspective. From connecting with endangered species to front-of-line access at the most popular attractions, there is basically a tour for every member of the family.
Located right across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island’s (www.AdventureIsland.com) 30 acres of water-drenched fun in the sun. It features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. Within a soothing Key West atmosphere awaits an unrivaled blend of slides, corkscrews, waterfalls, a wave pool, children’s water playground and other family attractions. Adventure Island also features outdoor acres, picnic and sunbathing areas, a gift shop and a championship sand volleyball complex for hours of fun in the sun. You can access their full accessibility guide on their website.
The Florida Aquarium (www.flaquarium.org) is one of the top of its kind in the country, with over 20,000 sea creatures! Here you can experience sharks, alligators, otters and more while encountering ring-tailed lemurs, hissing cockroaches and colorful chameleons in Journey to Madagascar. After exploring the exhibits inside, splash away outside at Splash Pad, the outdoor water play area for children.
At Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (www.lowryzoo.org) you can see more than 1,200 animals, including manatees, koalas, elephants, tigers, penguins, giraffes, orangutans and much more. Enhance your visit with water play areas, rides and educational shows a five-time winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence (2010-2015), this is recognized as one of the most popular zoos in the southeastern U.S., with over one million visitors annually. The Zoo originated in the 1930s as a municipal department with a small number of Florida native species. It grew gradually throughout the next four decades, but struggled to meet the developing professional standards of modern zoos. In 1982, community leaders created the Lowry Park Zoo Association to take over management of the Zoo for the City of Tampa with the goal of creating a world-class zoo through a public-private partnership. The Association then became the Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa, Inc., as it remains today. Working with a national zoo designer, the Society was able to create a modern, 24-acre facility that opened to the public in 1988 and shortly after earned Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has now grown to what now encompasses 56 acres of naturalistic animal exhibits in a lush, tropical garden setting. The Zoo offers popular educational programming, fun recreational amenities, up-close animal encounters and engaging seasonal events for which it has won accolades as one of the country’s most family-friendly zoos.
Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, better known as MOSI (www.mosi.org), is a scientific playground with more than 450 hands-on activities in the largest science center in the southeastern United States. You can see the stars in The Saunders Planetarium, explore another world in their NASA-funded Mission: Moon base lunar colony and touch the future in the next exhibit, Connectus. MOSI’s innovative exhibits urge you to ask questions and expand your mind. The museum shows you how cool curiosity can be – there are no tests or quizzes here. This place sparks conversations about the world and the future among kids and their grandparents, between spouses, and with strangers. There’s no other place like it in Tampa Bay. Plans call for a brand new MOSI to be built in the downtown area. For now, its current campus on East Fowler Avenue across from the University of South Florida is running strong.
MOSI is intent on creating an inclusive guest experience where everyone can participate in the excitement of science. Many of its exhibits offer multi-sensory interactive experiences. If you are concerned about too much sensory stimulation, ask a MOSI staff member or volunteer about what you might expect while exploring the exhibits. MOSI is wheelchair accessible. Automatic doors are located at the main entrance from the MOSI Entry Plaza and parking lot. Handicapped parking spaces are available near the entrance to MOSI. The property surrounding the museum is paved. Wheelchairs are available at no additional cost on a first-come, first-served basis at the MOSI Ticket Office. Guests must leave a driver’s license or credit card at the ticket office until the wheelchair is returned.
Some exhibit areas may be dim due to the nature of the exhibition. Although visitors requiring assistance from a service animal are welcome, MOSI reserves the right to limit access that may pose safety or health concerns. If you require an accommodation for your visit, please contact Anthonette Carregal, Vice President of Museum Operations, at least 15 working days prior to your visit by calling (813) 987-6333 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For hearing impaired assistance, call the Florida Relay System at 711.
If you are in the downtown area, then I recommend you stop by the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors Center. Kevin Wiatrowski from Visit Tampa Bay was kind enough to give me a walking tour of the downtown streets and he was very proud to show me this storefront location at 201 North Franklin Street which only opened last summer. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm. Here you will get excellent local advice on attractions, restaurants, and things to do during your stay. The staff is very knowledgeable. Make sure to check out the exceptionally neat gift shop, which includes a curated selection of Tampa-themed memorabilia and apparel.
The TECO Historic Streetcar runs from downtown to Ybor City (the Latin Quarter) and has a stop right outside the Marriott Waterside. The TECO Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend power station is a nice place to check out manatees this time of year. Hundreds of them gather in the warm water emitted from the power station. There’s a nature center and a short walking trail through the mangroves.
The Pirate Water Taxi provides hop-on, hop-off service along the waterfront and stops near the Marriott Waterside as well.
STRAZ CENTER: While in town we secured tickets for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert, featuring the Florida Orchestra at the magnificent Straz Center for the Performing Arts (www.strazcenter.org). Cars fly, trees fight back, and monsters are on the loose in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts! This concert featured the film, with the orchestra performing John Williams’ unforgettable score. A capacity crowd loved every moment of it. Watch for this to come to a city near you. The question is, can any place do it better than the Straz?
A year earlier we saw the Broadway hit An American in Paris while in town. We simply love this venue and were literally looking for an excuse to return. There is ample parking in the nearby Poe Garage, which actually has a covered walkway connected from the Straz for easy access
The Straz is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. It was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987. In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.
If you are headed to Tampa in 2018 there are some great Broadway shows booked such as Forever Plaid, Phantom of the Opera, The Color Purple, The Bodyguard, Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, Waitress, Sound of Music, The Illusionists and Cinderella. The spectacular tour of Hamilton will land at the Straz for the 2018-2019 season. You can also check out Opera Tampa, which produces the highest caliber presentations.
THE LIGHTNING AND AMALIE ARENA: I made my first visit ever to the Amalie Arena (originally called the Ice Palace), which opened on October 12, 1996. How lucky could I be? On the night I was available, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning happened to be hosting my hometown Montreal Canadiens. A visit here, regardless of the event taking place, is an absolute must.
Start off by checking the schedule for the Lightning. It was very nostalgic for me to be in the press box. Twenty-five years earlier when Tampa entered the National Hockey League as an expansion franchise I was among a group of journalists invited for a visit. Naturally, one of the things the local tourism board wanted to showcase to the Montreal media was the arrival of the NHL to Tampa. So off we went to the temporary home of the Lightning, the 11,000 seat Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds for an exhibition game. With my tape recorder and microphone in hand, I requested for and received a one-on-one interview with hockey legend Phil Esposito. He was president and general manager of the new team and the man solely responsible for bringing pro hockey to town, having persuaded a consortium of Japanese businesses to provide the necessary capital.
The first few years were rough for the Lightning, with significant financial losses. They withstood the challenges. As ownership changed hands a few times, Esposito was eventually ousted in his role. He is adored in this city. Outside of the arena there is a bronze statue of him. He also serves as a commentator for home game radio broadcasts.
Having spent the past week in Tampa, it was clear what a hockey mad city this is. Everywhere you go there seem to be signs on buildings saying “Go Bolts!” or “Be the Thunder!” At the AMC Theatre we went to, there were photos of Lightning players in the hallway leading to the ticket counter. On major streets, there are oriflammes featuring Lightning team members.
I knew my visit to Tampa would not be complete without meeting Esposito again. I congratulated him for what he brought to this city and asked how proud it made him to see the hockey franchise thriving on its 25th anniversary. “Very proud,” he said, “and thank you.”
The Amalie Arena is a fantastic hockey venue. The outside actually more resembles a football or baseball stadium and before each game there is a lot of action going on.
I really liked the game presentation. It started off with the American national anthem sung by a female sergeant from the US Army, who got a warm ovation. At each home game, $50,000 is presented to a community hero. On the scoreboard a Lightning player moderates a short slideshow of the recipient whom they show live at the end holding a Tampa sweater. In this case it was the director of a non-profit pre-school was highlighted. By the time her story was told, fans gave her a standing ovation. They did the same for another member of the US Army who had his story of bravery recounted.
McDonald’s sponsors a short feature called “Small Fries” as the camera catches the cutest little kids in the crowd. Like Montreal, they have the Kiss Cam. But at the end, instead of embarrassing couples to pucker up, they look for someone without a significant other and play the song “All By Myself.” On this night, they chose a fan with a Habs jersey.
The arena, also home to the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm, has hosted numerous high-profile events including the 1999 NHL All-Star Game, the 2007 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2008 NCAA Women’s Final Four, the 2009 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2012 Republican National Convention, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four and more. In August 2014, local Tampa Bay company Amalie Oil entered an agreement for the naming rights to the arena.
Amalie annually hosts more than 150 events ever year, which ranks among the top venues in North America. The facility encompasses 670,000 square feet with three decks and seven separate levels. The building is 133 feet 10 inches in height and 493 feet in diameter. Two hundred and forty-two new sport lights have been installed to increase game night lighting by doubling the foot-candle levels, exceeding all NHL standards and enhancing HD broadcasts. LED display boards that circle the entire area feature 1.7 million square pixels for pure viewing pleasure.
FOX RENT A CAR: In late 2011, Tampa International Airport officials began the process of updating the Master Plan for the 3,300-acre campus. The final plan, approved in 2013, will allow the airport to accommodate up to 35 million passengers each year, and is divided into three distinct phases: Decongestion, enabling and expansion. It allows a “build as demand dictates” approach to growth, with phases based on passenger volume.
The first phase, which is scheduled for completion in 2018, helps decongest the curbsides, roads and main terminal, and includes a 2.6 million-square-foot Rental Car Center, a 1.4-mile automated people mover and an expansion of the main terminal. Upon disembarking, passengers board a train (The SkyConnect Automated People Mover System) which brings them to the brand new rental car terminal.
This brings me to Fox Rent A Car (www.foxrentacar.com). On our trip last year to St. Petersburgh, Florida we had our first experience with Fox in Tampa and we were extremely pleased with the service. It was therefore a no brainer to book with them again.
As of this writing Fox was about to move into the new rental facility (in February 2018) at the airport. For our visit though, as is the case for other cities where Fox is present, we relied on a shuttle and the process went very smoothly. Our driver helped load and unload all of our luggage. It was a pleasant 10 minute drive, where Senior airport Operations Manager Alejandro Rosquete Sr. greeted us. Not only did he remember exactly who I was from a year earlier, but he had total recall for what make of vehicle I drove away with. It was a brand new Chrysler 300, an experience we liked so much we ordered a repeat. Alejandro brought the car around and proceeded to show us all of the features. We took the $6.99 per day option for the tolls, which allowed us to cruise right through the special Sun Pass lanes saving us time. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.
The Tampa operation is managed by Edgar Hernandez, who has been with Fox since the company first arrived in Florida six years ago. In addition to Tampa, their Sunshine State locations include Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Prices here are significantly better than the competition.
The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day. For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1
Fox is now the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally with new locations open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta and Istanbul, Turkey, Aruba, Antigua, Barbuda and Poland. Fox is recognized as a discount car rental company and let me assure you they beat their competitors in terms of price and customer service by a mile.
Fox was founded in 1989 as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travellers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 19 major corporate owned airport locations across the US plus 115 plus affiliate locations in 33 countries and a growing roster of international partner locations at www.foxrentacar.com.
For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation. For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (929)-346-0099.
Back to the airport expansion in Tampa. Phase 2 includes a curbside expansion and 17-acre commercial development around the rental car center. The commercial development area will feature an office building, convenience store with gas station, hotel, and a commercial curb to accommodate transit and other ground transportation, and connections to regional trail networks. The curbside expansion will include new express lanes exclusively for passengers without checked luggage.
Phase 3 will includes the construction of a new Airside D with 16 gates capable of handling both domestic and international flights