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Love Is in the Air: Three Days in Tampa


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beach couple florida tampa white sand gulf coastIf you need a relaxing getaway just for two, it doesn't get too much better than the Tampa Bay area. Part tropical paradise and part urban oasis, the region has soft white sand beaches and quiet gardens where you can get away from it all -- but if you get bored, Tampa's historic city streets and upscale shopping are just a short drive away. Our favorite option for romance in Tampa? Watching the sun sink slowly into the Gulf of Mexico over the beach -- and best of all, this simple pleasure is free.

A note on transportation: You'll need a car for days two and three of this itinerary -- and depending on where you stay, you may need a car to get to and from downtown Tampa on day one as well.

Home Away From Home
Nestled amid the former cigar factories and wrought-iron balconies of Tampa's Ybor City district is the elegant Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn. The building was originally built by Ybor City's founder, Vicente Martinez Ybor, but has since been transformed into one of Tampa's most romantic hotels, with an opulent lobby and rooms furnished with four-poster beds, floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors and Persian rugs. Its Ybor City location is a few minutes by car or trolley from downtown Tampa -- and the district comes alive after dark with some of the city's most popular bars and nightclubs.

Stay in downtown St. Petersburg at the Mansion House Bed and Breakfast, where elegant touches like hardwood floors and antique furniture make each room a unique, romantic treat. On site are a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and flower garden. Beyond a full breakfast, nightly rates also include snacks and evening wine.

For couples who are less into hearts and flowers and more into having a low-key good time, Tampa offers the one-of-a-kind Gram's Place, a laid-back hotel/hostel named after singer/songwriter Gram Parsons. Each private room has its own musical theme (jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll) -- including real instruments on the walls. But we bet you'll spend less time in your room than in one of the property's two courtyards; one is quiet and secluded, with a hammock and waterfall, while the other sports a Jacuzzi, bar and great music 24 hours a day. Guests are invited to bring their favorite CD's or tapes to complement the hotel's extensive collection, spanning nearly every genre you can imagine. And if you play an instrument yourself, don't be shy -- there's a recording studio in the basement, and the owner is always ready for a good jam session.

Day One
Start your first day in Tampa at Channelside Bay Plaza, a shopping and entertainment complex near the cruise terminal. You could spend your morning wandering the shops and checking out the activity in port (Tampa has one of the busiest cargo ports on the Gulf Coast), but if you're not a big shopper we recommend a stop in the magnificent Florida Aquarium -- which isn't just for kids. You don't have to be 8 years old to "ooh" and "ahh" over the sharks, or to "aww" over the baby alligators (we won't tell).

For lunch, Channelside offers a number of options. Try Thai specialties or sushi at Thai Thani, or go to Tinatapas for tapas -- appetizer-size Spanish dishes perfect for mixing and matching.

After lunch, drive or take a trolley to the historic Ybor City district. (If you're taking the trolley, get off at the Centennial Park stop.) Founded by a Spanish immigrant who arrived in Florida in 1886, this neighborhood of wrought-iron balconies and snug casitas grew up around the cigar factories that were its lifeblood through the late 1930's. As you walk the streets, you can still see some of the large brick factories where thousands of immigrants rolled tobacco into as many as 400 million cigars a year; you'll also see the "social clubs" that provided the city's residents with health care and recreational opportunities.

Learn more about the neighborhood at the Ybor City Museum, where you can watch a professional hand-rolling cigars. Adjacent to the museum is a small but lush garden courtyard, a peaceful spot to sit and take a quick break in the sun; access is included in the price of admission to the museum.

Across the street from the museum are several casitas, former cigar workers' houses that were relocated and restored, and are now home to art and craft galleries. Don't miss the gallery of "the Tobacco Artist," now in residence in one of the casitas. Arnold Martinez paints portraits of Tampa landmarks using a variety of media, including tobacco leaf extract, Cuban coffee, beer, tea and wine. His gallery is open to folks looking to buy or just to look on select days of the week.

If you have some time left in the afternoon, make your way on foot toward the appropriately named entertainment complex at the heart of Ybor City: Centro Ybor. There's a wide variety of shops here, including Urban Outfitters and Wear Me Out (the latter offers handbags and jewelry). You can pick up some handmade cigars at Stogie Castillo's, also located within Centro Ybor.

When you're ready for dinner, take a stroll to the Columbia Restaurant, a Tampa institution that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005. The restaurant sprawls over an entire city block, its exterior walls splashed with hundreds of authentic Spanish tiles. Inside are 11 different dining rooms that can accommodate nearly 1,700 patrons. It may be large, but the ambience is still romantic -- especially in the Patio Dining Room, where a second-story balcony rings an Andalusian-style courtyard with a mosaic-tiled fountain. Once you sample the Spanish/Cuban cuisine you'll understand why this place is a Tampa institution; the 1905 salad has been on the menu since the restaurant opened, and it's divine (as long as you like garlic, that is!). Top off the experience with a live flamenco show at the restaurant, offered every night but Sunday. (A cover charge applies, and reservations are recommended.)

If you're up for more entertainment after dinner, you're in the right place -- Ybor City has some of the liveliest bars and clubs in Tampa, and you won't have to walk far to find one that suits your mood.

Day Two
Greet the day with a hand-in-hand stroll among the lush palms and vibrant blossoms of the Sunken Gardens, in St. Petersburg. Tiny lizards skitter across the path at your feet as you wind your way past waterfalls and colorful groves; around the next bend you might see a flock of flamingos, or wander through an enclosed butterfly preserve. Tampa's semi-tropical climate means that something is blooming here just about all year round.

When you're done in the gardens, head back to Tampa (about 25 - 30 minutes by car) for lunch and afternoon shopping at Hyde Park Village, a landscaped mock-village of sidewalk cafes and shops like Anthropologie, Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn and Tommy Bahama. For lunch, sink your teeth into a steak at Timpano Italian Chophouse or enjoy elegant bistro fare at the Wine Exchange.

When you've worked up your appetite with an afternoon of shopping, head into downtown Tampa for dinner at Mise en Place, a stylish American bistro that gets raves from food critics, locals and visitors alike. Offerings include inventive takes on old standards (grainy mustard pecan crusted rack of lamb) and dazzling original concoctions like zahtar-grilled Scottish salmon with eggplant and roasted mushrooms. Prices are surprisingly reasonable for what many consider one of the city's top restaurants (entrees start at $19).

For your evening entertainment, walk several blocks across town to the Tampa Theatre. This beloved Tampa landmark was built in 1926 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It's a marvelously atmospheric place to take in a classic black and white film or an indie rock concert; gargoyles guard the lobby, stars twinkle gently on the ceiling and the mighty Wurlitzer organ makes an impressive entrance when it rises mysteriously from beneath the stage. Check the theater's Web site to see what's playing the night of your visit. Important note: Except for occasional scheduled tours, the only way to see the theater is to attend an event here; the venue is too busy to accommodate drop-ins.

Day Three
After several days of enjoying Tampa's history, culture and shopping, it's time to see what else makes the area so special -- the natural beauty of the Gulf Coast beaches. The coastline has dozens of seaside towns and resorts, but our favorite beach is Caladesi Island State Park, reachable only by ferry from Honeymoon Island (about a 50-minute drive from downtown Tampa). This uninhabited island is blissfully free of the high-rise buildings and tacky commercialism that plague some of the other area beaches, leaving its nature trails and impossibly soft white sand relatively untouched. Spend your day swimming, sunbathing, gathering shells, kayaking or hiking; basic concessions are available for lunch, and there are restrooms and showers where you can clean up at the end of the day.

For dinner, climb aboard the StarLite Majesty from Clearwater Beach for a sunset dinner cruise, or drive to Casa Tina in nearby Dunedin for fresh Mexican dishes that are as good for your body as they are for your taste buds -- the owners don't use lard or animal stock in anything on the menu.

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    --written by Sarah Schlichter

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