Taking the Kids: Three Days in Tampa
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Visitors are drawn to Tampa for the same qualities that lure thousands of retirees to the Sunshine State every year: balmy weather, beautiful beaches and a laid-back attitude that makes you feel like you're on vacation all year long. Downtown Tampa is small enough that it's simple to get around by car or public transportation, and there's easy access for everyone to nearly all of the city's major attractions.
A few notes about 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. The city is relatively easy to navigate by car, so this is generally your best option even when you're downtown. Tampa's public transportation system consists of buses, trolleys and streetcars run by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). HART vehicles are handicap-accessible, and paratransit service is available to qualified passengers (see Web site above for details).
Home Away From Home
The Renaissance Tampa Hotel at International Plaza is one of Tampa's newest -- and loveliest -- properties. It's modeled after a grand Costa del Sol mansion, with Mediterranean influences throughout -- from the tempting tray of rare olives in the lobby to the sun-splashed courtyard and bright, airy guest rooms. The presence of the Pelagia Trattoria in the lobby means you don't have to go far for a fabulous dinner (the cuisine is, of course, Mediterranean). The hotel is located alongside International Plaza, an upscale mall near Tampa International Airport, just a 15-minute drive from downtown. Seniors (62 and up) can save 15 percent or more on nightly rates.
If you'd rather stay downtown, try the recently refurbished (and reasonably priced) Hyatt Regency. A nearby trolley stop offers easy access to the cruise terminal, Ybor City and the Old Hyde Park shopping district. If you have a car, you can easily hop onto nearby I-275 to the airport, St. Petersburg or the Gulf beaches. Rooms are clean and comfortable with standard amenities. Ask about special rates for seniors.
A conveniently located hotel that will suit seniors on a budget is the La Quinta Inn at the Tampa Bay Airport, six miles from downtown Tampa. Breakfast is free, as is the airport shuttle that runs every hour. Not up for a night out? There are about 20 affordable restaurants within walking distance. Rooms are unpretentious and clean. The hotel offers both AARP and senior citizen discounts.
Start your first day alongside the cruise terminal at Channelside. Along with the activity in Tampa's busy cargo and cruise ports, you'll also find the American Victory, a vessel built in the 1940's that served as a military cargo carrier in three wars. A self-guided tour of the ship gives you a peek at places like the crew and officer mess halls, the hospital, the engine room and the captain's stateroom. Note: The ship is not handicap-accessible, and requires some stair-climbing to get between decks.
An alternative to touring the American Victory is to hit the shops at Channelside Bay Plaza. The Florida Aquarium is also nearby, and it's well worth a visit if you don't mind sharing the space with flocks of enthusiastic kids. For more details on the aquarium, see day one of Taking the Kids: Three Days in Tampa.
At lunchtime, climb aboard another, more modern vessel: the Yacht StarShip. It's the first dining yacht in the U.S. to earn a three-diamond rating from AAA, offering dishes like salmon with lemon tarragon sauce and chicken carciofo stuffed with goat cheese. The lunch cruises are laid-back and informal, accompanied by narration on the history of Tampa's seaport. Head out onto the top deck after your meal to soak up some sunshine and enjoy views of the city's skyline and the shimmering waters of Hillsborough Bay. Be sure to let the staff know at the time of booking if there are any handicapped members of your party.
The yacht doesn't sail for lunch or brunch every day; if it's unavailable, or if you'd rather eat on land, try one of Channelside's many restaurants. We like the exotic Asian offerings at Thai Thani.
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.) Here you can sneak a peek at the city's multicultural past, preserved in red brick and wrought iron. Ybor City was founded by a Spanish immigrant in 1886 but was soon filled with immigrants from a variety of nations, particularly Cuba, Spain and Italy. Most of them found employment in the large brick cigar factories, where they rolled tobacco into as many as 400 million cigars a year. Most factory workers lived in small houses called casitas, many of which remain today. Though the cigar industry began to wane in the late 1930's, you can still see some of the factories and also 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, which offers interesting tidbits on what it was like to work in a cigar factory -- like the fact that "lectores," or readers, would provide entertainment during the workday by reading from newspapers and classic novels such as "Don Quixote." Adjacent to the museum is a small but lush garden courtyard, a peaceful spot to sit and rest in the sun; access is included in the price of admission to the museum.
If you have some time left in the afternoon, walk across the street from the museum. There you'll find several casitas, former cigar workers' houses that were relocated and restored, and are now home to art and craft galleries. One of Tampa's most distinctive artists is now in residence in one of the casitas; aptly dubbed "the Tobacco Artist," Arnold Martinez crafts paintings of Tampa landmarks using a variety of media, including tobacco leaf extract, Cuban coffee, beer, tea and wine. His gallery is open to the public (to purchase or just to look) on select days of the week.
When you're ready for dinner, walk or drive (it's about six blocks from the casitas) to the Columbia Restaurant, a Tampa institution that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005. On the exterior walls of this sprawling restaurant (it takes up a whole city block) are hundreds of authentic Spanish tiles, and inside are 11 dining rooms accommodating nearly 1,700 patrons. The restaurant may feed a crowd every night, but the food doesn't suffer. If you like garlic, don't miss the 1905 salad -- which, as you might guess, has been on the menu since the restaurant opened! Fabulous live flamenco shows are offered here every night but Sunday; a cover charge applies, and reservations are recommended.