Planning a Caribbean cruise this year? Are you booking a flight to Miami or Fort Lauderdale so you won’t miss the boat? You don't have to. Instead, check out Tampa, one of the nation's up-and-coming cruise ports, situated on the Sunshine State's mellow Gulf Coast. In 2003, more than 810,000 visitors -- that’s a record -- shipped out of Tampa, thanks largely to the introduction of several home-ported ships and service expansion. As many as 830,000 passengers were expected to sail out of Tampa this year, 2004.
Only 20 minutes from Tampa International Airport, the Tampa Port Authority is keeping pace with increasing cruise business by expanding its facilities. In 2002, the Port Authority unveiled the 110,000 square-foot Cruise Terminal 3, which joins three other terminals. Cruise Terminal 2 was refurbished in 1998 and now boasts a 45,000 square-foot baggage area. Other passenger services include superior security, a tourism information kiosk, a spacious lounge and a 2200-space, multi-level parking garage across the street. Cruise Terminals 6 (which also accommodates ferries) and 7 also offer good passenger amenities and on-terminal parking.
Ships joining the Port of Tampa roster include Royal Caribbean International's Nordic Empress, which now originates seven-day sailings to such ports of call as Belize and Cozumel. Next year, 2005, Royal Caribbean will replace Nordic Empress with the larger Splendour of the Seas. Carnival Cruise Lines now has two Fantasy Class vessels in Tampa, the Inspiration and the Sensation with four-and five-day cruises, as well as seven-day outings. Celebrity Cruises' Horizon makes a home in Tampa. The vessel takes passengers on 10 and 11-day cruises to ports of call including Costa Rica and Grand Cayman.
Last year, eager to escape another dreary Washington, DC winter, my husband Peter and I flew to the Tampa Bay region for a week-long getaway. On Christmas Day, USAirways whisked us non-stop from Washington National to Tampa International Airport. There we picked up our Dollar rental car, and drove to the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, a beautiful pink palace on the bay. After checking in, we explored the sprawling grounds, festooned with Christmas lights. How wonderful to stroll outdoors that time of year without risking frostbite. After a refreshing mojito at the Promenade lobby bar, we dined in the graceful Terrace dining room. Our prix fixé repast began with sweet potato soup (delicious, not cloyingly sweet like some versions) followed by mesclun salad with bleu cheese. Entrée: tournedos au poivre. Peter had macadamia-crusted pork. For dessert, raspberry sorbet for me, apple strudel for Peter. Dinner tab was $145 including a glass or two of wine apiece.
The next morning, it was too cool to swim, so we walked to the pier, anchored by a flying saucer-shaped shopping/restaurant complex. The HMS Bounty is docked there ($10 admission). We didn't go aboard, as we have visited the historic ship previously. After exploring several fun shops, including a pepper emporium and DD Collectables, we visited a cramped, crowded aquarium on the second floor.
Lunch was delightful at Columbia Restaurant (an offshoot of the original, century-old Tampa landmark), overlooking the sparkling water. Later in the afternoon it was warm enough to swim, and we spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool. Cocktail hour found us once again at the lobby bar for margaritas. For dinner, we walked to nearby Chateau France, ensconced in 1901 Victorian dwelling enlivened with sparkling lights and animated reindeer. The ladies room was a trip -- the old-fashioned clawed bathtub was filled with rose petals and votive lights. We shared an oddball salad of smoked salmon and greens, followed by bouillabaisse and red snapper. Sorbet served between courses was a throwback to the 1980s. We soon learned, however, why we were almost the only customers: locals are not eager to shell out a $200 dinner tab for two.
Next day we visited the Salvador Dali Museum, an awesome experience. With my Bachelor of Arts in Art History, I thought I knew all there was to know about this wacky, Spanish-born genius. Nooo. Here's what we learned from a marvelous docent: a wealthy industrial Cleveland couple had befriended Dali and collected his work. They eventually wanted to donate the paintings but didn't want them split up. After a St. Pete City Council member saw a story about the couple's dilemma in The Wall Street Journal, he "got the ball rolling," and eventually got the treasures housed in an old warehouse. Many of Dali's paintings are bizarre, influenced by Freud, with lots of sexual overtones. Some are downright pornographic.
Then we drove across the toll drawbridge to Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa, the "other pink hotel." Plunked right on the beach, Don CeSar evoked the Caribbean (while the Vinoy seemed "old south," with the big front porch and golf course). After margaritas and shrimp salad at the pool side bar, and walked barefoot on the snowy white sand. Wonderful!
After vacationing with friends in the Sarasota area, we returned to Tampa for a pleasant day before catching our evening flight back to Washington. We crossed the Causeway and headed toward downtown, passing Legends Field (3802 W. Martin Luther King Boulevard), where the New York Yankees hold spring training. (Years ago, the team trained in St. Petersburg). It required some searching and helpful directions from locals, but we finally found Ybor City, the Cuban-American heart of Tampa. Famous for hand-rolled cigars and jumping night life, the neighborhood seems slightly run down, but still exudes a funky charm. After poking our heads in a few shops, we settled on Carmine's, 1802 East Seventh Ave. (813-248-3834) for lunch. Founded in 1946, the place has a rich history. Besides reigning as one of Tampa's top Cuban restaurants, Carmine's claims another distinction: Presidential candidates Al Gore and Joe Lieberman dined there during the 2000 campaign.
A friendly waiter with a pierced tongue (I told you Ybor City was funky) took our order for Cuban sandwiches (roast pork, ham and cheese pressed in special bread), accompanied by rice and black beans, another Cuban staple. The refreshing local beer, Ybor City, is brewed nearby.
Even more famous is the original Columbia Restaurant, situated down the street at 2117 E. Seventh Avenue (813-248-4961). which we visited several years ago. Dating from 1905, the establishment is an old-world vision of Spanish tile with a cigar bar and nightly flamenco show.
Had we more time to spare, we would have also visited Tampa's lively Channelside, sprawled by the waterfront adjacent to the Port Authority. Strollers can watch the cruise ships come and go, or else visit the 150,000-square-foot Florida Aquarium–with 10,000 aquatic plants and animals including river otters, alligators and a giant Pacific octopus. The complex also features 30 artist studios, numerous restaurants and nightclubs, 9-screen multiplex theater, IMAX movies, and umpteen shops. Other Ybor City attractions include the Saturday fish market, Ybor City Museum, the circa-1926 Tampa Theatre and the Tampa Bay History Center.
Returning to grey Washington in January was like having your color TV change into black-and-white! But we'll be back.
(Photos by Celeste McCall.)
A freelance food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., Celeste McCall loves ships, past and present. A member of the Titanic Historical Society, she has embarked on more than a half dozen very modern voyages. She has visited ports of call including Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Hong Kong; sailed through the Panama Canal, explored the Volga, climbed the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, and snorkeled in Belize.
A former writer and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, Celeste has contributed to local and national publications including Fodor's City Guide to Washington DC, Best Bets (an annual guidebook to DC), Caribbean Travel & Life, Porthole, The Washington Post, Foodservice Monthly, Lodging and Roll Call.
She is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international organization of women in the fields of food, restaurants and hospitality. When not traveling or writing, Celeste and her husband of 32 years, Peter, who shares her love of travel, like to read, lounge on the beach and cook out in their backyard. They dwell on Capitol Hill with their four cats: Eggplant, Artichoke, Gypsy, and Jesse. Celeste may be reached at email@example.com
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