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A world of adventure.

BUT when the sun dips over the yardarm, Tampa Bay's nightlife springs into action. And if you fancy some yo-ho-ho, a few rums and a taste of a bygone era, you could always head for the lively bar named after the infamous buccaneer.

Gaspar's Grotto is owned by retired sea captain Eric Schiller, who whips up the atmosphere as his alter ego, Captain Ehab.

It's a pirates' paradise, with raucous entertainers, a famous bar cat called Tanker Ray, and some particularly fearsome grog - as we found out to our cost.

The following morning, with heavy heads, we spent a few hours recovering beside the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino's swimming pool.

The hotel side-steps Florida's strict gambling laws because it's built on land owned by the Seminole Indians. But after the previous night, we didn't feel like parting with any pieces of eight in the casino just yet.

Instead, we went in search of dolphins in Tampa Bay.

We joined the Dolphin Quest Eco-Tour on the Bay Spirit catamaran, which departed from The Florida Aquarium. Sadly, we didn't see Flipper or his pals, but the sea air proved a great hangover cure.

For anyone who thinks Florida is just beaches and amusement parks, think again.

For starters, JB Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures offers the chance to get on your horse and take a guided nature tour around a working cattle ranch.

On the two-hour tour we rode through 600 acres of pine flatwoods, sand pine ridges and pastureland at the Anclote River Ranch in Pasco County.

Our guide explained the history of the Starkey family dating back to 1899 and about the 'cracker' cowboys. They rounded up herds using dogs and bull whips, hence the nickname.

If you don't fancy being a cowboy for a day, you could always visit the manatee and aquatic centre of the Lowry Park Zoo. Injured manatees are cared for here before being released back into the wild.

And if museums float your boat, the Henry B Plant Museum is worth a look.

Built in 1891 by Plant, who brought the railway to Tampa, the museum was once the Tampa Bay Hotel - a playground for the rich and famous. Today, it's museum is a national historic landmark and part of the University of Tampa.

You could even take in a game of American football. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of course, are owned by the Glazer family, who controversially took over Manchester United.

Everyone should make time for the historic Ybor City (it's pronounced 'ee-bore'), named after Vicente Martinez Ybor, who fled Cuba to set up a cigar-rolling factory here.

Once, Tampa's claim to fame was as the cigar capital of the world, the place where 12,000 master tabaqueros once handrolled 700 million cigars a year.

Italians, Cubans and Spaniards all came to work in the cigar factories, turning Ybor City into a multi-cultural melting pot.

Much of that old community vibe is still evident today with modern bars and restaurants housed in old Latin quarter-style buildings.

On weekend nights, Ybor's 7th Avenue is closed to cars. Up to 40,000 fun seekers converge on the district in search of a good time and music flows out into the avenues creating a street-party atmosphere.

If you can only party on a full stomach, where better to stop for some refreshment - and maybe indulge in some star-spotting - than Tampa's famous Bern's Steak House?

It's a favourite haunt of the likes of President Bush, Cameron Diaz and John Travolta, although you wouldn't know it by looking at it. Outside, the austere, all-white building resembles a warehouse.

But inside is a revelation. The two-storey entrance hall is partbaronial, part-bordello. Beyond it is a rabbit warren of dining rooms, each with its own distinct, slightly kitsch theme.

Once seated, our waiter Trebor (I kid you not) produced a menu the size of a phone book and we ploughed through the many dishes on offer. Obviously steak was big on the menu with 50 types to choose from, but there was plenty for veggies, too.

Decisions, decisions. Having chosen the cut, size etc of my steak, I then had to pick a dressing for my salad from a startling array of options. I plumped for vinaigrette and was then offered three versions.

Bern's also boasts that it has the largest wine list of any restaurant in the world - a claim backed up by a cellar containing some 6,500 different labels.

After being fed and watered, I was off to explore Tampa's shopping malls.

International Plaza, home to more than 200 stores, including Gucci, Diesel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tiffany & Co, is so keen to get the tourist dollar that it provides a shuttle service to the mall from various hotels, as well as to and from the airport.

SundayMercury@mrn.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

DIFFERENCE: in Tampa you can enjoy the beautiful scenery' DESIGNER: the art deco entrance to the Semiole Hard Rock Hotel and a Gucci shop
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jan 22, 2006
Words:827
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