Falling In Love With Florida's Secret Gem, Tampa

Posted 12/14/2009

It may sound strange to refer to Tampa as a well kept secret, but if you think about Florida vacations, you probably think of Miami, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and the like. I had never been to Tampa until my recent trip, and I will admit to having never given any real thought to this city as a vacation destination. From the time I stepped off the plane at Tampa's own international airport, that all started to change.

The first thing that has to be said about Tampa: Perfect weather. Almost constant sunshine, very rare rain, and a temperature warm enough that you can wear shorts nearly year round. My October visit still gave me several chances to hit the stroll the waterfront and hit the nearby beaches. And what beaches they are! These are the beaches that you wish that all of Florida had: Uncrowded, clean, and easy to find. Only about 20 to 30 minutes from downtown Tampa, it is well worth a drive to one of the local area beaches. Your options are many, and include Clearwater Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Reddington Shores, and the crown jewel of them all: Fort Desoto Park. I spent about half a day enjoying Fort Desoto Park, and I can say it is the nicest beach I have been on in recent memory. I see why it was voted America's best beach so many times! This is really the most pristine white sand I have ever seen, and it is just a joy to stroll barefoot along this beach. There is also a huge barrier-free nature trail here that is a really fun way to enjoy the unspoiled nature of the area. It is called an "interpretive nature trail", and is totally self guided, so you can spend as long as you want enjoying the beauty of truly unspoiled nature.

Busch Gardens is the most famous Tampa attraction, and even though I have experienced plenty of theme parks, I heard from every local resident I spoke to that "You just can't skip Busch Gardens." I was really very glad I visited, because while this is fun for everyone, an animal lover is truly in paradise here. The animals are the best part about the place, and it truly made me feel I had gone on an African safari. I got to see zebras, hippos, giraffes, lions, and so much more. The animal keepers give fantastic and really informative talks and responded really well to questions. There are several shows that are well worth seeing, with the Animal Antics show being one of the funniest and cutest. The animals are just part of are park, however: Thrill ride lovers will find lots to do here, with rides to suit anyone. I especially liked the Skyride cable car, a great way to get around. I thought that Montu, an inverted roller coaster, was tons of fun and managed to be just thrilling enough, but not too scary to make me avoid it. Those with more courage than I were loving the Sheikra roller coaster: It is about 200 feet high and features two vertical drops. I admit I was tempted to try it, but I am planning to work up the guts for next time. Those vertical drops are even thrilling for the spectators!

For my next Tampa visitor attraction, I went to see the Big Cat Rescue. This is the world's biggest accredited large cat rescue facility. Everybody, kid to adult, will love it here. The feeling that I got at Busch Gardens of being dropped into the African plains was even more pronounced here: Watching the cougars stride around, seeing the funny little ocelots playing, and seeing the remarkably realistic looking environments combined to make me feel truly transported. The guides are especially good here, and are witty, informative, and very helpful. The tours are about an hour and a half and are well worth it. If you go in mid day, take a bottle of water with you. Trust me, you will need it. It gets a little bit hot and dusty out there, but so well worth every second.

I always enjoy getting some shopping in, and Tampa did not disappoint: Channelside Tampa, near the city's downtown area, is a great spot to go for not just shopping, but also dining and entertainment. Plenty of varied cuisine choices here, but I settled on Margarita Mama's for some truly excellent (and fairly authentic, I might add!) Mexican food. There was a live Mariachi band and a great party atmosphere, so there was a little bit of a wait for seating. Well worth the wait, however. After stuffing myself, I decided to walk it off by exploring all the shops. Cute and unique offerings are all over Channelside: Everything from a surf shop to a gourmet chocolate store. The port from which all the Carnival cruise line ships depart is right next door, so you will always find Channelside full of fun and excited tourists. This is a fantastic way to have a great meal, enjoy some pretty views, and pick up the kind of souvenirs you don't find at the mall.

Tampa is a really great city, and it taught me something valuable: Don't judge a city before you've really been there. I had been expecting it to be a snooze-fest, and instead found myself with so much to do that I was happily exhausted at trip's end.

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