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Tucked inside Tampa Bay on Florida's west coast, it's really no surprise that Tampa has evolved as a year-round bustling cruise port for mostly Western Caribbean and Panama Canal itineraries. Its red-hot waterfront is jam-packed with sights, sounds and surf, and is just a hop, skip and a jump away from century-old St. Petersburg and from Clearwater, one of Florida's best beaches.
Cuban-influenced Ybor City -- a short streetcar ride from the cruise terminals -- is one of only two National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida. Its narrow brick streets, red-brick buildings and wrought-iron balconies offer old-world charm. You'll also spot flamenco dancers galore and old factories selling Florida's best hand-rolled cigars, not to mention plenty of Major League teams batting up for spring training. Finally, Tampa offers up award-winning beaches to perfect your glamour tan and more than 2,000 restaurants to soothe your hunger.
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Salvador Dali tarot cards, from the store at Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Use them to tell your fellow cruisers' fortunes.
English is spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the U.S. dollar, and ATM's are readily available.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Port of Tampa Cruise Terminal, six to eight minutes from downtown.
The Channelside complex is just a short walk from the terminal. Everything you could possibly want is close at hand -- from multiplex cinemas to shopping, the Florida Aquarium and plenty of places to dine, be it fast-food or a waterside bistro. There's even a complimentary catamaran cruise around the port, although reservations are required (813-905-5014). There is a tourism information kiosk, a spacious passenger lounge, and parking garage with valet parking.
The Tampa International Airport (TPA) is five miles from downtown. Amtrak services Tampa, arriving downtown at Union Station on Nebraska Avenue. For more information, visit www.amtrak.com. Travel time from the airport via most modes of transportation is about 20 minutes. St. Petersburg is a 30-minute drive from the Tampa airport.
For seeing the sights, it's highly recommended that you rent a car. All the majors, such as Avis and Hertz, are at the airport in the red baggage claim area and across the walkway in the blue baggage claim area. Parking is relatively easy around Tampa, whether you choose street parking or the many garages.
Shuttle vans, such as Bay Shuttle and SuperShuttle provide service 24/7, leaving from all four quadrants of the baggage claim level and providing services to a number of outlying destinations.
Taxis need to be called, though you'll generally see some lined up near the hotels, the performing arts center and terminals. Two reliable taxi companies to call are Tampa Bay Cab (813-251-5555) and United Cab (813-253-2424).
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) operates Tampa area buses, trolleys and the TECO Line Streetcar System. HART's Route 30 runs buses from the airport to downtown, leaving from the east end of the red baggage claim area.
The TECO Line Streetcar System takes visitors back in time in replicas of Tampa's streetcars of the 1920s. The streetcar system whisks you on a 2.4-mile journey between downtown area hotels, the shops and restaurants of Channelside, the Port of Tampa and cruise terminals, the Florida Aquarium, and the Ybor City historic district. You can travel the entire line in only 22 minutes, giving you plenty of time to sightsee before your ship sails.
The rubber-tire In-Town Trolleys circulate around downtown and the Hyde Park Village shopping area. The In-Town Trolley connects with the TECO Line Streetcar System at the striking Southern Transportation Plaza at the southern end of the streetcar line, only a short ride from the cruise terminals.
Visitors can take advantage of the 1-day unlimited ride fare card. If your stay in Tampa will last a little longer, you can purchase a 3-day unlimited ride visitor pass, available though HART facilities and select hotels.
Watch Out For
Don't waste time straightening your hair as Tampa tends to be extremely humid, especially in the morning hours. Additionally, the summer months see more rainfall than average. Tampa has enjoyed a substantial dip in crime rates during the past several years, and now averages about that of any major U.S. city. Take safety precautions you'd take in any city.
It may not be Disney World, but Busch Gardens is unquestionably just as good. It's got it all: thrilling coaster rides, great entertainment and food, and the state's largest zoo, where you can see lots of animals roaming freely. Take a monorail through the Serengeti Plain, sign up for an African Safari or head for the Great Ape Domain. The Rhino Rally -- a 10-minute off-road safari -- is one of the newest animal attractions. If you love TV's "Survivor," you're gonna be all over this. At the end of the Land Rover ride, there's actually a competition among the co-spectators. For extremists, there's the Montu -- the largest and fastest inverted steel roller coaster in the Southeast. For channeling your inner zookeeper, there's the six-hour zookeeper-for-a-day program, which is played out in the Serengeti Plain. You'll need a reservation (800-372-1797, ext. 7). Daily 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. (hours extended in the summer). (Busch Blvd. and 40th St.)
Try to find Nemo at the Florida Aquarium. With more than 5,000 aquatic animals and plants to choose from, you might get lucky. There's also the new Dive with the Sharks, which lets certified scuba divers swim with sharks for 30 minutes. Daily 9:30am - 5pm. (701 Channelside Dr.)
Inside the old Tampa Bay Hotel is the Henry B. Plant Museum. This virtual Victorian palace offers up stunning European furnishings and art. Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sunday noon - 4 p.m. (401 W. Kennedy Blvd.)
You'll find everything from contemporary art to an outstanding world-class collection of Greek and Roman Classical artifacts at the Tampa Museum of Art. Monday - Thursday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. (120 W. Gasparilla Plaza)
See who's up at bat during spring training -- since some of the best teams call this part of the world home from October through March. The Devil Rays and Phillies are home-based in Clearwater and the indomitable Yankees have set up shop in Tampa.
The Ybor City State Museum offers one-hour tours of the Cigar Worker's House Museum (La Casita) as well as a walking tour of the district on Saturdays at 10:15 a.m. No reservations are taken. The museum complex includes the amazing Ferlita Bakery building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there is a lovely ornamental garden, too. Daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (1818 Ninth Ave.)
Been There, Done That
Clearwater: Kick back on its award-winning three-mile stretch of beach or try these Clearwater favorites:
Pier 60 Park is a wonderful family complex, offering not just the expansive beach, but also covered playgrounds, fishing, live music and a glorious Gulf of Mexico sunset any day of the year. In fact, you'll enjoy the sunset amid artists, magicians, jugglers and musicians during the free, daily (weather permitting) festival.
Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise sets out from the Clearwater Marina for two-hour sails; kids don pirate hats and go out on a treasure hunt while moms and dads relax with complimentary wine, beer and such. Daily 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. (727-446-2587)
Walk the trails and boardwalks inside the Moccasin Lake Nature Park. A 51-acre preserve, it offers bird-watching tours, workshops and guided group hikes. Tuesday - Friday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. (2750 Park Trail Lane; 727-793-2976)
For leisure strollers, nothing beats the turn-of-the-century fishing village of Johns Pass between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, where old tin-roofed wood shacks offer up art galleries, cute shops, beach bars and yummy restaurants.
For those desperate to speak to their inner deep-sea fishermen, there are the party-central boats at Hubbard's Marina at John's Pass on Madeira Beach.
St. Petersburg: For antique buffs, it's a must to wander the aisles of the more than 100 antique shops along a five-block stretch of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
For lovers of old books and first editions, we recommend stopping at Haslam's, which has been in business since 1933. Open Monday –Saturday 10 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. (2025 Central Avenue; 727-822-8616)
Visit The Pier, the inverted pyramid that juts out a half-mile into Tampa Bay. It's filled with shops, galleries, restaurants, a small aquarium, surrey bike rentals and a chance to sign up for dolphin-spotting cruises.
Stroll through the bloom-filled Sunken Gardens to see an exotic collection of more than 50,000 tropical flowers and plants. Don't miss the butterfly garden. Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m, Sunday noon - 4:30 p.m. (1825 Fourth St. N, St.; 727-551-3106)
Lovers of anything Dali -- visit the Salvador Dali Museum. It's the world's most comprehensive and incredible collection of works by the famous Spanish master. Monday - Wednesday and Friday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Thursday - Sunday noon - 5:30 p.m. (1 Dali Blvd.; 727-823-3767)
Inside the St. Petersburg Museum of History, a 1929 Model A pickup truck outfitted for bootlegging and a gorgeous beaded flapper dress are just two of the amazing items you'll see. Wednesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (335 Second St. NE; 727-894-1052)
One of the largest Holocaust museums in the country, the Florida Holocaust Museum opened in 1992 as the Holocaust Center. Renamed in 1999, the museum played a critical role in shaping legislation that made Florida the nation's first state to mandate Holocaust education in public schools. Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. (55 Fifth Street S; 727-820-0100)
For all things nature just 25 minutes from Tampa and close to Busch Gardens, take the two-hour or full-day Canoe Escape down the Hillsborough River through a 16,000-acre wildlife preserve. You'll paddle down"alligator alley," where dozens of gators, including some 11-footers, sunbathe on logs and dive into the river from the river's banks. Tour guides also point out snakes, turtles, river otters, fish and birds of prey as they relax in their natural habitat. Weekends 8 a.m. – 2p.m. (9335 E Fowler Ave., Thonotosassa; 813-986-2067)
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Indian Rocks Beach, along Gulf Boulevard, is convenient (and there are plenty of restaurants nearby).
Best Beaches for Watersports: There are two: Clearwater Beach is a gorgeous swath of sugar-fine white sand that offers everything from swimming to volleyball. At St. Pete Beach you can rent waverunners, or go scuba diving, parasailing or fishing.
Most Peaceful Beach: Caladesi Island State Park Beach is on one of Florida's last undeveloped barrier islands (you take a ferry to the three-mile beach from Honeymoon Island).
Columbia Restaurant (2117 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City) opened in 1905, and this Ybor City place is one of Florida's oldest restaurants. Filled to the nines with kitsch and history, this huge eatery also has great food. If you find yourself here in the evening, get a table near the dance floor for up-close view of the colorful flamenco dancers. Monday - Saturday from 11 a.m., Sunday from noon.
Fourth Street Shrimp Store (1006 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg) is a don't-miss beloved eatery in St. Petersburg. Boiled, fried, scampied -- doesn't matter. It's all good. So are the oysters. Daily from 11 a.m.
Mise En Place (442 W Kennedy Blvd.) serves up excellent New American cuisine that Zagat raves about. Lunch served Tuesday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Skyway Jack's (2795 34th St. South, St. Petersburg), a St. Pete's institution, has a huge menu featuring yummy orange Pecan French toast, their signature creamed chipped beef on toast and the freshest just-squeezed orange juice. Daily 5 a.m. - 3 p.m..
Tinatapa's (Channelside Bay Plaza, 615 Channelside Drive) Enjoy small plates, gazpacho, shrimp ceviche, pitchers of sangria or margaritas, before heading to the cruise terminal. Even pastries and coffee. Monday - Thursday opens at 4 p.m., Friday - Sunday opens at noon.
Closest to the Port: Tampa Marriott Waterside (4424 N West Shore Blvd.; 813-879-5151)
Middle of the Road: Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel (7700 Courtney Campbell Causeway) because it's on the waterfront and its pool is gorgeous. Hilton Garden Inn (1700 E Ninth Ave.; 813-769-3299)because its location in Ybor City can't be beat.
On a Shoestring: Red Roof Inn (5001 N US Route 301; 813-623-5245) because not only are rates low, even during the high season, but it's also less than a mile from Busch Gardens. Best Western (734 S Dale Mabry Hwy; 813-490-2378) because it's got an outdoor pool and a fitness center.
Best Overall Package: Wyndham Hotel Tampa (700 N Westshore Blvd.; 813-289-8200) because it offers a great package specifically for cruisers. The Sleep-and-Sail includes hotel pick-up upon arrival at Tampa International Airport, a one-night's stay in a traditional guest room, 15 nights complimentary hotel garage parking and one-way transportation from the hotel to the Port of Tampa.
Alternative Package: Located just 1.4 miles from the port of Tampa, Residence Inn Tampa Downtown also offers a package for cruisers. It includes suite accommodations, free Wi-Fi and breakfast, as well as gratis transportation between the hotel and the cruise port.
Staying in Touch
International Boba House & Internet Café has free Wi-Fi and great beverage options. Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Saturday noon – 9 p.m.(2764 University Square Dr., Tampa; 813-866-8569)
Globe Coffee Lounge is a funky little downtown coffee shop that also offers sandwiches, salads and desserts, in addition to music performances, poetry readings and more. Monday – Thursday noon – 1 a.m., Friday noon – 2 a.m., Saturday 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. (532 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg; 727-989-5282)
For More Information
On the Web: www.visittampabay.com
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The Independent Traveler: Florida Exchange
--Updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.