|Tampa Bay, one of the world's great secluded
harbors, is a vast body of water separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a
peninsula that stretches from Clearwater on the north to St. Petersburg on
the south. Ranked among the top five best places in the nation to live in
the The 1999 Places Almanac, the city ranked among the top 15 cities in
the nation in a Forbes Magazine list of the best places for business and
In the center of this huge bay is a dogleg peninsula with MacDill Air Force Base at its southern tip. North of that is the city of Tampa, which got its name from a Native American word meaning "a bundle of sticks," a reference to the region as a campsite. Three routes - Courtney Campbell Causeway, Gandy Bridge, and Howard Franklin Bridge - connect the city to St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
On the city's west side is its award-winning Tampa International Airport which, together with the many corporations that have settled in the area, is known as the Airport/Westshore region of Tampa. Tampa International Airport ranks among the top 10 airports in the nation for on-time departures and is celebrating its 25th anniversary with passenger volume of about 14 million annually. It was also named among the nation's top 10 airports by Conde Nast Travel, one of only two Florida airports to earn a spot on that list.
Westshore is home to many corporations, lured here at least in part by the city's lauded lifestyle. Outlook Magazine rated the city among the top 10 in its "Top 25 Choice Cities" and educational opportunities here have been praised - Expansion Management Magazine ranked the city twelfth in its "Top 50 Hottest Cities" for the city's efforts to attract technology companies through cooperative educational efforts.
Here you will find some of the city's most impressive hotels, many of them with Airport/Westshore added to their names. Here, too, you will find the International Shrine Headquarters and two major sports facilities, the New York Yankees Legend Stadium and the Raymond James Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be played in January, 2001.
A major north-south interstate highway, I-75, streaks up the east side of the bay, while I-275 branches off from I-75 north of Sarasota and travels through St. Petersburg, crossing the Courtney Campbell Causeway and heading north from downtown. Those two interstate highways meet just north of town. There they create a triangle known as the Busch Gardens/University of South Florida section of town. That's where you'll find Tampa's famed Busch Gardens, home of wild rides and wild animals, and an attraction that ranks among the top crowd pleasers in Florida. Other attractions in that vicinity include the Tampa Greyhound Track, the Museum of Science and Industry, Adventure Island water park and the D. G. Yuengling Brewery. Temple Terrace, a suburb, can be found here, too.
Tampa's Hillsborough River winds its way through the Busch Gardens/University of South Florida section of the city and through downtown Tampa, bisecting the city as it makes its way to the sea. On the east side of the river, you will find a number of attractive hotels in the city's downtown core. Points of interest in this part of town include Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa Performing Arts Center and the main office of the Tampa Hillsborough Visitor Information Center. Here, too, are the city's downtown stores, banks and government offices.
On the southern edge of downtown Tampa is tiny Ybor City, a municipality that made its mark on the region as the center of the cigar industry when cigarmakers moved here from Key West after a fire destroyed the industry there. Ybor City covers only about 10 streets in either direction, but on and around those streets is a wealth of history. Solid brick warehouses that once served as cigar factories (some still do) are now home to offices and shops. And thanks to a concerted restoration effort, Ybor City is the liveliest spot in town on weekend evenings when the party starts at dusk and ends in the wee hours. Ybor City's narrow streets are home to a host of bistros, dance clubs, cigar stores and speciality shops and exhibits in the Ybor City Museum chronicle the city's colorful history. To take a look at a working cigar factory, drive by Cuesta-Rey Cigars, 2701 16th St., Ybor City. No tours are offered, but the building's carefully restored architecture is impressive. A block or so away, you will see the crumbling remains of a big brick tobacco warehouse no longer in operation, capsulizing the city's cigar history.
Traveling east of Tampa on I-4, built to connect Tampa to Daytona through Orlando, will bring you to Plant City, a farming community renowned for its annual strawberry harvest and an array of special events that surround that. Out this way is the teensy town of Thonotosassa (a Native American word denoting a place to find flint) where one of the most intriguing restaurants in Central Florida, Branch Ranch, doles out rib-sticking, family-style meals served at wood picnic-style tables in a huge barn of a building with a massive fireplace.
On the southern edge of downtown Tampa, the Garrison Channel passes between Harbour Island, home to the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel, which anchors a cluster of shops and restaurants, and the Garrison Pier, home to the new Tampa Waterside Marriott. Here, too, you will find the Tampa Convention Center, which houses a branch of the Tampa Hillsborough Visitor Information Center, a new Ice Palace Arena, home of the Tampa Bay Lighting professional hockey team, and the Florida Aquarium fittingly tucked in near the sea.
Soar across the glittering waters of Tampa Bay on one of its three bay-spanning causeway/bridges and you'll find you're on a peninsula that is home to downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg. North of Clearwater is the tranquil little town of Dunedin, founded by Scots and still dedicated to keeping that heritage alive in annual festivals and monthly bagpipe concerts. East of Dunedin is Safety Harbor, home to a popular spa.
Still farther north on the peninsula is Palm Harbor, a Tampa Bay bedroom community, and Tarpon Springs founded generations ago by Greek sponge fishermen.
Courtney Campbell Causeway, which crosses Tampa Bay in a sweep of bridges and multi-lane macadam, becomes Gulf to Bay Parkway when it reaches Clearwater and travels on to Clearwater Beach. If you turn south, you can follow the signs to reach a host of island communities sometimes promoted as the Holiday Isles.
Here's a look at that string of islands that play such a vital part in the life of leisure travelers in the region.
Traveling from north to south, your first stop is Clearwater Beach, named for just what its moniker suggests, crystalline waters clear as teardrop.
Next comes Belleair Beach, which provides sand for the massive, historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel which is actually located a few miles from the sea in the mainland town of Belleair.
Continuing south on the beach road, you find Indian Rocks Beach, which got its unusual name from jagged red rocks that trim the shoreline. A quiet strip of beach, the town is well-known to fishing enthusiasts who come here to drop a line into warm, fish-filled waters that swirl around the city's 1,041-foot fishing pier, said to be the longest in Florida. Under it frolic mackerel, kingfish, groper, sea trout, tarpon waiting for a hook!
Redington Shores is home to John's Pass Village, which is just that, a cozy village snuggled between a pier and wooden walkways. A rustic, casual spot, it bears a strong resemblance to northern coastal fishing villages but, fortunately, the water's much warmer! To be sure you don't forget where you are, the village has posted a few road signs indicating its 1,105 miles to Greenville, PA, and 1,157 miles to Chicago from here. In February, when the temperatures are hovering in a comfy 70-degree range, that's comforting information for many a traveler. John's Pass Village's biggest claim to fame hereabouts: its annual John's Pass Seafood Festival, a November event that attracts thousands to a feast of local seafood treats.
Madeira is the Spanish word for wood and early explorers saw such a large pine forest when they landed that they named this ribbon of sand Madeira Beach. You'd be hard pressed to spot much wood here these days but the beach glitters as does the sea and this small town is home to a cluster of small, simply decorated, kick-off-your-sandals inns with welcomes as warm as the temperatures.
Florida's the land of the brave, the free....and the canny! Nowhere is that any more evident that in Treasure Island which got its name from one of the more whimsical stories of Florida wacky real estate developers. Seems a promoter, whose sales chart recorded somewhat less impressive results than he'd planned, dreamed up a sure-fire sales pitch: he told the world that a treasure was buried here and, sure enough, folks flocked to find it. What they found was that salesman, contract and pen at the ready. Despite that nice try, his shot at a fortune fizzled but the name stuck. A few large hotels here are joined by a raft of smaller properties, all of them focusing their 'treasure' tales on the strip of sand and sea available to visitors.
St. Petersburg Beach is the official beach for the St. Petersburg region and it's the busiest of these island that stretch along the coastline like a ribbon trailing off the edge of a package. Packed with restaurants, motels, hotels, shops and souvenir sellers, the beach is, well...beachy. Crown prince of the strip is the antique Don CeSar Hotel that's been luring guests for generations - F. Scott Fitzgerald and his Zelda stayed here, among many other notables. Otherwise, the summer crowd is composed largely of families who roll over from St. Petersburg proper, about a 30-minute drive away, to settle in for a day, a weekend, or a couple of weeks of beachside rest and relaxation. In winter, 'snowbirds' from northern states fly in to fill rooms and restaurants.
One of Florida's oldest strips of vacation beach, pretty little Pass-a-Grille Beach is a secret hideaway visited by those in the know. As casual as casual can get (sandals are formalwear here)its pretty Eighth Street is short but seductive, with palm-fringed beaches stretching out alongside glittering aquamarine seas whose waters are warm all year long. Pass-a-Grille got its unusual name from some early French settlers who penned in the name Passe-aux-Grilleurs on a map to indicate that this spot was used by fishermen who crossed over the island at this point but stopped here to grill dinner. Officially called Long Key, this tiny spit of land has a wide, wide beach and is a quiet spot much loved by those in search of serenity, seclusion.
After you've explored the islands, you can find your way back to I-275 and travel on that interstate highway to Bradenton, Sarasota, and points south, via the impressive Sunshine Skyway Bridge, itself a soaring tourist attraction.
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