Travel: Discover two very different Florida Gulf coast gems

Tampa
Tampa

While many two-centre holidays in Florida start with the thrill of Orlando’s theme parks before heading to the coast, I’ve discovered a new and exciting combination of city and seaside.

Tampa, the state’s cultural and business hub, has a rich, diverse history to discover and a vibrant, hip dining and craft brew scene that can please all tastes. And for those who can’t quite wean themselves away from theme parks altogether there is one theme park - Busch Gardens with big rides and animal encounters.

My husband and I stayed at the Hilton Tampa Downtown which is just a short walk to shops, restaurants and many of the city’s leisure and cultural attractions. It’s also just around the corner to the first (or last) stop for the city’s TECO Historic Streetcar which can take you to many of the main attractions here, including Ybor City and the Florida Aquarium.

We’d been to Ybor City before and were keen to get back there. With its cobbled main street, 7th Avenue and historic brick buildings Ybor has a distinct and even edgy atmosphere. It was founded by 19th Century cigar magnate Vicente Martinez-Ybor and has been a melting pot of immigrants for generations, originally from Cuba.

They came to work in the flourishing cigar industry. From the 1880s to the 1940s millions of cigars were made here but wide scale industry finally stopped in the 1960s when imports of tobacco from Cuba ended.

There are, however, still a couple of cigar shops where you can buy hand-rolled cigars and at one, Tabanero, you can watch the fascinating process close up. Nowadays Ybor is Tampa’s top night-time destination for dinner, dancing and clubbing.

If you’re spending some time here a must-see is the gorgeous Columbia Restaurant, the oldest eatery in Florida, which takes up an entire block on 7th Avenue. Owned by the Gonzmart family since 1905 it’s huge with 1,700 seats and it’s very popular.

Also in Ybor, take in Jose Marti Park, a Cuban-owned oasis on US soil; stroll along Seventh Avenue for its shops and cafes in the day and after dark for its vibrant night life; visit Ybor City Museum State Park to see how the early immigrants lived and worked.

Another important name in the history of Tampa’s growth is 19th Century railroad baron Henry B. Plant. His lavish Tampa Bay Hotel was a favourite for the world’s rich and famous including Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth.

Now the H.B. Plant Museum and Plant Hall it also houses the University of Tampa. It’s fascinating to see the collection of Gilded Age furnishing, art and items brought together by Henry B. Plant and read about Tampa’s colourful history. Plant helped to turn Tampa into a centre for business and tourism, much as it is today.

Just across the Hillsborough River from here is Downtown Tampa, our hotel and many of the city’s main attractions. The 2.4 mile Riverwalk is a great place to wander, cycle or just linger. While we preferred to walk, hiring a bike is easy using a smart phone and a credit card with Coast Bike Share.

Here you’ll also find Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park a city hub and site of many events and activities. Beside the park is the Tampa Museum of Art which is a beautiful place to spend an hour or two discovering its permanent pieces and travelling exhibits, which have included art by Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell. It’s a wide ranging collection from ancient Greek objects to pop art. The museum’s Sono Café is also a popular place to sit, relax and people watch.

Picking up the streetcar just around the corner from the Hilton, is also a great way to get to one of the city’s other biggest attractions, the Florida Aquarium. It’s a very well set out environment to learn about Florida’s aquatic ecosystems and about sea life around the world. The aquarium also runs dolphin-spotting trips out into Tampa Bay several times a day. Great for adults as well as youngsters.

This goes for another favourite mode of transport in Tampa, the Pirate Water Taxi. Pick it up along the River Walk to be transported to various destinations along the Hillsborough. A day ticket allows you to hop on and off at various points along the river.

On our third full day it was time to split up. As my husband discovered what’s on offer for golfers in the area I found a charming area to shop and relax. Hyde Park Village is a pretty district with leafy streets and pretty Arts and Crafts bungalows just off of Bayshore Boulevard, the city’s most desirable residential district along the beautiful shoreline. This area also boasts the world’s longest unbroken sidewalk at 4.5 miles along the bay, an ideal jogging, cycling and walking destination.

The small, upmarket, open-air shopping district in Hyde Park is the place to go to pick up something unique whether it’s clothing, jewellery or gifts, there’s even an ATM for cupcakes at the Sprinkles bakery.

WHERE TO EAT

Ybor City

The Columbia Restaurant: Started as a bar and sandwich shop serving the Cuban population. On most nights there’s also flamenco dancing, but the star of the show is undoubtedly the food. The choices are extensive but most with a Latin American or Spanish twist with the most famous dishes including Spanish Bean Soup, the original 1905 salad, the original Cuban sandwich, and the Ybor City Devil Crab Croquette. It took us a long time to choose from the tapas, fish, meat, and paella dishes not to mention the traditional flan dessert.

Hyde Park Village

For refreshment try Buddy Brew Coffee or take a step back in time to the beautifully restored 50s-style interior of Goody Goody, an iconic burger restaurant originally opened in 1926 and a household name in Tampa not least for its exquisite pies.

City of Tampa

Haven: Sister restaurant to the famous Bern’s Steakhouse, and steps from the internationally renowned Epicurian Hotel. The main focus is on charcuterie and we enjoyed a huge platter of the best meats and cheeses. Haven’s bar is also a signature attraction with more than 300 varieties of bourbon and 40 different wines on offer.

Edison Food + Drink Lab: Chef Jeannie Pierola could be Tampa’s answer to Heston Blumenthal as she’s known to push the boundaries of cookery even with the use of liquid nitrogen. Inventiveness also applies to the drink offerings too. Your menu choices come on a clipboard which is fun, just like putting together a food ‘experiment’. The Buffalo Cauliflower hot starter is a favourite.

Ulele: Another Gonzmart-owned eatery, this is very different from the Columbia in that it’s a modern $5 million conversion from the original water pump house. It’s truly hip and amazingly popular. A favourite from the menu inspired by early native American and Spanish dishes are the charbroiled oysters. The restaurant is named for Ulele (Yu-lay-lee) a native American princess.

WHERE TO PLAY GOLF

Tampa Bay TPC is rated the 13th best public golf facility in the entire country which has hosted Champions Tour events where the likes of Nicklaus, Watson and Langer have triumphed.

Armed with some more golf balls on the advice from the pro shop staff I found the practice facilities first-rate as you get to grips with the pace of these Florida greens (a touch quicker than Hertfordshire in January!).

Once you are on the course, which opened in 1991, you quickly realise one thing – you will not play to your handicap unless you have one of those all-too-rare special days.

Many of the holes have water to negotiate and most of the greens have fearsome borrows. But it is a superb challenge and the starter will happily advise you which set of tees to play off - they cater for pretty much all standards.

My favourite hole was the 17th, a terrifying but beautiful par three where the ball has to carry a lake which runs up to the front of the green.

I finished my round at lunchtime and was delighted to walk into the bar to enjoy something cooling. It was great to see that, in this corner of America at least, the 19th hole is as important as the other 18.

Nick Jones

ANNA MARIE ISLAND

The short stay in Tampa was both fun and full of great things to experience but it was time to take the short, 45-minute drive south to Anna Maria Island.

The Gulf gem is just seven miles long and at some points so narrow you can see from one side to the other. Its beaches with pure white sand and its old Florida charm with no high rise buildings or chain restaurants are a magnet for both winter travelling ‘snowbirds’ as well as families looking for laid-back holidays.

I make no secret of the fact that I love it here. But on my latest trip I had time to delve a little into its past, which, like Tampa, has a surprising Cuban connection. But more of that later.

Staying right on the beach with sand and sea just steps away is always the ideal and the family-owned Bungalow Beach Resort on Bradenton Beach added charm to the equation.

These sympathetically and prettily converted bungalows offer a little oasis of peace and tranquility and some strategically placed loungers from which to watch those all-important sunsets. Small touches such as leaving your dirty towels out in a quaint wicker basket are fun too.

Amazingly there are three local government areas on the island, but all areas are united in setting ‘quiet’ rules that apply after 10pm and until 7am. If you are looking for all-night partying this is not for you, but it’s precisely why others, like me, love it.

In recent years, just as in Tampa, dining out is becoming ever more sophisticated. One of the island’s favourite venues is the Beach House, which enjoyed a major refurbishment in spring 2017. Sit inside or out to enjoy the beach view while you eat.

Of course, on top of the list of reasons why many visitors come to Florida is the superb seafood. And just across the Cortez Bridge, one of two used to get on and off the island, is Cortez itself, a working fishing village.

There are a handful of excellent eateries here serving fish directly off the fishing boats and you can also buy fresh seafood to cook back in your apartment. We enjoyed a superb meal cooked ourselves one night of giant shrimp and grouper.

I was also lucky to visit the annual local Stone Crab Festival in Cortez to enjoy a few tasty claws and enjoy the music and fun stalls at the same time. Also in the village is the fascinating Florida Maritime Museum housed in a former schoolhouse.

There’s a wonderful shell collection and many seafaring artefacts to illustrate how the native Calusa Indians once used dugout canoes to fish in these abundant waters and later Cuban fishermen established seasonal camps or Ranchos where they dried and salted fish to sell. This was the beginning of the fishing industry that was properly established in the 1880s by fishing families from North Carolina. Well worth a visit.

Back on Anna Maria Island we were also lucky enough to attend one of the most sought-after events of the autumn – Symphony on the Sand. It’s a fundraiser where you can choose to buy a ticket for a sit-down meal or just bring your beach chair along to enjoy the excellent musical treats from classical to pop. As the sun went down and with a glass of bubbly in hand it was truly magical.

In fact our whole stay was as usual all too short and truly magical altogether. To make the most of your visit also check out:

WHERE TO SHOP

The two main shopping streets are Pine Avenue at the northern end of the island (Anna Maria) and Bridge Street at Bradenton Beach. Here you can browse the independent shops, stop and eat and also enjoy the water views of the back bay.

There are also many other eateries and shops near the island’s central marina. Along Pine Avenue learn about the Anna Maria Island Historic Green Village with award-winning energy efficient credentials. Enjoy a coffee at the excellent café.

WHERE TO EAT

There’s something for all tastes and pockets, apart from any chain restaurants. The ultimate combo is to dine beachside and enjoy the spectacular sunset – the Beach House and Sandbar restaurants offer this, but tables are much in demand. Better to watch the sunset on the beach, then go and eat!

Americans like to eat early, so you can beat the crowds. We also loved the Blue Marlin Grill in Bridge Street. Beautiful dishes, sometimes with a twist – even Brussels sprouts. A great place to eat breakfast is Anna Maria island Beach Café on popular Manatee Beach where you can feast on all-you-can-eat pancakes.

WHAT TO DO

I enjoyed a fun but rainy dolphin watching trip in the back bay with Paradise Boat Tours. I learnt from Captain Mike and Erin that there’s a non-migratory group of dolphins here 160 to 180 strong one of only two places in the world where this happens.

The oldest Nicolo is 68 years-old and has a white fin tip. On the 90-minute trip I also learned that Cortez was once known to be the home of Michael ‘Bugsy’ Moran, Dale ‘Murph Murphy and Frank ‘Billy’ Tyne Jr, three of the six crew members lost aboard the Andrea Gail, a true story told vividly in the 1991 film Perfect Storm.

Also enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, sailing, fishing and many other watersports on the island. Get your equipment from a number of outlets around the island including Beach Bums in Pine Avenue.

HOW TO GET AROUND

Hire a golf buggy or a bike to make getting around easier, there’s also the free island trolley which is excellent. You can also call up the Monkey Bus, with a slightly hippy vibe, and travel door to door for the cost of a tip.

For more information on Tampa, visit www.visittampabay.com
For details about Bradenton and Anna Maria, visit www.bradentongulfislands.com
HOW TO GET THERE

Prices from £1,289 per person for a 10-night holiday staying in Tampa and Anna Maria Island. Price includes direct flights from London Gatwick to Tampa, room only accommodation based on two adults and economy car hire for the duration. Travel in June 2018, subject to availability. For more information or to book call 020 3355 2957 or visit www.myamericaholiday.co.uk