At the exact minute that this is being written, I’m on the train to Washington, DC. I’m watching the homes and highways fly by and thinking about the week I just spent in Tampa. My grandma moved there a few years back so that she could have a piece of paradise for her own. I try to make it down once a year and seeing as how I’ll be traveling for the foreseeable future, I figured that Tampa would be a great stop on my trip. It’s a pretty safe bet, as I know that I’ve always enjoyed it previously. There is so much more to the greater Tampa area than the metro sprawl which is, more often than not, congested and far too busy for my tastes.
As I was sitting in Brunswick County, wondering what the best way to get to Tampa was, I received a message online from an old friend. She was leaving around the same time that I had planned to and was wondering if I might not feel up to being some company on the drive down to Florida. The drive alone was incredible and worth the trip. It was unbelievable to see the destinations I stopped at last winter on the sailboat trip but from the highway. It really put things into perspective when I realized that in the space of three hours in the car, we had made the distance it took us three days to cover on the water. Considering it all, both methods of travel have their merit but this time around, I was glad to cover the distance in a day.
On the trip down, one thing that I can’t forget to mention is the dinner I had in Daytona. Tijuana Flats is a Mexican restaurant that I was introduced to on the way to Tampa. They’re located across from the race track and they pride themselves on fast service, fresh ingredients and a hot sauce bar full of their signature sauces that range from mild to way too hot for the normal palate. The interior of the restaurant is an explosion of colorful art and murals and the staff is friendly and fast. One of the most appealing things about eating there is the ease with which your order reaches you after ordering. When you place your order, you give your name and after it’s prepared, they come out of the kitchen asking for you. It’s nice to feel like your service is personal and they definitely know how to accomplish that. Apparently they have some locations in the Raleigh/Cary area, so if you have the time, go eat! Definitely worth the time and money.
I have to admit that wading around in salt water, barefoot, tagging my friends on Facebook in palm tree pictures from 76 degree weather in December was pretty cool. It isn’t often that the month of my birth coincides with swimming weather. I had decided on Tampa as a destination long before I left NC because I knew that the perfect way to experience the first part of winter is with Jimmy Buffett songs and cold drinks in warm weather. When I got to my Grandma’s house, I started to plan for an interesting time. I’ve taken it upon myself to enjoy things worth sharing with the people who take the time to read these articles and by doing so, it allows me the ability to look for things that might not normally be found by the average traveler. I decided to stay away from the urban sprawl of metro Tampa and to focus on several of the other outlying communities. One of the most interesting places I found was in Oldsmar, Florida.
Still in the greater Tampa area, Oldsmar boasts a slightly less congested area with some of the coolest spots around. A must see here is an unlikely cold water lobster place. Called Lobster Haven, the tasty critters are grown and harvested on site in huge tanks in an unassuming strip mall. They have a dining area and a chef who definitely knows his way around that particular crustacean. They’ve been open for 9 years and have served countless customers, either on-site or providing the lobsters and other seafood to restaurants, chefs and homes.
Another of the outlying towns around Tampa that must be seen to be believed is Tarpon Springs. If you own a sponge, odds are it came from the sponge docks there. The waterfront is exploding with gift shops, restaurants and other unique little nooks. The sponge diving history goes back over a hundred years. In the 1880s, Greek immigrants were first enticed into diving for sponges and since then, the docks they’ve operated from have been a center point for an industry that is still going strong. The Greek connection to Tarpon Springs is still thriving today and is evident from the many restaurants whose only fare is Greek food. The authenticity of it can be smelled, very strongly (and wonderfully) from the sidewalks and the waterfront.
Another reason to visit is the Tarpon Springs Aquarium. A family owned and run operation, it boasts a 120,000 gallon central tank that is filled with sharks, tarpon and other native inhabitants of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The day that I visited, I was lucky enough to encounter a very helpful volunteer by the name of Ryan. This young man ensured that any and all question I may have had didn’t go unanswered for very long. A veritable information kiosk himself, he told me not only about the inhabitants of the aquarium but also a great bit about the aquarium itself. Filled to the brim with rescued pythons and boas, the aquarium provides a rescue service to many local unwanted pets and overstocked zoo patrons. Their adult alligator is housed with a humongous alligator snapping turtle and is flanked by a tank with a couple of juvenile alligators to show the size differential that the beasts exhibit over age. The highlight for me though, was the interactive stingray and shark exhibit. Two large open tanks house not only rays and skates but also a number of sharks. Shrimp can be purchased and fed to the animals. The shark tank is covered with a wire mesh but the ray and skate area is open and touching is encouraged. Don’t worry, they have been (and are frequently) relieved of their barbs.
After Tarpon Springs, I would have to suggest that you make a visit to the Safety Harbor area. As this is where my Grandma lives, I’ll admit that it’s where I spend most of my time but not without good reason. As an admitted history junky, the fact that this area was most likely inhabited for the last 6,000 years, or more, is a pretty intriguing fact. In fact, the Tocobaga people relied on the area’s natural resources from the Stone Age until 1528, when Panfilo de Narvaez “discovered” the area. Shortly afterward, in 1539, Hernando de Soto found what he believed to be the Fountain of Youth, missed by Ponce de Leon, a series of natural springs that welled out of the earth, used by the natives and still utilized today by the Safety Harbor Spa.
Nearby the site, you can find the Baranoff Oak, a historically registered oak tree thought to be between 300 and 500 years old. The trunk of this tree is nearly 20 feet in diameter and it stretches, cephalopod-like, in all directions, filling nearly an entire city block with its bulk. Named for Dr. Salem Baranoff, a one-time owner of Safety Harbor Spa, it sits inside of its fence in Baranoff Park.
While in Safety Harbor, another thing to watch for is the Whistle Stop Grill and Bar. It’s located about a mile away from the Baranoff Oak, tucked away across some railroad tracks. As laid back as they come, this restaurant boasts of a menu with fresh foods that meld Latin, European and American ingredients in a way that is distinctly Floridian in nature. I enjoyed their Fried Green Tomato sandwich on ciabatta bread with a side of black beans and rice. To say that it was tasty would be a huge understatement and a disservice. It was unbelievable. They provide live local musicians too, several times a month and have a very well appointed full service bar with a friendly and personable staff. The service is fast without seeming rushed and the dining area is open air but comfortable and clean.
Regardless of where in Florida you travel, nature will remind you that once you are that far south, you cannot escape noticing it. “Do not feed the Alligators” is posted around every retention pond and boat access. There are signs posted everywhere that remind you “Do not molest wildlife” or “Disturbing Manatees is a crime!” The most prevalent and easy to spot animal though, by far, are the lizards. Bahamian Anoles and Florida Scrub Lizards constantly skitter from fence to fence, across sidewalks, over porches and under stairs. They chase each other around trees and very literally dot the landscape. For a reptile nut, like myself, it is heaven. They are quite a bit faster than the Green Anoles I know from Carolina and I’m ashamed to admit that I was only able to catch one and he escaped my clutches to regain his freedom after about 3 seconds. The number of birds that can be found is mind boggling as well. Herons, egrets, osprey, woodpeckers and even owls are in abundance and while most can be spotted, those that cannot can be heard quite easily.
Rather than getting lost in the multitude of vacationers along Florida’s east coast, I would suggest taking a Gulf Coast trip. The pace of life is easier to catch up to and the people are far more likely to be friendly rather than only interested in your contributions to their economy. The urban areas are only a short drive from some of the most magnificent and accessible places in the state. Parks dot the roadside with startling frequency and most have breathtaking views and historical tidbits to offer. Go to Tampa. Take your time. It’s the best way to do it.