ON THE ROAD AGAIN: TAKING THE ROAD TO TAMPA

Tampa is often overlooked by potential Florida vacationers because it lacks Miami’s glitz and is squarely in the shadow of Orlando, an hour drive east, when traffic moves on I-4. That is a shame because Tampa is far more relaxing to visit than the aforementioned Sunshine State neighbors and there’s plenty to see and do here.

Way before Disney or Universal ever thought about placing a theme park in Florida, there was Busch Gardens. The attraction that put Tampa on the map is still going strong 50 years later. Busch Gardens is an interesting amalgam of zoological park, amusement park, and country fair. It has done a great job in showcasing endangered African primates and allowing them to breed, but what makes Busch Gardens famous is its not-for-the-faint-of-heart roller coasters, the Scorpion and SkeiKra, a 90-degree vertical drop ride that is almost as scary to watch as it is to ride. There are also plenty of musical revues presented throughout the day including guest acts from the past as Herman’s Hermits, Davy Jones, Chubby Checker and the Fifth Dimension.

While Busch Gardens is certainly worthy of a visit, a far less costly place to view wildlife is the Lowry Park Zoo, located just a few miles north of Busch on I-275, that is home to a large orangutan collection, as well as endangered species as the shoebill stork, and such sadly dwindling Florida natives as the red wolf, panther, and bobcat. Lowry Park is also one of the few zoos where visitors can feed any of the three giraffes. Arguably the most important work done by the zoo is that it operates as a trauma center for Florida’s largest aquatic mammal, the manatee. On a lighter note, a guilty pleasure that should be enjoyed is a cupcake at the zoo’s Sweet Shop.

Tampa’s other animal sanctuary is the Florida Aquarium located in the burgeoning Channelside district. The Florida Aquarium is not in the league, of say, the New York Aquarium or the National Aquarium in Baltimore since there are no whales or dolphins on view, but there are plenty of fish, stingrays, small sharks and turtles that are indigenous to the Sunshine State.

Channelside has Tampa’s newest tourist area, thanks not only to the presence of the Florida Aquarium but also for the airy Tampa Bay History Center which examines the city from its earliest to Seminole inhabitants to the present day metropolis that it has become.

Also drawing both locals and out-of-towners to the area is Channelside Bay Plaza, a shopping and entertainment complex whose anchor is Splitsville, an upscale bowling alley in the mold of Manhattan’s Lucky Strike and Bowlmor, where you can eat gourmet meals at the lane as you try to knock down the pins.

Tampa’s most frequented neighborhood is historic Ybor City where over a century ago, Cuban émigrés opened cigar factories. Today, hand-rolled cigars are still big business as countless tobacco shops line Seventh Avenue, but Ybor City has also become a center for Tampa nightlife. Centro Ybor, an entertainment complex that was modeled after Miami’s Coco Walk, is home to the city’s lone comedy club, the Improv, as well as to one of the largest multiplex movie theaters you’ll find outside of Times Square, and of course, numerous restaurants. An electric streetcar line connects Ybor City and Channelside.

Yankees fans know that their team holds spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Tickets for the spring exhibition games are hard but not impossible to come by. Yankees fans can also watch the team’s minor leaguers practice for free. If you come to Tampa after spring training is over, you can still enjoy baseball at Steinbrenner Field as it is home to the Tampa Yankees of the Florida State League.

There is no shortage of excellent restaurants in Tampa that do not cost an arm and a leg. Hattricks is a downtown pub whose name is derived from the hockey term “hat trick” which is used when a player scores three goals in a game. Hattricks is a short walk from the St. Petersburg Times Forum where the NHL’s Lightning play (there are $8 tickets available for most games). I heartily recommend the grouper, a fish caught in the nearby Gulf waters.

While in Ybor City, I heartily recommend La Tropicana if you want inexpensive yet tasty Cuban cuisine, as well as the Green Iguana, a popular sports pub with a Key West theme. You can’t go wrong with any of their burgers and their conch chowder is not to be missed.

Tampa’s most famous restaurant is the touristy and overpriced Bern’s Steakhouse. A far better fine dining bet is Pelagia Trattoria located in Tampa’s premier shopping center, the International Mall. Executive chef Fabrizio Schenardi hails from Turin, Italy, but spent time in Sunnyside where he met his wife. Just as Queens is diverse, so is his menu. As you would expect, there a lot of Italian and Mediterranean options but his filet mignon is every bit as delicious as you would find at Bern’s.

You’ll find lodging in all price ranges in Tampa. The Tampa Renaissance and the Grand Hyatt are located near the Tampa Airport. Both hotels offer good value, have terrific views of the sunset over Tampa Bay, and are close to the Gulf beaches in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. If you want to be closer to the action, the Hampton Inn in Ybor City is a fine choice.

JetBlue has plenty of inexpensive daily flights to Tampa International from both JFK and LaGuardia.

For more information, call 800-44TAMPA or visit www.visittampabay.com