Southern Boating

Trendy Tampa

Riverwalk Canopy in Tampa, FL

This boating-friendly city on Florida’s Gulf Coast looks toward the future without forgetting its past. Just another reason to visit Tampa.

Larry Falkif looked up and spotted an osprey off the port side and another over to starboard. “We rarely used to see these birds; now there are so many I don’t count them. They’ve more than made a comeback—they are flourishing, just like Tampa itself.” Falkif, who operates Tampa Water Taxi Company and runs a series of local voyages—a harbor tour, sunset tour, history tour, and homes of famous people tour—has witnessed the city’s rebirth over the past dozen years. Indeed, the City of

Indeed, the City of Tampa is thriving these days. Clearly on the rise, this port of call of nearly 400,000 draws boaters of all ages from across the country. It’s hip, dynamic and all about protecting its marine environment. From sightseeing and dining to shopping, fishing and catching a pro sports game, Tampa pleases even the most persnickety visitor. Better still, you can access these prospects from your own cruising platform all year long.

Falkif is happy to detail the changes and improvements he sees while sailing Tampa’s perimeter. He’ll point out small stuff that often goes unnoticed: ospreys, the latest waterfront bar or oysters growing on docks that were barren a decade ago. It’s great to have a guide to cut the learning curve, of course, but any captain worth his or her salt can sense the general vibe: This is a boating-friendly city that’s cruising in the right direction.

Situated near the mid-point along Florida’s Gulf Coast, the City of Tampa is tucked back into the protected waters of Hillsborough Bay, which itself is folded inside Tampa Bay. The downtown section is lined with newish-looking skyscrapers and attractive modern architecture. Numerous marinas provide plenty of dockage as well as easy access to the
waterfront. Edging the western shore, a Riverwalk area links high-end hotels, restaurants, museums, and parks like gems on a string. It bustles with activity yet never appears overcrowded despite both the Tampa Bay Convention Center and the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina bordering this stretch.

Also along the waterfront you’ll spy abundant riverside dining opportunities, five (soon to be nine) bridges featuring dazzling lighting after dark, the pirate ship replica Jose Gasparilla  at the mouth of the Hillsborough River, the University of Tampa, and The Florida Aquarium, among other venues.

History buffs will absolutely love this place; the City of Tampa makes no bones about putting its past on display. From its first native inhabitants to Spanish conquistadors and buccaneers—several pirates have been associated with the bay although details are sometimes sketchy—you’ll find museums, theme restaurants, and venues recounting its yesteryears, often with a nautical twist.

The central point for all things historical is the Tampa Bay History Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum with three floors of exhibits exploring 12,000 years of Florida’s past. Experience the stories of Seminole Indians, Cuban cigar rollers—Tampa’s Ybor City was once considered the Cigar Capital of the World—and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders through hands-on exhibits. (tampabayhistorycenter.org; 813-228-0097)

Another place worth investigating is the Tampa Museum of Art. Its own collection features everything from ancient Greek artifacts to modern abstracts while traveling exhibits from across the country bring new and innovative works to the region. (tampamuseum.org; 813-274-8130)

Are you a “foodie”? If so, prepare to be overwhelmed. Tampa’s diverse culture has interwoven itself within the palate of mainstream downtown through a wide assortment of tasty and original dishes. For example, Ulele, a unique restaurant on Tampa’s Riverwalk, serves native-inspired dishes and spirits from a rich variety of multicultural influences. Menu items such as Florida Jumpers (frog legs,) Alligator Hush Puppies, Crackling Pork Shank, and Chief Red Eagle Duck will challenge your tastebuds. For dessert, try the grilled pineapple served with cannoli cream.

Other dining hot spots include Café Dufrain (on the water, terrific service), Oxford Exchange (combination restaurant, coffee bar, bookstore, and home décor store across from the University of Tampa that is a favorite for lunch), and Columbia Restaurant, where my wife and I enjoyed a fun-filled night that included a fabulous flamenco  performance and some of the finest steak and seafood we have ever sampled. Located in Ybor City, it was founded five generations ago as a sandwich shop. Today, it’s Florida’s oldest restaurant and claims to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. It also sports an impressive wine list. (There’s a Columbia Café at the History Center if you want a sense of the flavor without a big production.)

On a more modest front, day-trippers seem to especially enjoy Ricks on the River Bar and Grille. Its casual waterfront atmosphere features a marina, live music and plenty of fresh oysters, bar bites and cold drinks. For modern Mexican flair, check out Hablo Taco in Channelside Bay Plaza, popular with local residents and hockey fans heading to Amalie
Arena to cheer on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Several craft breweries are also scattered around the downtown area.

Tampa is hot and trendy for nightlife as well; the city comes alive after dark. Be sure to stop by Fly Bar & Restaurant, a craft cocktail pioneer; Hotel Bar, offering famous hotel cocktails from around the world; and Franklin Manor, a social drinkery flush with hand-crafted cocktails, vibrant live music and nosh-worthy bar bites. To really experience a party-like atmosphere, visit during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival held in late January. Celebrated almost every year since 1904, it features a huge parade acclaiming the
legend of José Gaspar (also known as Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida during the early 1800s.

Of course, if you love the water and things that live in it, a trip to The Florida Aquarium is mandatory. It showcases the aquatic animals and ecosystems of Florida and the world with sharks, sea turtles, alligators, river otters, sea horses, and more. This operation
is active in research and conservation programs throughout the Sunshine State, including coral research and animal rescue and rehabilitation. No wonder its Coral Reef Gallery features a one-of-a-kind view. (flaquarium.org; 813-273-4000)

If you would rather catch fish than observe them, get ready to cast. “It’s amazing what you can hook in sight of the city skyline,” says Jason Semeyn, a local charter skipper with iTrekkers, a service paring anglers and outdoorsy types with certified guides for fishing, camping, SUP, kayaking, and other adventures.

“You’ll find redfish, snook and jack crevalle on the flats, plus sea trout over grass beds,” advises Semeyn. “In the middle of the bay, you can troll diving plugs along the edges of deep shipping channels for big gag grouper. Tampa Bay may be the only place in the world where people target grouper on the troll as opposed to bottom-fishing with bait.”

For overnight trips, Falkif says that you can’t go wrong staying at Marjorie Park Marina. “It has good service, floating docks, consistent power, and resides in a quiet city park within a no-wake zone. It’s ideal.” That’s solid advice from a skipper with a reputation for being up-front.

MARINAS

Marjorie Park Yacht Basin
(on nearby Davis Island)
tampagov.net/parks-and-recreation/parksand-facilities/marinas

Tampa Convention Center
(right on the Tampa Riverwalk with easy access to downtown)
tampaconventioncenter.com

Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina
marriott.com/hotels/travel/tpamctampa-marriott-waterside-hotel-and-marina

DINING, DRINKS & NIGHTLIFE

Ricks on the River Bar and Grille
813-251-0369; ricksontheriver.com

Ulele
813-999-4952; ulele.com

Café Dufrain
813-275-9701; cafedufrain.com

Oxford Exchange
813-253-0222; oxfordexchange.com

Columbia Restaurant
813-248-3000; columbiarestaurant.com

Hablo Taco
813-405-8226; hablotaco.com

Fly Bar & Restaurant
813-275-5000; flybarandrestaurant.com

Hotel Bar
813-533-2650; hotelbartampa.com

Franklin Manor
813-487-9990; thefranklinmanor.com

TRANSPORTATION, TOURS, ON-WATER ASSISTANCE & GUIDED OUTDOORS TRIPS

Tampa Water Taxi Company
(offers a variety of tours and point-to-point service)
(888) 665-8687; watertaxitampa.com

Pirate Water Taxi
813-390-3711; piratewatertaxi.com

iTrekkers
(guided fishing, camping, SUP, kayak, and other outdoors adventures)
(844) 468-8735; itrekkers.com

Sea Tow, Tampa Bay
(727) 547-1868; seatow.com/local/tampabay

Story and Photos by Tom Schlichter Southern Boating October 2017