Foodie heaven offers a different perspective on a Florida break
Visit Tampa Bay
Tampa is a US city packed with culture and restaurants which make it a food-lovers' dream, as our sports reporter David Freezer discovered when he visited Florida with Norwich City...
I’m fortunate enough to have travelled to Florida for three holidays in my life, so when the opportunity to explore a new area of the Sunshine State arose it didn’t take much persuasion to take in some winter sun.
My visit came about in quite unusual circumstances as well, as part of my job here at the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News covering the fortunes of Norwich City Football Club.
Usually that takes me and my Canaries covering colleagues to all corners of England, in all weathers, but in November the club’s players and staff enjoyed a week of warm weather training in Tampa, on the west coast of Florida.
The trip had been put together to strengthen links with City’s official destination partner Visit Tampa Bay, allowing Daniel Farke’s promotion hopefuls the opportunity to leave the cold, windswept training pitches of Colney behind during a two-week break in their regular season schedule.
As part of that visit the travelling party, joined by sponsors, fans and competitions winners, took in some of the tourism hot spots and visited the local American football, ice hockey and baseball franchises to glean some tips from professional sport across the pond.
As part of my visit to cover the Canaries on tour I was invited to fly over a couple of days before the football party to explore some of the Tampa Bay area before a busy week of interviews and shadowing the squad kicked in.
Like many who have been to Florida on holiday before, I’d only briefly visited Tampa when travelling to the city’s major tourism attraction, Busch Gardens, where theme park meets safari for around four million people a year.
So I was immediately impressed by the high-rise buildings and modern vibrancy, mixed with the area’s Cuban heritage and culture, which made for a wonderfully welcoming place.
I arrived early evening after a long day of travelling, flying out of Gatwick on a Norwegian flight direct to Tampa International, a 10 hour flight which had started at 2pm UK time.
Initially my mind was on getting to sleep as soon as possible but a warm evening was soon lit up by the buzz of ice hockey fans pouring into town after a game for the local team, the Lightning, had finished.
From music pumping out of a speaker on the back of a huge motorcycle, to fans carrying a typically huge American pizza above their heads as they headed for a place to eat next to the Hillsborough River, it was a welcome which had me eagerly awaiting the chance to explore further the next morning.
By the end of the week I’d had the opportunity to try one of those huge pizzas, from Eddie & Sam’s New York Pizza, while visiting the Cigar City brewery – a great way to top off the week!
It was a visit to Anise Global Gastrobar for dinner on the opening night though, similar to our very own Zak’s in Norwich, starting out as a food van but now one of downtown’s trendiest eateries. The stinky buns among their Asian cuisine, and the truffle oil ‘tater tots’ made for an ideal light meal with plenty of taste, before some welcome sleep.
After inevitably waking up at 4am thanks to the jet lag of being five hours behind UK time, I took the opportunity for an early morning stroll while downtown was quiet, with the sun just breaking through as I walked through Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park to the Tampa Riverwalk, an ideal 2.6-mile stretch for pedestrians, runners and cyclists – with regular pick up points for the Pirate Water Taxi.
Nearby is the Tampa Museum of Art, where the Yayoi Kusama exhibit Love is Calling and Robert Indiana’s A Sculpture Retrospective added some modern art to the mix, while the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and the Straz Performing Arts Center all provide an injection of culture – with the impressively grand university on the other side of the river framing the scene.
The first couple of days were made even better by above average temperatures for November of around 32C during the daytime, making the beautiful surroundings of Busch Gardens a great way to spend a day. I’m not a particular fan of high-speed rides – particularly when tired and jet lagged – but there is still plenty for all the family to enjoy. It’s not every day you get up close to alligators, giraffes and penguins, to mention just a few.
But Tampa’s real hidden gem is the food – and the variety of craft beer on offer.
Oxford Exchange or Bizou Brasserie both provided elegant breakfast options, the traditional atmosphere and tastes of the Colombia Restaurant in Ybor City made for an excellent lunch and the ambitious menu at Edison: Food & Drink Lab was so good that I made sure to return for dinner before the week was out.
To be frank, I managed to pack so much into the week that I don’t think I can do it all justice in this article.
I spent the first half of my week staying at Aloft Tampa Downtown, a modern hotel in a great central location near the river, before switching to the classy AC Hotel by Marriott, near to the airport and the International Plaza shopping district.
Taking the traditional Teco Streetcar to the Colombia Cafe for a traditional Cuban sandwich before exploring more wildlife at The Florida Aquarium was another enjoyable part of the week.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Tampa, having previously spent time closer to the theme parks of Orlando, but I can honestly say I loved it.
It’s a cool city, a foodie paradise with plenty of culture, a more relaxed and modern atmosphere than a Disney-centric holiday.
That was summed up best by one of my favourite venues: Heights Public Market at Armature Works.
Only opened in 2017, there was every variety of food and drink you could think of, craft stalls, live music and with most people eating under the stars on a warm evening, it was a great place to spend an evening. If I lived in Tampa, I’d be going there a lot.
It also tied in to the general feel of Tampa as an up-and-coming place where investment is clearly pouring in, ahead of the city hosting American football’s mega-money showpiece event, the Super Bowl, in 2021. And it’s all less than an hour from the theme parks of Orlando as well, making it a great place to base a Florida holiday.
Added to that, it’s about to get easier to fly to Tampa for those of us in the east of England, with Delta beginning daily flights from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in May, making the short hop over from Norwich International far more accessible than travelling to London’s airports.
I left feeling I’d barely scratched the surface of what the Tampa Bay area had to offer, the golden sands of Clearwater Beach or going to watch an ice hockey game in particular, but I’ll certainly be back to keep exploring if I get the chance.
On a sidenote, I was also really pleased to interview Norwich legend Kevin Keelan at an open-training session at the Al Lang Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who retired in Tampa after a career which included 673 appearances for City, which is still the club’s all-time record.
So if it’s good enough for a Canaries legend...
• Stay at the Aloft Tampa Downtown from £118 on a room only basis – www.alofttampadowntown.com.
In January or February you can fly British Airways from London Gatwick to Tampa from £299 return including taxes, fees and carrier charges. Visit www.ba.com for further details.
For more information on Tampa, head to www.visittampabay.com