Tampa sees a renaissance along the river

Paul Abercrombie

THE WASHINGTON POST – As a guy who loves to travel, I like to think I’m all about seeking out new places and experiences. Turns out when it comes to Tampa, Florida,where I’ve lived for three decades, I’d fallen into a rut.

Sure, I try new restaurants. And I’m always up for a concert. But I’ve been far too inattentive to how this once-sleepy city by the bay is experiencing a real renaissance – especially along its waterfront.

Much of Tampa feels in the midst of a major makeover, with condos and apartments, and retail and other businesses, sprouting up seemingly weekly. Better yet, many of these renovations include shade trees and other play- and lounge-worthy green spaces.

The most dramatic (and welcome to me) transformations are happening along the Hillsborough River, flowing through the heart of the city, and on the city-side shore of its channel that runs east of its mouth.

Until a few years ago, the river wasn’t so much a destination as something to cross on the way from one part of town to the other.

The Tampa Riverwalk at night. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A Pirate Water Taxi travels up the Hillsborough River; the boats offer daily tours with 17 stops along the route

If you were headed toward the channel, you probably wanted to see a hockey game, visit the aquarium or board a cruise ship.

My family has typically sampled bits and pieces of downtown’s evolving waterfront, by car, bike and occasionally on foot.

Not content to play touristic Whac-a-Mole, I decided we should more fully experience the area from a first-time visitor’s point of view.

So I booked a weekend stay for me, my wife, Gail, and our teenage son Ewan at the recently renovated Tampa Marriott Water Street hotel.

Here, where river becomes estuary, is the southern tip of the Tampa Riverwalk, a multiuse path that curves upstream along the river for nearly three miles.

This is also the western edge of the newly dubbed Water Street Tampa neighbourhood, and an ideal base for our weekend explorations.

If not for the loud clanging sounds of an even snazzier hotel being built, we likely would have slept in. But as Gail and I drink coffee on our 16th-floor balcony overlooking the water, I’m glad for the clamorous Saturday morning wake-up call.

We agree we’ve never seen so much activity on and around the water. On the river below, people of all ages traverse the water on paddle boards, pontoon boats, party barges, fishing skiffs, kayaks, old-school canoes, rentable mini-speedboats, yellow water taxis and pedal-powered paddle boats (more about this later).

Farther toward the bay, water bikers form a kind of aquatic peloton. Heading the opposite way is a dragon boat, its crew paddling in quick unison. Nearby, a foursome of rowers aboard a slender shell heeds bullhorn-delivered encouragement from a coach following close behind in a bathtub-size motorboat.

It’s equally busy on the terrestrial riverwalk, where people of all ages pass one another on bikes, inline skates, skateboards, Segways, and scooters and on foot.

Heading downstairs, Gail, Ewan and I decide the scene feels like a Dr Seuss book about modes of transportation come to life in a subtropical setting.

We opt to start the day’s explorations to our east with Water Street Tampa. Our favourite way is by old-fashioned streetcar, a stop for which happens to be across from our hotel.

Much has changed since Gail and I used to bring our toddler son by streetcar to and from the Florida Aquarium.

Today it’s part of a 50-acre mega-development funded by companies owned by the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team’s owner and Bill Gates.

A flock of construction cranes stand where all manner of places to live, eat, work, shop and play are fast being built. Your parents’ idea of a downtown this isn’t.

Think energy-saving, centralised air conditioning facilities that free up building roofs for greenery, pedestrian-and-driverless-car-centric streets, and hundreds of shade trees. We skip the stop for Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, whose playground we used to frequent, and get off at the next one, walking the last block to Sparkman Wharf.

The much-disparaged section of the old Channel side Bay Plaza that previously hid the waterfront from view has been demolished, making way for a kind of half park, half outdoor living room, complete with couches, bench swings and various chairs, and a movie screen.

Cooler fall temperatures have lured us here almost weekly to graze alfresco at any of the eclectic mix of new restaurants housed in brightly coloured converted shipping containers.

On our last visit, we sipped Negronis while watching the sunset from waterside Adirondack chairs as Ewan struck up an impromptu game of lawn chess with some younger kids. We make a pact to come soon to a movie night.

It’s almost noon, but we agree we’re still too stuffed from room service breakfast for lunch, and decide instead to hop back aboard the streetcar, riding it a handful of stops north to its terminus in the historic Ybor City neighbourhood.

Back at our hotel about an hour later, we’re just in time to see a Pirate Water Taxi boat docking across the street.

Our first time aboard, we agree we should have ridden sooner.

Though it’s nearly Halloween, the pirate theme is a clear spin-off of Gasparilla, an annual bash during which hundreds of thousands of locals and others dress up as pirates (and wenches) and eat, drink and be merry.

Cooked up by some local bigwigs around 1904 as a way to spice up the city’s annual May Day celebration, Gasparilla stuck.

Though the famed pirate for which the festival is named, Jose Gaspar, is fictional, a real pirate ship named after Tampa’s patron rogue leads a waterborne “invasion” of the city early every year, accompanied by New Orleans Mardi Gras-style street parades.

Up the river we tootle, our pirate-garbed captain pointing out landmarks along the way.

The trip upstream feels as much a journey into Tampa’s industrial past as through its present and future.

On the east bank sits a half-razed stubby office building where soon the city’s tallest building will rise.

Just ahead on the opposite bank, we spy the silvery Russian-style minarets of the University of Tampa, once the city’s first luxury hotel.

Built by railroad and hotel magnate Henry Plant, the resort helped put a late-19th-Century town of only about 15,000 souls on the map when some of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders bunked there before heading off to Cuba and into the history books.

Today, the idyllic grounds are a favourite spot for students and locals to stroll and lounge.

The river and its banks are packed with people. The sight of paddleboarders still seems a little disconcerting on a river that until the 1980s was among the country’s most polluted waterways. It’s not unusual these days to see bottlenose dolphins in the river.

It’s not until we pass the Tampa Museum of Art and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and slide under Laurel Street Bridge that I remember I’ve been here on the water before, during a nighttime fishing trip years ago. Beneath this old drawbridge, a friend recently told me, lives a colony of bats, whose dusk-time departure his young children love to see.

Gail’s been here, too, when we joined most of the grown-ups on our block for a birthday party aboard a rented pedal-powered paddle boat a couple of years ago.

By the time the water taxi pulls up to Water Works Park, we’ve worked up a thirst.

Next to the park is the restaurant and brewery Ulele. Since opening a few years ago, this pioneer in a then-derelict district has been a favourite spot for weekend jaunts with family. True to habit, we wander around the property’s natural spring, pointing out different species of fish.

We hope to glimpse a manatee; on nippy winter days, they huddle around spring-fed waters that remain a relatively balmy 70-odd degrees year round. We would love to linger, maybe join a game of cornhole on the putting-green-like riverfront artificial turf lawn, but instead amble a block farther north to Armature Works, an abandoned streetcar maintenance and storage depot that has been transformed into a hip mixed-use space with traditional sit-down and food-hall-style restaurants, and event and work facilities.

It, too, is part of a larger mixed-use neighbourhood development in the works. Eager to shower before returning to Armature Works for supper at the Steelbach restaurant, we catch a ride back to our hotel in one of the city’s freebie Downtowner cars.

Later that night, on an arm-in-arm, post-dinner stroll down the riverwalk to our hotel, we join what seems like a citywide passeggiata.

“Feels like we’re in another city,” Gail said, smiling. Agreed.