Tampa Bay: A region rich in outdoor allure

The melting pot of the Florida west coast provides a plethora of culinary and leisure activities.

November 10, 2013 03:18
THE WORLD CLASS beach at Clearwater, Florida.

Tampa 370. (photo credit: Ben Franks)

It’s a bright, sunny, warm Sunday Florida morning: Cloudless skies, the beckoning blue Tampa Bay to my right and left as I drive west on Route 60 across the Courtney Campbell Causeway. I’m on my way to Clearwater, located on the west coast of the sunshine state and next door to Tampa, the largest city on the Gulf-of-Mexico side of Florida. In seconds, I’m convinced that just to gaze at the shiny blue waters will relax any visitor.

A third city, St. Petersburg, lies about 15 miles southwest across the bay from Tampa.

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Actually the metro area of Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg has a population of nearly three million.

Tampa, which boasts about 335,000 residents, sits on Tampa Bay at the entrance to the Hillsborough River and is the county seat of Hillsborough County.

Approaching Clearwater, it’s not hard to see the joggers, cyclists, walkers and fishermen on the causeway’s pedestrian pathway, obviously enjoying what this popular winter resort excels in: sun and sand. It’s mid-October, and the tourists have already begun to escape from the chilly north to Clearwater.

With its world-class beach, this resort town is a common year-round destination for its festivals and amazing marine life. One noted happening is the annual fall Clearwater Jazz Holiday, featuring four days and nights of live music.

Tourists usually head to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is home to Winter, the famous dolphin with the prosthetic tail who starred in her own blockbuster 3D movie, Dolphin Tale. By the way, I hear talk of a new $160 million aquarium downtown – that is, if the voters approve.

Since Clearwater is on the west coast, visitors usually take a peek at nightly sunsets at the free Pier 60 Park Festival, which features artisans, crafters, street performers and musical entertainment. Seafood and fish abound in this city, especially at spots with names like Frenchy’s South Beach Café and Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar – both on S. Gulfview Boulevard.

After a day at the beach, I head back to Tampa for some great restaurants, more recreation and sports events.

Although the city has its origins in 1824, when Fort Brooke was built to keep an eye on the Seminole Indians, the first Jewish settler arrived here in 1846. Her name was Emmaline Quentz Miley, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, and her husband was a Scotsman. As the story goes, she made him sell his slaves before they married.

Development of the Tampa Bay region began after the territory became part of the US in 1845. In spite of the blockade and Northern occupation during the Civil War, the area grew rapidly. Henry B. Plant’s 1884 railroad extension to the Hillsborough River provided access to new areas, and he built lavish hotels along his rail line to attract visitors.

One popular attraction is Tampa’s Ybor City, which covers about 2 square miles between Nebraska Avenue and 22nd Street, and Columbus Drive and East Broadway.

The neighborhood is a good spot especially for those looking for a night on the town.

In 1886, a Florida tobacco processor, Vincente Martinez Ybor, established the cigar industry in what is now Ybor City. To this day, one can see a Cuban influence and the legacy of the Cuban cigar industry; aficionados frequent the many neighborhood tobacco outlets.

At the turn of the century, Ybor City became home to Cuban immigrants looking for a new homeland. From the steps of one of the Ybor factories, Jose Marti, sometimes called the George Washington of Cuban independence, exhorted the cigar workers to take up arms against Spain in the late 1800s.

In this neighborhood, we stroll along East 7th Avenue, past nightclubs, bars, cafes and tattoo parlors, to the Columbia Restaurant at No.

2117. (By the way, as we walked down that busy avenue, we spotted a sign that said the famous “Rough Riders” – led by Teddy Roosevelt before he became the 26th US president – had ridden down this street on their way to battle in the Spanish-American War. We also were told that those US volunteer cavalry riders encamped here.) The Columbia Restaurant (www.columbiarestaurant.

com) has been billed as a “Florida tradition” since 1905, when Casimiro Hernandez founded it, and it is now known as Florida’s oldest – and the nation’s largest – Spanish restaurant.

Famous for its paella and fish and tapas, the establishment celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005 and is a popular tourist destination. Now in its fourth and fifth generations of family owners, it also features flamenco dance performances.

I marvel at the hand-painted tiles depicting the world of Don Quixote. The restaurant can seat more than 1,700 in 15 dining rooms, and the night we visit, there are many celebrations and parties going on, giving the restaurant a festive atmosphere.

Most of the early Jewish settlers in Tampa first came to Ybor City and set up businesses.

Some entered the cigar industry. At the same time, the Spanish-American War in 1898 brought prosperity to local businessmen. By the end of World War I in 1918, Tampa’s Jewish community was the second-largest in the state, partly as a result of the real estate boom. With the advent of World War II, Tampa’s shipyards were reactivated.

After the war, development resulted in an enlarged Jewish community.

Until now, conventional wisdom has had it that residents from the US midwest settle on Florida’s west coast and that metro New Yorkers and New Englanders, including Jews, move into retirement on the state’s east coast.

This may now be changing.

There has been a new influx of Jews from the New York metro in the Tampa Bay area, which in the past decade has succeeded in raising its seaport and airport to international standards as well as sponsoring major-league sports franchises, according to Jack Ross, executive director of the Tampa Jewish Community Center. Indeed, there are new sports stadiums for the regular baseball and football season and for baseball’s spring training, plus a hockey franchise.

The Florida west coast’s “melting pot” of those hailing from up north has made the Tampa Bay area a marketing testing ground for regional restaurant chains, with many opening up in the area – though there is no kosher restaurant in Tampa. Nonetheless, Chabad Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski points out that Chabad sponsors a kosher food delivery service known as Dina’s Kitchen (koshertampa.

com), which services all the hotels in the Bay area.

Chabad holds a free Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings as well at its center at 14908 Pennington Road in Tampa; services are at 6:30 a.m.

every weekday, 10 a.m. on Shabbat, and 9 a.m. on Sunday.

Dubrowski stresses that there are 10 Chabad centers in the Tampa Bay area, a community that he describes as “more laidback, more reserved, with a lower cost of living” than that of its coreligionists on Florida’s east coast, where most of the state’s nearly 700,000 Jews reside.

Noting that there are two Jewish day schools in Tampa, Dubrowski says the community is attracting a gyounger generation, and not just seniors seeking a great place to live in retirement. He is proud to have been part of a delegation that brought Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn on a visit to Israel.

As noted, Tampa in Hillsborough County, and Clearwater and St Petersburg in Pinellas County contain about 25,000 Jews each – and counting. Discussing the Jewish expansion in the area, Ross informs us that the 21-acre Jewish Community Center campus on the north side of Tampa, at 13009 Community Campus Drive, draws about 1,000 persons each day. He points out that there are plans for a larger Jewish community building, a new JCC in the south end of the city, “which will transform both north and south Jewish communities into a Jewish communal epicenter.”

BEFORE I drive back to the east coast, I must not leave out some family sights in Tampa: the Florida Aquarium – one of the top aquariums in the country – as well as the Lowry Park Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry. And a must-visit is the city’s Busch Gardens.

Other cultural attractions include the Tampa Museum of Art, and the Henry B. Plant Museum on the University of Tampa campus.

At the end of my trip, I drive down Bayshore Boulevard, which borders Tampa Bay for nearly 5 miles without a break.

I spy beautiful mansions and the ever-present joggers, walkers, skaters and cyclists, all out in full force. This is definitely an area rich in outdoor allure.

The writer, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey: A Novel (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). www.

bengfrank.blogspot.com; twitter @bengfrank.

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