For any Montrealer – or for that matter, any Canadian in general – the ultimate escape from old man winter was to head due south to Florida, where you knew you can find plenty of sunshine, beaches and warm temperatures practically throughout the year. In fact, it was like a tropical paradise within the geographical confines of North America.
From the Panhandle to the Keys, Florida’s three coastlines offers sun-starved tourists a different new experience no matter what part of the state they choose as their vacation destination. Most opt for the southern part of Florida (in particular, Miami-Fort Lauderdale) or Orlando in central Florida (home to Disney World and Universal Studios, and their respective branches of theme parks).
This time, we’re going to explore three areas of the Sunshine State from west to south to east to discover new sites and new ways to experience – and enjoy – Florida, starting with Tampa Bay, and then move our way down south to the Florida Keys, and then explore the area where American space exploration evolved: Florida’s Space Coast.
Located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Tampa Bay is regarded as one of the state’s most hip and urban tourist destinations for foodies, shoppers, sightseers and those who enjoy sandy beaches and clear blue waters.
The nucleus of the Tampa Bay area is its Tampa Riverwalk, which was cited by the American Planning Association as one of the five “Great Places in America”, and is ideal for those want to enjoy the essence of the city, because it is easily linked to many of the downtown core’s popular attractions.
Besides the usual assortment of pop-up bars, live local music and fun family activities that happen every spring at Riverfest, Tampa Riverwalk is also adding this year a new cultural festival called “Fourth Friday”, which will feature plenty of different cultural happenings for those who enjoy art, movies and the theatre.
For those who like to dabble in a little retail therapy during their visit, Tampa Bay has plenty of unique stores to satisfy your varied shopping needs. International Plaza and Bay Street has more than 200 luxury brands; for boutique shoppers, the open-air Hyde Park Village has just finished a major expansion of its premises; Tampa Premium Outlets offers the top name brands at bargain prices; and the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors Center has just added a large selection of products for purchase that are exclusive and unique to the Tampa Bay area.
And for the foodie in you, Tampa Bay has something to satisfy every appetite and culinary taste. There’s celebrity chef Fabio Vivani’s Osteria Bar & Kitchen in downtown Tampa; the Heights Public Market in the historic Armature Works building on the waterfront; try a Cuban sandwich at the Segunda Cuban Bakery; or a taste of Ireland at Four Green Fields; Sparkman Wharf, where many of Tampa Bay’s best chefs offer new creative concepts in an open-air food hall; and quench your thirst with a wide variety of craft beer and cocktails at the historic Tampa Theatre, CW’s Gin Joint, Coppertail or the world-famous Cigar City Brewing.
There’s also plenty of family thrills and fun in Tampa, as Busch Gardens Tampa introduces a new ride to its ever expanding theme park with Tigris, which is being regarded as the tallest launch coaster in Florida; there’s Roaring Springs at ZooTampa at Lowry Park; a new exhibition at the Florida Aquarium called ”Heart of the Sea”, where visitors can discover what ocean conservation is all about; and you can boat, kayak and paddleboard to your heart’s content at the Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and the Urban Kai Stand Up Paddleboarding located at the Armature Works.
And if you want to experience the real world of pirates, cut throats and buccaneers, then check out the Tampa Bay History Center’s latest exhibition “Treasure Seekers”, where you can explore a replica of an authentic pirate ship, learn to navigate the stars using actual devices such as a sextant, or find out what day-to-day life was like below the decks of a typical pirate galleon.
The Florida Keys and Key West
Starting at Key Largo, and moving along in a southwest direction to Key West, the Florida Keys are more than just a chain of islands that tag along Florida’s southern coast; it’s practically like a living embodiment of paradise on Earth, with relaxing, eye catching settings, a laid-back lifestyle, and an emphasis on the sustainability and protection of the Keys’ natural resources and surrounding waters.
Whether you visit Key West, Marathon, Islamorada or any of the other islands in the Keys, there’s always a place to stay that caters to any tourist’s preference or budget; and the chain has recently announced the opening of six new resorts and hotels. The Bungalows Key Largo is they Key’s first ever all-inclusive luxury resort with 135 units spread out on 12 acres and 1000 feet of shoreline; the Baker’s Cay Resort, also in Key Largo, has 200 rooms and features amenities that will welcome your pet with wide open arms, such as pet beds, cooling water bowls, a Paw Happy Hour, and indulge in “Puptails” that include bacon-flavoured “Yappetizers” and Dog Perignon Champagne; the Islander Resort in Islamorada sits on 24 acres and has 114 rooms that are cottage style with contemporary décor; the Isla Bella Beach Resort in Marathon has 199 units as well as a 4000-square-foot spa, five pools, four food and beverage concepts, a marina plus over 24,000 square feet of space for meetings and special events; and Key West offers two new hotels: the Parrot Key Hotel & Villas, which has completed a major refurbishment and includes a waterfront villa experience, a new Beach Club program and signature welcome cocktails that greets guests as they arrive for their stay, and the Laureate Key West has 64 units that are described as “coastal chic” and feature complete kitchenettes.
And no tourist destination is without its share of attractions to visit and experience. In the Florida Keys, there are plenty of attractions where you can enjoy the islands’ arts, culture, and history as well as its maritime environment.
At the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada, a new exhibit has recently been opened called Coral Reef Exploration, which is complete with three aquariums, educational storyboards, interactive kiosks and video monitors, as well as a 1250-gallon aquarium that contains native local underwater species such as butterfly fish and various invertebrates; the newly-opened Florida Keys Wildlife Refuges Nature Center in Big Pine Key has 1500 square feet of exhibition space that showcases the Keys’ four national wildlife refuges, which are National Key Deer, Great White Heron, Key West and Crocodile Lake; the Tennessee Williams Museum, located in his Key West home where he lived from 1949 until his death in 1983, was recently given the Highly Commended Award by the British Guild of Travel Writers for his contributions to making Key West an important cultural and historical location (also check out the La Concha Hotel, where it is believed that Williams wrote the final draft of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire”); and if you want to take the initiative and do your own solo tour of Key West, then try the Key West Historic Markers, which has 121 historic location markers that tell the story of Key West’s unique history (there are also several available phone apps that are docents for anyone who decide to do their own walking tour along these markers).
If you have a never ending fascination with the more than 60-year history of the space race, and want to retrace the footsteps of such legendary American astronauts as Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, then Florida’s Space Coast (located along the central part of the state’s eastern coast) is the destination for you.
The nucleus of this historic area is the Kennedy Space Center, which was – and still is – the virtual launching pad of the U.S. space exploration program, in which rockets from Project Mercury to the space shuttle lifted off from there as its point of departure to its 238,000-mile journey to the moon and back, as well as to the final frontier that is outer space.
Although live rocket launches still happen at the Kennedy Space Center, there are plenty of impressive attractions in this expansive facility that give a breathtaking, living history to the people and the technology who contributed to the evolution of such an ongoing, perilous journey.
There’s the Heroes & Legends museum that pays a reverential tribute to the pioneers who created NASA and built the space program, as well as the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which celebrates the astronauts who bravely flew those space missions; the Rocket Garden, which features actual rockets and space capsules from every NASA mission (you even get the chance to sit in a Mercury and Gemini capsule, and discover how confining these interiors really were for the astronauts); the Kennedy Space Center also offers encounters with actual past and present NASA astronauts, as they do live presentations at the Universe Theatre; and explore the colourful, dramatic and tragic history of the space shuttle program at Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is a massively impressive salute to the space shuttle, in which its main focus is the Atlantis, the final shuttle spacecraft that was used in the program, and visitors get that rare opportunity to get really up close to the actual space craft, and discover how enormous in scale the space shuttles were (Canada Arm included).
For more information about visiting Tampa Bay, the Florida Keys and Space Coast — and what it has to offer tourists — visit the following websites: www.visittampabay.com, www.fla-keys.com, and www.visitspacecoast.com.