Adventure Awaits When You #UnlockTampaBay
Lisa Valadez | 1/18/2019, 4:55 p.m. | Updated on 1/28/2019, 5:22 p.m.
Now that the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is over, it’s time to start planning this year’s vacation getaways. For some, an international destination might be an option but for others on a more limited budget, domestic travel is the way to go in 2019.
For many reasons, Texans love a Florida vacation; after all, it is a great destination boasting of beautiful beaches and one-of-a-kind theme parks. In addition, a road trip to Florida is preferred over the price of a plane ride, especially for those traveling with a large family. And when we think of adventure in Florida, Orlando’s Disney immediately comes to mind. However, what if I told you that Florida offers another city with just as much adventure, better dining options, and budget-friendly lodging?
Just a little over an hour from Orlando awaits your next venture - sunny Tampa Bay. Filled with both adult and children friendly activities, this city is the perfect destination hub for outdoor adventure, top-dining experiences, and affordable lodging. Additionally, what makes staying in Tampa even better is that many popular tourist sites are just a short drive away. Furthermore, flying into Tampa Bay airport is a no hassle experience.
Whether you’re a roller coaster enthusiast or not, Busch Gardens is a must!
This beautifully landscaped theme park delivers thrilling rides like the Cheetah Hunt with a take off launch that accelerates to a top speed of 60 miles per hour, interactive and educational animal exhibits (ranking as one of the largest zoos in the country), tons of dining options for even the pickiest of eaters and a beer garden for those that like to sip, sit back and relax after a long day of reliving your youth on all of the exhilarating rides.
While the Cheetah Hunt was my favorite ride, my most memorable experience at Busch was the Serengeti Safari. The 65- acre plain attraction, reminiscent of the real Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya, is a don’t miss for both children and adults (honestly, I don’t even remember any children being there – I was too excited for myself.)
Yes, I fed the giraffes. Yes, I’m sure I took my turn before some of the children. Yes, I would do it again.
The Florida Aquarium
Being in full adventure mode, the Florida Aquarium was next on my list. This aquarium is touted as one of the top aquariums in the country with it being described as “where education meets entertainment and even a shark swim for the true adventurist!” Wait, did you say shark swim? This was a trip of many firsts, so of course, a swim in the shark tank had to happen. (If I had to do it, so do you!)
(We will shortly return to the shark swim but first, let me tell you about all of the other fun exhibits the aquarium has to offer.)
From the Wetland spiral dome where free flying birds soar to the Wetlands Trail, which includes alligators and pythons, to the polar bear and penguin exhibits, the aquarium is about a 3-hour experience. If you are vacationing with children, allow for extra time for the kiddos to explore the 2-acre outdoor zone that includes a waterslide and geysers.
If the budget allows, splurge on a special behind the scenes experiences such as the penguin backstage pass. Here you will get a 3-minute behind the scenes experience with African penguins.
If you’re for a “there’s a first time for everything” moment, then sign up for a shark swim. This unique in-water reef experience will put you up close with over 1,000 types of fish including stingrays, barracudas, sea turtles, and sand tiger sharks. The coolest part is that you actually become part of the exhibit. You’re actually experiencing the visitors watch in awe and amazement as a shark swims right up to you. (Yes I am very cool, thank you very much.) Also, no worries, there is an expert staff member in the water with you, guiding you the entire time.
If you are like me, certain “activities” can seem like an impossible task – and for me, paddle boarding was one of them. Thinking to myself, why on earth did I sign up for this? After all, who exercises while on vacation? However, being the adventurist I was desperately trying to be and of course, I could now accomplish anything after swimming with sharks, I was determined to try another first.
The instructors of Urban Kai were amazing and their experience with first-timers, like me, was awesome. They patiently and thoroughly explained the basics of getting on the paddle board, standing up, how to paddle without completely exerting your energy right away – turning, stopping, etc. And while I admittedly did not complete the entire course, it is an experience to be had – the beauty of the calm breeze against my face while practically walking on water – I felt accomplished.
If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to experience marine life sighting.
Tampa Bay has many popular eateries along with many hidden gems. The growing city is a culinary adventure with a diverse restaurant scene.
I have never been to London, but I imagine The Oxford Exchange is what London is like. This chic restaurant is a great breakfast option for those wanting more of a modern ambiance to sit and enjoy with company or perhaps to dining alone while reading a good book – (if you find yourself bookless, no worries, the Exchange has a book store!)
The Exchange offers a menu of simple meals featuring seasonal and organic ingredients. Whatever your menu choice, do yourself a favor and order the turmeric ginger tea.
Also, don’t leave without exploring the bookstore (again), the coffee and teashop, or simply just taking in the sunlight in the spacious terrarium.
Can’t decide what you exactly have a taste for? Head over to Armature Works, a premier waterfront food hall located on Tampa’s RiverWalk offering more than a dozen innovative bars and eateries. However, if a sit down lunch with service is preferred, then in the same vicinity is Ulele. Ulele’s menu features comfort foods inspired by Tampa Bay’s early native and Spanish explorers. The restaurant also includes its own craft brewery.
The restaurant’s patio area is the ideal option if you are dining with children. It provides the perfect setting to sip on a craft beer (try the Wedding Beer) while watching the children play in the perfectly manicured lawn area.
Whatever your menu choice, please don’t leave without trying the crab mac n cheese, charbroiled oysters, carrot ribbons, and for dessert please, I repeat PLEASE do not skip out on the Candied Bacon Maple Ice Cream.
Osteria Kitchen & Bar is the perfect dining choice for an adult only evening. (Opt for patio dining if possible.) The hip, trendy scene is great for people watching while sipping on a cocktail, preferable the Elderflower Mule or The Enzo (or both?).
Continuing with my adventure and first-times, squid ink was on the menu and squid ink was eaten! As good as it was, one of my dining companion’s menu choice of braised Spanish octopus was my favorite.
I have been lucky enough to have traveled to many places and dined at some of the most unique restaurants but can I tell you how much of an experience Bern’s Steak House and Dessert Room is? (Note, make sure to set aside at least 4 hours to enjoy the full experience.) Perfectly aged customized steaks, with each guest choosing their cut of choice - either a filet mignon, Châteaubriand, strip sirloin, Delmonico, porterhouse or T-bone, its thickness and weight, fresh vegetables grown from their private farm, and superior service from the staff that trains a little over a year to ensure a top-rated dining experience is why Bern’s Steak House will always be a highly recommended. (Side note: one of my dining companions is a vegetarian and this was her best Tampa Bay restaurant dining experience due to a large amount of non-meat choices.)
While the steakhouse is probably on my top ten lists, it’s the dessert room that truly takes the cake. Pun intended. On the second floor, is the Harry Waugh Dessert Room where you will find 48 private dining booths resembling wine casks, a piano lounge, and a pastry kitchen. Each “cask” has their own sound booth to control the music within your dining group and there’s also a private phone in case you need service so that you never have to leave your seat. Talk about indulgence! I felt ultra rich and fancy for the night.
With 40 pages of desserts, choosing just one might be a little overwhelming but don’t worry, once again the staff are certified dessert experts and after trying more than 5 of their desserts, I too, am an expert!
Honestly, all of the desserts were pure bliss, so, unfortunately, I can not recommend just one, however, I do have a very important tip: go with a large group of people that do not mind sharing so you can taste almost every single dessert possible!
In addition, request a kitchen tour and the wine cellar tour as well. This “thrill ride” will take you inside of the world’s largest cellar with close to 100,000 bottles, some with a value up to $30,000. A toast to a great ending of the perfect adventure - What better way to unlock the adventure in Tampa Bay?
So pack your bags and enjoy one of the best adventurous vacation getaways that a true kid at heart can enjoy. "The joy of discovery is the single most important thing in life. Don't forget it".