Staring eye to eye with wild dolphins, alligators and manatees the same week as riding a rollercoaster reminded me to not take Tampa for granted. Vacationing in tropical destinations in the summer may seem counter-intuitive but I am known to march to a different drummer. For easily bored families who might appreciate an amusement and theme park combined with nature education and outdoor appreciation on the side, some things are just better during the summer – like warm blue water with exotic critters and plants everywhere.
Centrally located on the Gulf of Mexico, the Tampa Bay area has become a one of Florida’s leading eco-friendly, green, well managed and affordable growth centers. When exploring Tampa’s unsung natural splendors, prioritize the three nationally renowned time-efficient must-sees of urban nature and fun: the under-appreciated Lowry Park Zoo; the world famous Florida Aquarium; and of course the original very first legendary Busch Gardens which started it all.
Busch Gardens in Tampa is not just a premier amusement park with delightfully sick rides (check out the nationally advertised floor-less roller coaster Shiekra, which this author bravely experienced), it also funds lesser advertised species research throughout the world, emphasizing habitat protection, animal rescue and conservation education.
Its showpiece is the interactive Africa animal park allowing close-in feeding and viewing opportunities of unique species, and the best way to visit Africa without going there. The 335-acre Busch Gardens Africa began in 1959 by wildlife-lover August A. Busch Jr. as an admission-free beer garden and bird-show hospitality facility for the Anheuser-Busch brewery on the grounds of the manufacturing plant. The rest is beer, amusement park and animal research history.
Families can spend untold hours enjoying 2000 animals, live shows, activities for kids, and, for the adrenaline challenged, the most diverse and sadistic combination of roller coasters and gravity defying rides ever. After Shiekra, my favorite “ride” was actually the open bed truck safari through the Serengeti Plain allowing for up-close viewing and feeding opportunities of critters from giraffes to rhinos.
For a local alternative deep inside Tampa, try the 56-acre Lowry Park Zoo, lying in wait to entertain, engage and educate as one of the most kid-friendly zoos in the country; it includes 2,000 animals, primate and aquatic centers, a free flight aviary and a flume ride to cool off at Gator Falls (check out the albino gator). My favorite was the Florida Manatee and Aquatic Center featuring the region’s only manatee hospital. Follow up with Stingray Bay and hand feed and pet cuddly rays while feeding seeds to the flying birds.
If it were up to me, visiting the Florida Aquarium would be a legal requirement for all out-of-town visitors, as it is a truly spectacular showpiece of Florida’s many subtropical underwater habitats. Located right on downtown Tampa’s waterfront, this ecological microcosm shows how streams at its freshwater source make their way to the open salty sea via galleries of various Florida ecosystems, showcasing more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals.
Start with the Wetlands Gallery at the top and move on to the Bays & Beaches where sharks and other big critters reside, followed by the Coral Reefs, a premium opportunity to see what scuba divers see without getting wet. For a perfect segue to Tampa as an eco-friendly urban community, sign up for the Aquarium’s downtown water boat tour on the catamaran, The Bay Spirit, which allows guests to encounter dolphins in the wilds of Tampa Bay without leaving the big city.
Next, get local and explore the real outdoor eco-community of Tampa’s resident county of Hillsborough and its aptly named Hillsborough River, a spectacularly preserved snapshot of ancient everglade-like wilderness surreally snaking toward downtown from family-friendly suburbs. The river is leisurely enjoyed by canoe or kayak and takes only a couple of hours of drift-canoeing by guides who will either pick you up or put you in once you get there by car. I like Canoe Escapes as an excellent one-stop-shop outfitter if you are a first timer or need a guide.
Surprisingly pristine for being near an urban center, the massive Hillsborough River park corridor allows authentic glimpses of areas only accessible by water and is virtually what Native Americans and De Soto first saw. This of course includes gobs of birds, turtles, snakes, frogs and basking gators sliding around you. Helicopter parents need not worry as they are harmless and do not feed in the day, as attested by the throngs of daily paddlers who somehow make it out alive.
For more of nature, experience the area’s great preserves, like Balm-Boyette and Cock Roach Bay Nature Preserve (over 1,000 acres of rare wetlands), Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center (don’t miss the fossil museum), Alafia Banks Bird Sanctuary or Trout Creek Wilderness Park. In season, don’t miss Tampa Electric Company’s power plant warm water discharge Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Back in the city, the Big Cat Rescue for abandoned and abused felines from tigers to bobcats is an extra surreal trip to the wild, hidden away behind a suburban shopping mall of all places.
As a parent and former marine biology teacher, my favorite all around off-the-beaten-path experience has to be Gus’s Crabby Adventures. Gus, a commercial and environmental savvy fisherman, takes you on a three hour tour (do not sing Gilligan’s Island) of the Bay on a crab boat. Amid observations of nature and lore, Gus will help you bait and pull crab traps, and bring home your very own blue and stone crab critters to cook up at his waterside home and eatery.
Finish off the Tampa experience with a well-deserved dinner cruise in Tampa Bay aboard the Yacht Starship. The first dining yacht in the U.S. to earn AAA three-diamond rating, the Starship departs near the Florida Aquarium in downtown for spectacular evening views. Enjoy menus rivaling the best restaurants, as well as entertainment and rooftop promenade; you deserve it.
For the best source of all things Tampa, including eateries and accommodations, go to www.visittampabay.com
Busch Gardens Tampa www.buschgardens.com/Bgt/default.aspx
Lowry Park Zoo www.lowryparkzoo.com
Florida Aquarium www.flaquarium.org
Canoe Escape www.canoeescape.com
Gus’s Crabby Adventures www.crabbyadventures.com
Big Cat Rescue www.bigcatrescue.org