Tampa offers GOP conventioneers a chance to go beyond sunshiny artifice

June 22, 2012

The hermit crab scampering around Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa carried an important message. Pinned between my fingers, the critter stretched its body like taffy and peered at the sand, the semi-alert lifeguards and the bikini-clad sunbathers. He couldn’t talk — he’s a crustacean, after all — but his behavior spoke to me: “Don’t get trapped in your shell,” he seemed to say. “Go explore. You have legs, so use ’em.”

Republicans, I share with you the wisdom of the hermit crab: Leave the convention hall — you have time, between Aug. 27 and 30 — and liberate yourselves in Tampa.

Details: Tampa, Fla.


(The Washington Post)

The western Florida city on Tampa Bay is gentle in size and ego. It has the hallmarks of the Sunshine State, including palm trees, brown pelicans and Southern kindness, but none of the artifice of, say, Orlando or Miami. The downtown area, the center of convention action, is undergoing a growth spurt; cranes dot the waterfront and optimistic signs describe future projects. In addition, sports, museums and nature tug at the sleeve, demanding your attention.

One at a time, children. With three days in Tampa, we’ll get to all of you.

Go, Buccaneers

With no Google assistance, I can now name all of Tampa Bay’s pro teams: the Tampa Bay Rays, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. I can also ace the tougher trivia: In the spring, the Yankees train at the George M. Steinbrenner Field, which is also the home of the minor leaguers, the Tampa Yankees. That’s a lot of game for one town.

Unfortunately, most of the teams were away during my recent stay; same deal during the GOP event (I checked; you’re welcome). But thankfully, convention-goers won’t be reduced to watching aerial seagull wrestling or egret fishing competitions.

The Raymond James Stadium indulges visitors’ football fantasies with year-round tours of the Buccaneers’ home turf. Our guide started the hour-long outing with the Super Bowl of Fan Moments, letting us roam free on the field. While Peter Pans in football jerseys wandered off to phantom-kick field goals, Marissa encouraged our remaining pod to “feel” the Tifton 319 Bermuda grass. I appreciate a tour that lets you touch the art.

We followed her into the locker room, where posters warn players about concussions, drug use, bribes and gambling. Although the team has won the Super Bowl only once (after the 2002 season), the locker room restores confidence with its esteemed title of best-smelling changing room in the league. (Another proud accomplishment: No. 1 in beer sales. “Yay us,” said Marissa.)

Set loose to explore again, I wandered into the nine-foot-tall showers and peeked into a bathroom stall, where my assumption was confirmed: The toilet seat was up.

The ceilings grow even higher in the club lounge and restaurant, where indoor palm trees stretch their fronds. The expansive windows overlook the athletes’ parking lot, which transforms during the season into a fancy car show. “People like to watch the players come out of their cars,” Marissa said.

Although most of the tour was indoors, there was no respite from the brutal heat. During non-event times, Marissa explained apologetically, the stadium turns off the air conditioning to save money. It costs $8,000 to turn on the air and $150 an hour to run it. Sticking your head in the water fountain, though, is free.

The interior heat wave, however, couldn’t penetrate the plush walls of one of the 195 luxury suites, which was cool from an earlier birthday party. Suite owners, including corporations such as Hooters, pay between $50,000 and $250,000 per season for the glass cube with wet bar, private bathrooms, five TVs and stellar views. That sum, however, doesn’t include boarding rights to the life-size pirate ship at Buccaneer Cove, an open deck near the end zone. We small spenders, on the other hand, were allowed to scramble around the mascot vessel, a special privilege for tourgoers and selected staff members only. Once the suite pashas learn this, brace for their collective “aargh.”

The $3 million pirate ship, which Disney helped build, was inspired by the vessel from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” At significant moments during games, stadium workers ring a bell that signals the cannons to fire off T-shirts and a big “boom.”

Marissa ended our tour in “jail” — five cement holding cells for rogue fans. Most people are detained for alcohol-related infractions and counterfeit tickets. To be honest, the cubicles seemed almost as appealing as the luxury suites: They’re private and air-conditioned and offer a clear view of the game on TV.

Before departing, we each received a free team flag to attach to our car window. Worried that the sun might melt the plastic, I hung the flag inside my rental vehicle, where it flapped to and fro in the air-conditioned breeze.

Windy city

I left the heat for a hurricane.

Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry lets visitors geek out on such brainy-kid topics as mummies, dinosaurs and, my closet obsession, extreme weather. If the museum sold condos in Disasterville, I would seriously consider relocating to Tampa.

The exhibit is devoted to weather systems that strike fear in Weather Channel aficionados. Of the big three, I’ve experienced only one hurricane (Bob), which I slept through, and the hiccup of an earthquake in Washington, which I misdiagnosed as construction work in my building.

I started my visit to Disasterville in the earthquake room, planting my feet on a metal panel that shifted and bounced like a luggage cart on a country road. Sounds of confusion filled the air. I grabbed a bar for support, trying to maintain my balance in the magnitude-6 quake. After a few minutes, the shaking stopped. A screen displayed damaged buildings and piles of debris, a this-could-be-your-city-in-a-shambles picture. Game over. But wait for it . . . the aftershock.

“That always makes the kids scream,” the museum employee said with apparent glee.

In the tornado chamber, no one could hear my yelps; they were swallowed by the 78 mph winds raging inside the translucent tube. I watched the wind speed monitor tick up and up. Five mph tickled like a flea’s sneeze. The 40 mph air cooled my heat-prickled skin. At 70 mph, I was crazily batting back my hair, which was whipping around like a cat-o’-nine tails. When the tornado subsided, I reached for the door to escape but moved too slowly. I braced for Twister II.

The hurricane experience takes place inside a space resembling a subway car. I sat in the back near a sign that describes the effect of various wind forces on people, trees and common household objects. At 19 to 24 mph, flags fly as if starched by your local dry cleaner; at 25 to 31, good luck opening that umbrella; at 39 to 46, you’ll walk like a frat boy after one too many keg stands. At 74 mph or more: Hurricane!

Interestingly, the museum skips over one of Tampa’s most frequent weather occurrences: the crackling thunderstorm. The city resides in Lightning Alley, which stretches from Tampa to Orlando and experiences the highest number of strikes in the nation. Tampa’s sky is a living meteorological museum.

Tampans, however, appear unfazed by the swift yet violent storms. They also seem to possess a meteorologist’s knack for “reading” the atmospheric changes.

“That cloud is about 30 miles away,” Patrick assured me about a half-hour before the start of a weekly sailboat race. “We’ll be back before it gets here.”

On Thursday evenings, the Davis Island Yacht Club holds races in Upper Hillsborough Bay, against the backdrop of the Tampa skyline. A slew of boats compete, which means that they’re seeking crew members — no experience required. The matchmaking is easier than online dating: Inform one of the bartenders at the upstairs restaurant of your desire to help out. The staff member will announce over the loudspeaker, “Crew needs boat.” Then wait for the suitors.

Dave, an older gent with a solid frame and a calm demeanor, was first to appear at my side. He invited me aboard his 36-foot sailboat, Emotional Rescue. I accepted without further investigation. But then Patrick, a recent transplant from Connecticut, introduced me to the captain of the Orangutan, a J-105 gutted for speed. I felt a twinge of regret as my interest shifted. Dave, however, was a true prince and wished me well with my new box of monkeys.

Orangutan’s wild troupe grew to 12 as more and more friends piled on. The storm was moving faster than Patrick’s prediction, so we waited for it to pass before heading out to the bay. Before the race, the captain, also named Dave, provided no instruction. I quickly learned why: Tossing your body around is intuitive. The more experienced racers raised and trimmed the sails. The rest of us simply had to scramble from side to side, using our weight to increase the speed. We dangled our legs over the rail, poked our heads through the lifelines and stretched our arms over the water like a line of squirming children in high chairs.

“Squeeze those butts in” came an order from the cockpit.

The scene on the boat was so chaotic, I had no free time to look for dolphins or diving pelicans. I also didn’t want to become a tale of caution: the visitor from Washington who fell overboard while cooing over the marine life. Plus, it wasn’t even an original story. A woman had recently slid off the boat and had to be retrieved by a competitor.

At the last buoy, we jumped ahead of two boats. Back on the dock, amid the sound of cans of beer being cracked open, I asked Dave how we’d fared.

“I don’t know,” he responded nonchalantly. “Second, third, fourth or fifth.”

Well, Dave, you were right. Orangutan came in fourth in its category. But most important, I did not swim with the fishes.

Cubans and cigars

Driving in Tampa is like trying to navigate a bowl of tangled spaghetti. The Riverwalk, which links major museums, hotels and the convention center along the Hillsborough River, is much more manageable and pleasurable. But it’s a work in progress and will abandon you without warning. The most stress-free mode of travel is the electric streetcar, a network of trolleys that bump along a 2.4-mile track from Ybor City to downtown.

The 11-stop, J-shaped route reveals multiple landscapes, such as the old salty port; Channelside Bay Plaza, a vibrant entertainment complex; and a shiny forest of high-rises. One of the most historic sections, worthy of a long layover, is Ybor City.

“Ybor City has always been unique,” said tour guide Lonnie Herman. “It’s like being in a small town in a growing city.”

Lonnie, dapper in a straw fedora, has been leading tours of the neighborhood for three years. We gathered by the statue of Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the perfect opening to the first chapter of Ybor City.

In 1885, the Spanish cigar-manufacturer came to Tampa via Cuba and Key West. He built Ybor City as a corporate town that, at its peak in 1927, had 230 cigar factories with 12,000 cigar workers who rolled just under 600 million cigars, topping Cuba’s output. Before the Depression and cigarettes spoiled the party, Ybor City was the cigar capital of the world.

Lonnie showed us how Ybor the man created Ybor the home for countless immigrant families from Cuba, Italy and other lands. He constructed rows of two-bedroom casitas for the employees, all first-time owners.

Miami attracts heaps of attention with Little Havana and its Cuban American activists, but Ybor City can one-up — actually two-up — its southern neighbor. Between 1893 and 1895, revolutionary Jose Marti visited the neighborhood 25 times, rallying the Cuban residents to overthrow the Spanish occupation of the island. On a wrought-iron staircase now housed in a Havana museum, Marti delivered a rousing speech to a crowd of 3,000 that spurred the revolution. After his remarks, he returned to his guest house and wrote a secret note, which he wrapped in a cigar. His lieutenant delivered the stogie-scented orders to the freedom fighters in the Cuban hills. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Lonnie described this drama in the Jose Marti Park, “the only Cuban-owned land in the United States.” A Cuban-American attorney manages the parcel, which features a white statue of Marti and clumps of soil from the island’s various regions.

“He hopes to one day hand the key over to a free Cuba,” Lonnie said of the caretaker.

Ybor City’s cigar and Cuban heyday is over: Only one cigar factory exists today, and Italians outnumber Cubans. But the area’s spirit is stubborn: Not only does it refuse to leave, it’s also preparing for a comeback.

After the tour, Lonnie led me to King Corona, a cafe, bar and cigar shop where men smoked fat ones and sipped cafe con leche at outdoor tables.

“Ybor City was like a microcosm of what the United States is. It was a true melting pot,” King Corona owner Don Barco said between bites of a Cuban sandwich. “We are now entering a second golden age.”

Smelling lightly of cigar and buzzed on coffee, I headed to the streetcar stop to catch a ride downtown. I sprang for the $5 all-day pass, so that I could effortlessly travel between now and then, the past and the future of Tampa.

Details: Tampa, Fla.

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