Central Florida for the Win!

Finally!  I was invited and was happy to say yes to a press trip down to Florida last week. Boy was it fun just being normal, walking on the sidewalks without masks, enjoying dinners inside with our group of six writers, and seeing a part of Florida that I had never seen.

Kayaking on the Hillsborough River in Tampa, Florida in April 2021.
Kayaking on the Hillsborough River in Tampa, Florida in April 2021.
Oysters at Ulele in Tampa Florida, right on the riverfront.
Oysters at Ulele in Tampa, right on the riverfront.

After such a long hiatus, more than a year, I was sure keen to get back on an airplane and do what I’ve done for the past twenty years, regularly travel and write.

Like the rest of the world, I’m sure eager to get it all back and I realized this week that I remain ahead of many of my friends and colleagues, much to my dismay.

In Florida, masks are still required in most places, but the way they wear them is more casual, and you aren’t expecting someone to jump up and yell at you if you take yours off.

A giraffe named Tezquilla at Busch Gardens enjoying some lettuce.
A giraffe named Tezquilla at Busch Gardens enjoying some lettuce.

It’s relaxed and yet compared to other states Florida isn’t experiencing a jump in cases or hospitalizations. The state is kind of in the middle.   My traveling companions save one, were vaxxed, so we all felt relaxed in our big old coach, a 44-seater we used for a party of 7.

I’ve been on so many trips like this and it all just felt the way I had hoped, setting out in the morning with an itinerary that covered three different cities in Florida and a chance to really get to see them.

We started out in Ocala, which is the horse capital of Florida, with more than 83,000 horses in around 1200 different horse farms. Here the biggest attraction is the Silver Springs, a collection of underwater springs that you can see when you go out on their glass-bottomed observation boats.  Touristy, yes, but fun to see and what a pretty place it is.  Many people take out kayaks to paddle amidst the springs.

A few days later we visited a small town called New Port Richie, and jumped aboard a cycle boat, where we all sat at seats withAnclote Key pedals and helped move the boat while we drank wine.  Fun seeing the scenes.  The following day we boarded a boat and headed six miles out to the Anclote Key, a sandbar with a gorgeous beach for some fun in the sun.

Soaking in the warmth and visiting these new cities was just what I needed. I remained in a buoyant mood throughout the whole trip, taking great joy in the little things like the comfortable hotels and the giant selection of foods we were presented with.   Yup, this is my old life, back again.

The final leg of my week-long journey was Tampa, a city I’ve been to before but never got the chance to really see.  My accommodations were about the best they could be: I stayed in a corner suite at the new JW Marriott, right across from the other regular Marriott on the busy riverside where the Riverwalk goes.

This trail, I learned again and again, was the dealbreaker, the straw that really set the city on its high trajectory path of growth.  The city’s biggest showcase is the Water Street project, that’s all around the Amalie Arena that’s home to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.

The $3B project will create a giant series of high rises in the area all tied into the Riverwalk and the exciting Stearns Wharf area, where there is a village made out of shipping containers.  I look forward to sharing more about the city and the Ybor City neighborhood where we dined at the famous Columbia Restaurant.