Toronto Star: Don’t miss these 7 Tampa experiences

March 15, 2016

Toronto Star: Don’t miss these 7 Tampa experiences

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TAMPA, FLA.-So what if the nearest beach is a half-hour away? For urbanites or beachgoers seeking a city break, this under-the-radar Florida city is on the cusp of finally realizing its full potential.

Food-themed hotel: The Epicurean Hotel (1207 S. Howard Ave.) in the Hyde Park district of South Tampa worships food, from its wine-inspired lobby desk to its in-room artisan pantries. Élevage restaurant, the Chocolate Pi patisserie, wine shop and food and wine-themed spa are placed to attract locals as well as guests. You might luck into a cooking class at the 40-seat Epicurean Theatre. The boutique hotel boasts an in-house TV channel, restaurant “lettuce wall” and cruiser bikes you can borrow.

Okra fries: Executive chef Eric Lackey’s hand-cut okra, flash-fried, tossed with lime and sea salt and served with house ketchup is a must-have at Ulele (1810 N. Highland Ave.) So is the guava pie and house-made toasted coconut ice cream served in an empty coconut. Ulele (you-lay-lee), at the end of Tampa’s Riverwalk on the Hillsborough River, celebrates native American/Florida-inspired food. There’s also an in-house brewery and metal creations by welding artist Dominique Martinez.

Smoked mullet: Seminole Heights is Tampa’s “it” spot for hot restaurants and bars and chef/owner Greg Baker is revered. He and his wife Michelle make Florida Cracker (pioneer) cuisine at Fodder & Shine and Florida-grown/ethically sound fare at the Refinery. People go wild for the hardwood smoked mullet spread at the former spot, but I was struck by cheddar cheese sofkee (fermented rice grits) with bacon tomato gravy.

Ethical candles: Three candle chemists (mom Phala Fonte Pesano and cousins Jessica Pesano Reisner and Erin Fonte Grossman) run Seventh Avenue Apothecary (3810 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City), and make handcrafted, ecoconscious, dye-free candles from American soy with cotton core wicks. The fragrances — like my fave, tobacco and vanilla bourbon — are inspired by Tampa and Florida’s cultural and culinary legacies. The trio is starting to host candle chemist wine-and-cheese parties.

Cigar heritage: Fourth-generation Tampa native Monica Barbie transforms vintage cigar boxes into purses, while her mom Rose Barbie sells framed and unframed vintage cigar labels, cigar bands, cigar posters and luggage tags. Look for these Cigar City souvenirs in Long Ash Cigars (1728 E. 7th Ave.) and soon at Tampa International Airport.

Boat tours: Harbour tour? Sunset trip? Famous people homes tour? River eco tour? The Tampa Water Taxi Co. (888-665-8687, has got you covered, with tours that start at $20 (U.S.) Capt. Larry Salkin will even pick you up at Water Works Park beside Ulele restaurant. He has been dubbed “Tampa’s dolphin whisperer” so you might spot dolphins or, in season, manatees. “Tampa,” says Salkin, “is the nicest, sweetest, friendliest city.”

Live music: Skipper’s Smokehouse (910 Skipper Rd.) — dubbed “the club that washed ashore” — is an iconic local venue for live music and food. The “Skipperdome” holds almost 800 people and boasts a canopy of oak trees, Key West vibe, mixed seating (benches, chairs and picnic tables), covered tiki deck and even a sandy “beach.” The Floribbean restaurant has smoked gator ribs and blackened grouper Reuben that have both gained fame on food TV shows.

Jennifer Bain’s trip was sponsored by Visit Tampa Bay, which didn’t review or approve this story.