TAMPA, Fla. 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, museums and nature tug at the sleeve, demanding your attention.
Hot in summer? Quite. So I left the heat for a hurricane.
Discovery Place – with awful weather
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. The Disasterville exhibit is devoted to weather systems that strike fear in Weather Channel aficionados. I started 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.
The hurricane experience takes place inside what resembles 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 74 mph or more: Hurricane!
Interestingly, the museum skips over one of Tampa’s most frequent weather occurrences: the crackling thunderstorm.
Crewing on sailboat races
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.
I was introduced to Dave, the captain of the Orangutan, a J-105 gutted for speed.
Orangutan’s wild troupe grew to 12 as more and more friends piled on. Before the race, Captain 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: 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.”
Head over to Ybor City
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.”
Herman, 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, Fla. 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.
Herman 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.
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, Herman 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.
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