Tampa Bay boasts one of the country's top cruise ports due to its easy access, modern traveler-friendly terminals, superior security, and on-terminal parking at $12 a day, with valet service also available. And its location in the heart of Tampa makes this Gulf Coast city an ideal place to spend a few hours, or a few days, before or after a cruise.
Adding to its appeal is the fact that Tampa International Airport is less than 10 miles from the port, and a cab ride costs under $20.
Tampa-based Ships There are currently five vessels from three cruise lines that call Tampa their home port: Carnival Cruise Lines' Miracle and Inspiration; Holland America's Veendam and Ryndam, Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas; and Celebrity Cruise Lines' Zenith.
A few hours is plenty of time to enjoy Tampa's modern downtown waterfront, where dilapidated warehouses and banana docks have been transformed into a trendy tourist haven. Make your first stop the nearby Tampa Bay Information Center and Gift Shop to pick up a free copy of the visitors' guide. Then you can store your luggage at the Florida Aquarium and enjoy the fascination of its underwater world. After that, step over to Channelside, a lively complex of shops, entertainment and live music, all in a seaside atmosphere. Dining options range from the sophisticated Jackson's Bistro to casual patio dining at the Marriott Waterside Café, or "wings and things" at Hooters.
Bayshore and Busch Gardens If you have a whole day to sightsee, take a leisurely walk along Bayshore Boulevard -- said to be the longest continuous sidewalk in the world -- for a splendid view of the Bay and the magnificent, stately homes that line the street. There is also time to take in a few of the area's prime attractions, like Busch Gardens, a 300-acre, African-themed family entertainment park with thrilling rides. Cheetah Chase, its newest roller coaster, has four passenger cars so families can experience the drops and corkscrews together. Other popular coasters at the park include Montu, among the world's largest inverted tracks; and Gawazi, Florida's only double-wide wooden model. Located at the corner of Busch Boulevard and 40th Street, the park is eight miles from the cruise piers.
A quick and fun ride on an electric streetcar takes you into historic Ybor (pronounced Eee-bore) City, named for Vicente Martiniz Ybor, who moved his cigar factory from Key West to Tampa, thus establishing the city as the "Cigar Capital of the World." Ybor City is the center of Tampa nightlife, and a stroll along the quaint brick streets offers a glimpse of Cuban, Italian, Spanish, and German ethnic influences.
Fine Dining A dining experience not to be missed is the famous Columbia Restaurant at 2117 East 7th Avenue. Florida's oldest eatery, it was founded in 1905, and seats 1,700 in a dozen rooms that cover a city block. Be sure to leave room for dessert -- the Columbia's renowned Brazo Gitano. A sponge cake soaked in syrup with Spanish Manzanilla sherry and cream, topped with meringue, it is flambéed tableside.
For passengers who have several days in the Tampa area before or after their cruise, some of the top beaches in the country are nearbyFort De Soto Park, Caladesi Island, and Clearwater Beach. Art aficionados will find much to enjoy in the Tampa Museum of Art, containing one of the finest permanent collections of Greek and Roman antiquities in the U.S.; and at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the largest performing arts complex in the southeast with four theaters.
Shopaholics will be delighted by area malls, including a bargain-hunters' paradise at the Prime Outlets at Ellenton. For a slightly different experience, the Old Hyde Park Shopping Village is set in one of the city's most picturesque neighborhoods.
Portside Hotels Popular accommodations near the port include the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (www.hardrockhotelcasinotampa.com), which offers gambling and poker 24 hours a day, fine and casual dining, a nightclub, sports bar and food court; and the Wyndham Westshore Hotel (www.wyndhamwestshore.com), featuring the award-winning Shula's Steakhouse with complimentary parking and airport transportation. Information about rates and reservations for other hotels near Tampa Bay is at www.hotel-guides.us/florida/tampa-fl-cruise-port-hotels.html
With enough time to spare, who can resist nearby Orlando and its world-famous parksEpcot Center, Disney World, Universal Studios, MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Sea World? Known as the "happiest place on earth," Orlando is about an hour's drive from Tampa. Car rentals average $62 per day for an economy model, but for those who want one-day shuttle service, Central Florida Shuttle (888-860-4677) offers round-trips at $350-$400 for a family of four.
A cruise from Tampa Bay merits taking the time before or after to enjoy all that the area has to offer. The close proximity of the port to the interstate highway system adds to the convenience of cruising from Tampa, so many persons choose to drive to their ship.
From the north, take I-75 South to I-4 West, or I-275 South to I-4 East. Take Exit 1 (sign reads: Port of Tampa / Ybor City). Take 21st Street South, turn right on East Adamo Drive / Hwy. 60, which turns into Channelside Drive / 13th Street. Bear left to follow signs for the Florida Aquarium / Seaport Terminal.
From the south, take I-75 North, then Crosstown Expressway West (towards Tampa). Take 22nd Street North Exit (sign reads: Port of Tampa / Ybor City) onto 22nd Street North. Turn left on East Adamo Drive / Hwy. 60, which turns into Channelside Drive / 13th Street.
From the east, take I-4 West to Exit 1 (sign reads: Port of Tampa / Ybor City) to 21st Street South to East Adamo Drive / Hwy. 60, which turns into Channelside Drive / 13th Street.
From the West or Tampa International Airport, take I-275 North (stay in right lane), take I-4 East, take Exit 1 (sign reads: Port of Tampa / Ybor City), take 21st Street South and turn right on East Adamo Drive / Hwy. 60, which turns into Channelside Drive / 13th Street.
For more information on all Tampa Bay has to offer cruise passengers, check www.VisitTampaBay.com.