By Mike Cohen

 

TAMPA – Last year my family and I spent our winter vacation in St. Petersburg, Florida. However, when it came to shopping and dining, we found ourselves commuting to Tampa on a fairly regular basis. We liked what we saw and were sure to make it our base this time around.

 

The hip, urban heart of Florida’s Gulf coast beats in Tampa Bay (http://www.visittampabaycom). Here cultural gems mingle with authentic history to create an atmosphere that inspires awe and adventure. Whether your quest is for art spanning antiquity to the modern era, sensational live entertainment or other untold delights, imaginative and inspiring thrills await around every corner.

 

The Tampa area has an active, year-round Jewish community of more than 45,000. The Tampa Bay Jewish community is served by: 37 synagogues and other religious institutions; two Jewish federations; two Jewish community centers; two family service agencies; one Jewish day school; and seven pre-schools. The source for news are the Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County (http://www.jewishpresstampabay.com). These are independently-owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively.

 

Four major sports teams in Tampa are owned by Jews: Jeff Vinik (the NHL’s Lightning and Arena Football’s Storm); Stuart Sternberg (Major League Baseball’s Rays); and Bryan Glazer (the NFL’s Buccaneers).

 

In celebration of Hanukkah, the  Buccaneers recently host their first ever Jewish Heritage Night when they played the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The event began with an exclusive tailgate as Glazer, Bucs co-chairman and a Jewish community leader, along with others lit a 12-foot tall menorah. The tailgate also featured special Hanukkah music, potato latkes, doughnuts and desserts, limited edition souvenirs and a cash bar. Later, during the game, the menorah lighting ceremony was replayed on the giant Bucs Vision screen in the stadium. The only Jewish member of the Buccaneers is center Ali Marpet, who took part in advertising for the event with the headline: “Siege the Night with the Power of Light.” Jewish Heritage Night was a joint project of Chabad Centers of Tampa Bay and the Bucs.

 

The Lightning and the Rays, have been holding Jewish Heritage events for several years.

 

Vinik and his wife Penny are well respected members and supporters of the local Jewish community. They recently pledged $1.5 million toward creating a new Jewish Community Center in West Tampa by renovating the historic Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. Earlier this season the Lightning honoured a community hero, Carl Glassberg, at a home game. On his first date with Irene Berger, the woman who would become his wife of 61 years, Glassberg learned that she had evaded death at the hands of Nazis twice. From the day he heard her story, he committed himself to making life better for Holocaust survivors. Glassberg received his $50,000 award from the Lightning and Vinik Family Foundation, which he directed towards the Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services Holocaust Survivor Program, that serves the whole Tampa Bay area. Since 2011, the Lightning have given more than $13.75 million to more than 300 different charities through the Community Hero program. Glassberg even got his picture taken with Vinik and star player Steven Stamkos and received a Lightning jersey.

 

Over the years it has been reported that Sternberg, frustrated with efforts to build a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area, has had discussions with Wall Street associates about moving the Rays to Montreal, which has been without a baseball franchise since the Expos moved to Washington, D.C. in 2005 to become the Washington Nationals.

 

Sternberg currently resides in Rye, New York, so closer to Montreal than Tampa Bay.

 

WHERE TO STAY

 

It was very nice to stay in the downtown area and the gorgeous Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (www.tampamarriottwaterside.com), only eight minutes from the airport. Offering spectacular views, stellar service and a high-quality experience all around, this upscale hotel is particularly well-situated for guest convention-goers or if you want to an NHL game with the host Lightning across the street at the Amalie Arena. And as I found out, it is a pretty good choice for a family vacation as well, with its central location, superb facilities and top-notch customer service.

 

This striking, 27-storey high-end property has more than 700 non-smoking rooms and suites that feature private balconies overlooking Harbour Island, downtown and the hotel’s 32-slip marina. All rooms include high-end signature bedding, flat-screen TVs that can connect with laptops and large, luxe bathrooms with the softest, fluffiest white towels and sleek granite countertops.

 

High-speed in-room internet is available for a daily service fee, and it is free in public spaces. General amenities include a palm-studded pool and groovy hot tub and a full-service spa/gym on the third floor, a business center and multiple newly renovated options for wining/dining that include white tablecloth fancy, sports bar casual, poolside grill and a lobby-side Starbucks cafe. There’s both valet and self-parking, each for a daily rate.  At night you can enjoy live music, adding to a very uplifting atmosphere.

 

Following $2.5 million in improvements in 2013, the hotel is currently in the midst of a $40 million upgrade. Every single room is getting a makeover, as will the lobby. The check-in desk will move to a pod format and a full service Starbucks is in the works, along with an expanded outdoor patio, an outdoor beer garden and an extremely popular Topgolf simulator, using real golf balls.

 

The Marriott Waterside is owned by Vinik, who plans to build two more hotels virtually next door and each within breathing distance of his pride and joy, the Amalie Arena.

 

My family really fell in love with the pool setting. For starters this is a good sized pool with plenty of seating options. Besides standard lounge chairs, there are many chairs and couches with soft and ultra-comfort cushion covers and standalone large cushioned lounge chairs located next to gigantic umbrellas which will shield you from the sun. You can order drinks and food from the bar.

 

 

Boasting a prime Channelside location, this waterfront hotel is tucked between the Tampa Convention Center and the arena.  The marina and the popular Riverwalk are right outside your door – The Riverwalk being a 2.4 mile path connecting culture and entertainment. I walked its distance several times and noticed plenty of bikers and those on Segways using the area as well.

 

We stayed in one of the magnificently newly renovated luxury suites on the 22nd floor. I must say that when the bellman opened the door we were left speechless by the space and beauty of what would be our home for five nights.

 

All rooms feature featherbeds and duvets, as well as flat-screen TVs and Plug-In technology. There was a pretty master bedroom, with a huge walk in closet and a door that closes leading to a very large living room that features a comfortable couch and two doors leading to an outdoor balcony with a beautiful view of the harbor. The room contained a small fridge, enabling us to pick up some groceries at the nearby Publix and make our own breakfast.

 

In our case, a request for a two bedroom suite was actually upgraded via a connecting room. This provided our family with the kind of personal space we are not usually accustomed to in a hotel room. The renovations include sophisticated artwork, boasting a nautical theme (inspired by the waterfront location); textured flooring, replacing carpeting; and luxurious bathrooms featuring a unique barn door for added flexibility and a shower you will want to stay in all day.

 

New elevators feature neat touch screen pads to push what floor to go to.

 

The lobby bar offers cool cocktails and a stunning view of the marina and waterfront. Champions Bar and Grill showcases new additions in its impressive collection of sports memorabilia and décor, as well as offers the biggest games on new flat-screen TVs. For a quiet meal, Café Waterside features new intimate seating arrangements along with stunning water views and a delicious menu. Champions is about to be transformed into an American Gastro Pub format,

 

While we did take advantage of the 24 hour room service, one night we chose to stay at the hotel and have dinner at the Waterside Grill. Let me strongly recommend this as a dining choice whether you are staying at the hotel or not. The restaurant offers a relaxed atmosphere and delicious American cuisine. You can feast on fresh seafood, prime steaks, expertly crafted cocktails and decadent desserts. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you can dine inside or on the terrace facing the Tampa waterfront.

 

A couple of glasses of wine, pino grigio and chardonnay, allowed us to toast to a good evening ahead. Executive Sous Chef Rich Willerer has worked in the kitchens of many top restaurants in North America. For the past nine years he has called this hotel in Tampa home. He is very proud of an initiative he took with other local chefs to form a coalition and help Tampa restaurants get better suppliers and more farm to table artisan ranchers, growers and farmers.

 

Chef Willerer personally greeted us with some of his homemade appetizers and a special order of devilled eggs with caviar. As there were three of us, he suggested we consider sharing some items, to which we agreed. It was a good decision and made for a very enjoyable dining experience.

 

First came some pistachio crusted sea scallops with lemon marmalade and bacon jam. That was followed up with some refreshing bowls of fruit and vegetables mixed together with a vinaigrette sauce. Next came a grilled local swordfish with coconut risotto, bok choy and guava cream. I have always been a fan of swordfish and this combination with the risotto was just perfect. The chef recommended we try some steak. The wood-grilled Delmonico was cooked an absolutely perfect medium, with sherry creamer potatoes, rainbow carrots and a delicious sauce.

 

For dessert we shared an outstanding piece of apple pie with vanilla gelato, a tasty order of flan and a decadent piece of chocolate cake. This was a meal that indeed exceeded our expectations. You can read the menus on the hotel website or call 813-221-4900 for reservations.

 

The hotel is ADA compliant. Following the latest renovations, 23 rooms are listed as ADA and hearing impaired. There is also an entire floor devoted to health and wellness, featuring aromatherapy, circadian mood lighting, a dawn simulator, an energizing light, a stay well mattress, a vitamin c shower infuser and nutritious menu options. The hotel has an accessible front entrance, six elevators and ramps leading to the Riverwalk.

 

CITY PASS

 

Like other cities when you want to play a bit of tourist, get the CityPass (https://www.citypass.com/tampa#6QcVgMcR8yS4QVcg.99). It is only $143.29 for adults and $129.77 for children. This includes admission to Busch Gardens, The Florida Aquarium, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Clearwater Marina Aquarium and either the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) or the Chihuly Collection.

 

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (http://www.buschgardenstampa.com) is the ultimate family adventure, offering 300 acres of fascinating attractions based on exotic explorations around the world. A unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country’s premier zoos with more than 12,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, this spot provides unrivaled excitement for guests of every age. Normal park hours are 10 am to 6 pm. with a 365-day operating schedule. Hours are extended during select weekend, summer and holiday periods. Strollers, wheelchairs, lockers and pet kennels are available for rental. Wheelchair seating is available at all facilities, and assisted listening devices are offered at several attractions. Diaper-changing and baby-nursing areas, first aid, an automated teller machine and taxi and bus parking may be found on-site. The park’s newest attraction puts a spin on family thrills with Cobra’s Curse. This one-of-a-kind spin coaster features a 70-foot vertical lift and takes riders on a whirlwind adventure of exciting explorations. Located in the Egypt area of the park, explorers will come face-to-fang with an 80-foot snake icon, and discover the mysteries of an Egyptian archaeological excavation. Busch Gardens® welcomes guests to closely observe and even take part in the animal care experience in the Animal Care Center. From nutrition to treatments, X-rays to surgeries, much of Busch Gardens’ animal care is now conducted in guest view in this new state-of-the-art facility. The Moroccan Palace Theater is home to Busch Gardens’ spectacular, year-round ice skating shows. This summer, the Palace debuts the hottest show on ice, Turn It Up! This all-new ice show vibrantly celebrates summer with contemporary performances, aerial moments and eclectic pop music. Tour packages are available and they create fun and fascinating behind-the-scenes explorations that give guests a unique insider perspective. From connecting with endangered species to front-of-line access at the most popular attractions, there is basically a tour for every member of the family.

 

Guest Relations is situated inside the park entrance at Adventure Outpost, on the left hand side as you enter the park. Guests with disabilities are welcome to stop by for any assistance they require. Parking for guests with disabilities is available in Lot A near the main entrance on a first-come, first-served basis for guests with a legal parking permit. This parking area is designated by blue-striped parking lanes. All spaces are van-accessible. Vehicles parked in disabled parking without a permit are subject to applicable laws. Wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles (ECV’s) may be rented at Stroller Rental near the front gate of the park in Morocco. Wheelchairs and ECV’s are available for a nominal fee on a “first-come, first served” basis to guests with disabilities. Guests may also use their own wheelchairs or single passenger ECV’s. Guests using wheelchairs may join any admissions line to enter the park. The use of Segways is not permitted.

 

Located right across the street from Busch Gardens is Adventure Island’s (http://www.AdventureIsland.com) 30 acres of water-drenched fun in the sun. It features the ultimate combination of high-speed thrills and tropical, tranquil surroundings for guests of all ages. Within a soothing Key West atmosphere awaits an unrivaled blend of slides, corkscrews, waterfalls, a wave pool, children’s water playground and other family attractions. Adventure Island also features outdoor acres, picnic and sunbathing areas, a gift shop and a championship sand volleyball complex for hours of fun in the sun. You can access their full accessibility guide on their website.

The Florida Aquarium (http://www.flaquarium.org) is one of the top of its kind in the country, with over 20,000 sea creatures! Here you can experience sharks, alligators, otters and more while encountering ring-tailed lemurs, hissing cockroaches and colorful chameleons in Journey to Madagascar. After exploring the exhibits inside, splash away outside at Splash Pad, the outdoor water play area for children.

 

The Florida Aquarium has teamed up with the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida to provide support and assistance to people with autism and related disabilities.  The main entrance is accessible by wheelchair. The Aquarium is fully accessible to the disabled and a limited number of wheelchairs are available for rent on a first-come, first-serve basis with appropriate identification. Handicapped parking is available on a first-come, first-serve basis in The Florida Aquarium parking lot located north of the Aquarium on the east side of Channelside Drive. 

 

In order for guests to experience the Wild Dolphin Cruise, participants must be able to cross the gang plank from the wharf to the boat and back on their own or with assistance from another person in their party. Wheelchairs can be brought on board the vessel after guests have physically traversed the gang plank. Due to changing tides, the gang plank can potentially require up to six steps to board and disembark from the vessel. Thank you for your understanding.

 

At Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo (http://www.lowryzoo.org) you can see more than 1,200 animals, including manatees, koalas, elephants, tigers, penguins, giraffes, orangutans and much more. Enhance your visit with water play areas, rides and educational shows a five-time winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence (2010-2015), this is recognized as one of the most popular zoos in the southeastern U.S., with over one million visitors annually. The Zoo originated in the 1930s as a municipal department with a small number of Florida native species. It grew gradually throughout the next four decades, but struggled to meet the developing professional standards of modern zoos. In 1982, community leaders created the Lowry Park Zoo Association to take over management of the Zoo for the City of Tampa with the goal of creating a world-class zoo through a public-private partnership. The Association then became the Lowry Park Zoological Society of Tampa, Inc., as it remains today. Working with a national zoo designer, the Society was able to create a modern, 24-acre facility that opened to the public in 1988 and shortly after earned Accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo has now grown to what now encompasses 56 acres of naturalistic animal exhibits in a lush, tropical garden setting. The Zoo offers popular educational programming, fun recreational amenities, up-close animal encounters and engaging seasonal events for which it has won accolades as one of the country’s most family-friendly zoos.

 

The Zoo’s Visitor Service staff is pleased to assist guests requiring special assistance to ensure an enjoyable experience. Just contact a supervisor in advance of your visit by email or at 813-935-8552 ext. 0 to learn more about access, rentals, autism, service animals and sign language. The Zoo’s pathways, facilities and exhibits are designed to provide all visitors an enjoyable experience. The front parking lot, entryway and walkways are enhanced to provide easy navigation for all of our guests. All of the Zoo’s restaurants have wheelchair-accessible entrances. Family restrooms, which accommodate wheelchairs or companions, are located adjacent to the Garden Grille restaurant (near the front gate), Wallaroo Station and the Safari Africa plaza. Reserved spaces are available for disabled guests in the front lot, with ramp accessibility to the main entrance. On days of peak visitation, when the designated spaces are full, Zoo parking lot security will try to assist vehicles carrying disabled guests.

 

Tampa’s Museum of Science & Industry, better known as MOSI (http://www.mosi.org), is a scientific playground with more than 450 hands-on activities in the largest science center in the southeastern United States. You can see the stars in The Saunders Planetarium, explore another world in their NASA-funded Mission: Moon base lunar colony and touch the future in the next exhibit, Connectus. MOSI’s innovative exhibits urge you to ask questions and expand your mind. The museum shows you how cool curiosity can be – there are no tests or quizzes here. This place sparks conversations about the world and the future among kids and their grandparents, between spouses, and with strangers. There’s no other place like it in Tampa Bay. Plans call for a brand new MOSI to be built in the downtown area. For now, its current campus on East Fowler Avenue across from the University of South Florida is running strong.

 

MOSI is intent on creating an inclusive guest experience where everyone can participate in the excitement of science. Many of its exhibits offer multi-sensory interactive experiences. If you are concerned about too much sensory stimulation, ask a MOSI staff member or volunteer about what you might expect while exploring the exhibits. MOSI is wheelchair accessible. Automatic doors are located at the main entrance from the MOSI Entry Plaza and parking lot. Handicapped parking spaces are available near the entrance to MOSI. The property surrounding the museum is paved. Wheelchairs are available at no additional cost on a first-come, first-served basis at the MOSI Ticket Office. Guests must leave a driver’s license or credit card at the ticket office until the wheelchair is returned. 

 

Some exhibit areas may be dim due to the nature of the exhibition. Although visitors requiring assistance from a service animal are welcome, MOSI reserves the right to limit access that may pose safety or health concerns. If you require an accommodation for your visit, please contact Anthonette Carregal, Vice President of Museum Operations, at least 15 working days prior to your visit by calling (813) 987-6333 or by email at acarregal@mosi.org. For hearing impaired assistance, call the Florida Relay System at 711.

 

MOSI recently teamed up with the community’s largest provider of Autism Spectrum Disorder analysis and care, Behavioral Consulting of Tampa Bay (BCOTB). This marks the first of its kind for either organization. The collaboration will lead to more vital science and math education for a wider range of students in Tampa Bay, richer and more fulfilling time together for families that include children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and guidelines for other museums and businesses that are looking to create a more inclusive experience.

 

If you are in the downtown area, then I recommend you stop by the Unlock Tampa Bay Visitors Center. Kevin Wiatrowski from Visit Tampa Bay was kind enough to give me a walking tour of the downtown streets and he was very proud to show me this storefront location at 201 North Franklin Street which only opened last summer. It is open Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 5 pm. Here you will get excellent local advice on attractions, restaurants, and things to do during your stay. The staff is very knowledgeable. Make sure to check out the exceptionally neat gift shop, which includes a curated selection of Tampa-themed memorabilia and apparel. 

 

The TECO Historic Streetcar runs from downtown to Ybor City (the Latin Quarter) and has a stop right outside the Marriott Waterside. The TECO Manatee Viewing Center at the Big Bend power station is a nice place to check out manatees this time of year. Hundreds of them gather in the warm water emitted from the power station. There’s a nature center and a short walking trail through the mangroves.

 

The Pirate Water Taxi provides hop-on, hop-off service along the waterfront and stops near the Marriott Waterside as well.

 

STRAZ CENTER

While in town we secured tickets for Harry Potter and then Chamber of Secrets in Concert, featuring the Florida Orchestra at the magnificent Straz Center for the Performing Arts (http://www.strazcenter.org). Cars fly, trees fight back, and monsters are on the loose in Harry’s second year at Hogwarts! This concert featured the film, with the orchestra performing John Williams’ unforgettable score. A capacity crowd loved every moment of it. Watch for this to come to a city near you. The question is, can any place do it better than the Straz?

 

A year earlier we saw the Broadway hit An American in Paris while in town. We simply love this venue and were literally looking for an excuse to return. There is ample parking in the nearby Poe Garage, which actually has a covered walkway connected from the Straz for easy access

 

The Straz is the largest performing arts center in the Southeast and the only one with an on-site performing arts conservatory. A number of members from the local Jewish community sit on their board of trustees. The Straz was incorporated in 1980 and opened in 1987. In the early 1990s, the Straz Center (then known as Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) established arts education as a community priority, working closely with area public, private and home school programs to enhance arts education for children throughout the seven-county Tampa Bay area. Outreach programs included curriculum connectors to Florida education standards and teacher study guides in print and online. The Straz Center’s extended in-school artistic residencies, summer programs and after school offerings helped to fill the increasing gaps in arts education left by budget cuts. Since 1991 the Straz Center’s Education department housed programs such as Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra and Community Arts Ensemble, a free summer theater day camp that served urban children in need by connecting them with nationally known artists in a rehearsal-based process. Each summer, an original musical play was written and produced especially for that year’s group of up to 100 children to perform in a fully-staged production for friends and family in one of the Straz Center’s main halls.

 

If you are headed to Tampa in 2018 there are some great Broadway shows booked such as Forever Plaid, Phantom of the Opera, The Color Purple, The Bodyguard, Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, Waitress, Sound of Music, The Illusionists and Cinderella. The spectacular tour of Hamilton will land at the Straz for the 2018-2019 season. You can also check out Opera Tampa, which produces the highest caliber presentations.

 

The Straz Center is committed to making the performing arts available and accessible through a variety of services, including sign language interpretation, audio descriptions of shows and open captioning. It encourage patrons needing these services to call ahead (813.229.STAR). The Straz Center has an ‘Open Doors’ Accessibility Policy. Wheelchair accessible seating may be purchased online or over the phone with a Customer Service Representative. Infrared listening system wireless headphones are available for Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater. There is no charge for this service, but a driver’s license, major credit card or $10 refundable deposit is required. The Straz Center is committed to making the performing arts available and accessible through a variety of services, including American Sign Language interpretation** and open captioning. Patrons needing these services are encouraged to call ahead at (813) 229-7827. Telephones, water fountains and ticket counters are placed at an appropriate height for those in wheelchairs. Companion restrooms for those needing assistance are on all levels of Morsani Hall and on the Orchestra level of Ferguson Hall. All other restrooms are equipped with special stalls. Patrons who experience mobility issues should call the Ticket Office for specific information on stairs and level changes in each theater. When ordering tickets, be sure to tell the Ticket Office of your seating needs. Transport wheelchairs are available at the Arrival Plaza. No reservation is necessary. 

 

Headsets are available for patrons with hearing impairments to assist with amplification and clarity. They are lightweight and can be used in all sections of Carol Morsani Hall, Ferguson Hall and the Jaeb Theater.  Companion restrooms are on every level of Carol Morsani Hall and on the orchestra levels of Ferguson Hall. Accessible restrooms are on the orchestra level in the Jaeb Theater and in the Shimberg Playhouse. Accessible water fountains and phones also are available in the facility on all seating levels. Please see an usher for directions. Passenger elevators are equipped with braille for access by persons with visual impairments.

 

THE LIGHTNING AND AMALIE ARENA

 

I made my first visit ever to the Amalie Arena (originally called the Ice Palace), which opened on October 12, 1996. How lucky could I be that on the night I was available, the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning happened to be hosting my hometown Montreal Canadiens.

 

A visit here, regardless of the event taking place, is an absolute must.

 

Start off by checking the schedule for the Lightning. It was very nostalgic for me to be in the press box. Twenty-five years earlier when Tampa entered the National Hockey League as an expansion franchise I was among a group of journalists invited for a visit. Naturally, one of the things the local tourism board wanted to showcase to the Montreal media was the arrival of the NHL to Tampa. So off we went to the temporary home of the Lightning, the 11,000 seat Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds for an exhibition game. With my tape recorder and microphone in hand, I requested for and received a one-on-one interview with hockey legend Phil Esposito. He was president and general manager of the new team and the man solely responsible for bringing pro hockey to town, having persuaded a consortium of Japanese businesses to provide the necessary capital.

 

The first few years were rough for the Lightning, with significant financial losses. They withstood the challenges. As ownership changed hands a few times, Esposito was eventually ousted in his role. He is adored in this city. Outside of the arena there is a bronze statue of him. He also serves as a commentator for home game radio broadcasts.

 

Having spent the past week in Tampa, it was clear what a hockey mad city this is. Everywhere you go there seem to be signs on buildings saying “Go Bolts!” or “Be the Thunder!” At the AMC Theatre we went to, there were photos of Lightning players in the hallway leading to the ticket counter. On major streets, there are oriflammes featuring Lightning team members.

 

I knew my visit to Tampa would not be complete without meeting Esposito again. I congratulated him for what he brought to this city and asked how proud it made him to see the hockey franchise thriving on its 25th anniversary. “Very proud,” he said, “and thank you.”

 

The Amalie Arena is a fantastic hockey venue. The outside actually more resembles a football or baseball stadium and before each game there is a lot of action going on.

 

I really liked the game presentation. It started off with the American national anthem sung by a female sergeant from the US Army, who got a warm ovation. At each home game, $50,000 is presented to a community hero. On the scoreboard a Lightning player moderates a short slideshow of the recipient whom they show live at the end holding a Tampa sweater. In this case it was the director of a non-profit pre-school was highlighted. By the time her story was told, fans gave her a standing ovation. They did the same for another member of the US Army who had his story of bravery recounted.

 

McDonald’s sponsors a short feature called “Small Fries” as the camera catches the cutest little kids in the crowd. Like Montreal, they have the Kiss Cam. But at the end, instead of embarrassing couples to pucker up, they look for someone without a significant other and play the song “All By Myself.” On this night, they chose a fan with a Habs jersey.

 

The arena, also home to the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm, has hosted numerous high-profile events including the 1999 NHL All-Star Game, the 2007 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2008 NCAA Women’s Final Four, the 2009 SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament, the 2012 Republican National Convention, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Frozen Four and more. In August 2014, local Tampa Bay company Amalie Oil entered an agreement for the naming rights to the arena. 

 

Amalie annually hosts more than 150 events ever year, which ranks among the top venues in North America. The facility encompasses 670,000 square feet with three decks and seven separate levels. The building is 133 feet 10 inches in height and 493 feet in diameter. Two hundred and forty-two new sport lights have been installed to increase game night lighting by doubling the foot-candle levels, exceeding all NHL standards and enhancing HD broadcasts. LED display boards that circle the entire area feature 1.7 million square pixels for pure viewing pleasure. 

 

FOX RENT A CAR

 

In late 2011, Tampa International Airport officials began the process of updating the Master Plan for the 3,300-acre campus. The final plan, approved in 2013, will allow the airport to accommodate up to 35 million passengers each year, and is divided into three distinct phases: Decongestion, enabling and expansion. It allows a “build as demand dictates” approach to growth, with phases based on passenger volume.

 

The first phase, which is scheduled for completion in 2018, helps decongest the curbsides, roads and main terminal, and includes a 2.6 million-square-foot Rental Car Center, a 1.4-mile automated people mover and an expansion of the main terminal. Upon disembarking, passengers board a train (The SkyConnect Automated People Mover System) which brings them to the brand new rental car terminal.

 

This brings me to Fox Rent A Car (http://www.foxrentacar.com). On our trip last year to St. Petersburgh, Florida we had our first experience with Fox in Tampa and we were extremely pleased with the service. It was therefore a no brainer to book with them again.

 

As of this writing Fox has moved into the new rental facility at the airport. For our visit though, as is the case for other cities where Fox is present, we relied on a shuttle and the process went very smoothly. Our driver helped load and unload all of our luggage. It was a pleasant 10-minute drive, where Senior Airport Operations Manager Alejandro Rosquete Sr. greeted us. Not only did he remember exactly who I was from a year earlier, but he had total recall for what make of vehicle I drove away with. It was a brand new Chrysler 300, an experience we liked so much we ordered a repeat. Alejandro brought the car around and proceeded to show us all of the features. We took the $6.99 per day option for the tolls, which allowed us to cruise right through the special Sun Pass lanes saving us time. At Fox you’ll find economy cars, family-size cars, SUVs, mini-vans and luxury or sport vehicles available for your discount rental.

 

The Tampa operation is managed by Edgar Hernandez, who has been with Fox since the company first arrived in Florida six years ago. In addition to Tampa, their Sunshine State locations include Orlando, Fort Myers, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Prices here are significantly better than the competition.

 

The Tampa location is open 24 hours a day. For more information call (800) 225-4369 Ext. 1 or (310) 641-3838 Ext. 1

 

Fox is now the fifth largest car rental company in the US and it continues expanding globally with new locations open for reservations in the popular tourist markets of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Merida, Mexico, Auckland, New Zealand, Fort McMurray, Alberta and Istanbul, Turkey, Aruba, Antigua, Barbuda and Poland. Fox is recognized as a discount car rental company and let me assure you they beat their competitors in terms of price and customer service by a mile.

 

Fox was founded in 1989 as a value-based car rental brand catering to airport travellers. Actively managed and owned by its founders, Fox has enjoyed robust growth for over 25 years. Fox offers consumers great value, convenience and superior service at 19 major corporate owned airport locations across the US plus 115 plus affiliate locations in 33 countries and a growing roster of international partner locations at http://www.foxrentacar.com.

 

For customer service call toll free (800) 225-4369 Ext. 9 Fox does assist with reserving vehicles with hand controls. Fox cannot provide hand controls on every make or model of vehicle, and cannot confirm a reservation for a particular make or model of vehicle on any rental. Please call (800) 225-4369 at least 72 hours in advance to make your reservation. For assistance with a wheelchair-accessible shuttle, you can call (929)-346-0099.

 

Back to the airport expansion in Tampa. Phase 2 includes a curbside expansion and 17-acre commercial development around the rental car center. The commercial development area will feature an office building, convenience store with gas station, hotel, and a commercial curb to accommodate transit and other ground transportation, and connections to regional trail networks. The curbside expansion will include new express lanes exclusively for passengers without checked luggage.

 

Phase 3 will includes the construction of a new Airside D with 16 gates capable of handling both domestic and international flights

 

DINING OUT

 

In April 2017 Tampa got its first glatt Kosher restaurant called The Koshery Grill. It only managed to stay in business for a few months, but closed due to a lack of support from the community. There are a number of Jewish style delis and pita restaurants to choose from. You can also check out Delicious Creations Kosher Catering.

 

Tampa itself has some fabulous dining establishments.

 

THE COLUMBIA RESTAURANT

 

When in Tampa, you must experience Florida’s oldest restaurant and in fact the largest Spanish dining establishment in the world. The Columbia Restaurant (http://www.columbiarestaurant.com) was founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. it began in Tampa’s Ybor City, (pronounced EE-bore) as a small 60-seat corner cafe known for its Cuban coffee and authentic Cuban sandwiches, frequented by the local cigar workers.

The original Ybor City location is nothing short than magnificent. Additional Columbia locations include St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, the Historic District in St. Augustine, Sand Key on Clearwater Beach, Central Florida’s town of Celebration, Columbia Café on the Riverwalk in Tampa and Columbia Restaurant Café at Tampa International Airport. All Columbia locations are owned and operated by fourth and fifth generation members of the founding family except for the airport, which is operated in partnership with HMSHost.

To this day, over 110 years since it first opened, the Columbia remains in the same family. Richard Gonzmart is the CEO/President and his brother Casey serves as the Chairman of the Board. The fifth generation is also involved; Richard’s daughters, Lauren and Andrea, and Casey’s son, Casey Jr., work in the corporate office. Lauren has four children, twins Michael and Isabella, Maximilian and Alexander, and daughter Andrea has one child, Amelia. Their children represent the sixth generation.

 

Over the years, Columbia Restaurant has attracted some of the most well-known athletes and entertainers from yesteryear to today.

 

Richard and Casey Gonzmart have completed several rewarding projects. This included a   5,000 plus square foot $2 million kitchen in the Ybor City restaurant in what was a parking lot/delivery area on the south side of the restaurant.

 

The old kitchen space was remodeled and turned into two new dining rooms; the Andalucia and the Familia de Casimiro. These were the first new dining rooms built in the restaurant since 1956. The Familia de Casimiro was designed to resemble a Spanish wine cellar, with space for private meetings.

 

The Andalucia seats up to 80 people, and the Familia de Casimiro up to 30. These two new dining rooms made for an additional 110 seats and brought the total number of dining rooms to 15, with seating for up to 1,700 people. The restaurant has a grand total of 52,000 square feet, and encompasses an entire city block.

 

The new kitchen and dining rooms were part of a $6.5 million renovation project that prepared the restaurant for its 100th anniversary in 2005.

 

Reservations are accepted. There is a children’s menu and valet parking Casual attire is fine, but sleeveless shirts on men are not permitted. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Takeout is available on all lunch and dinner menu items. 

 

Some of the menu favorites include Columbia’s Original “1905” Salad,® Spanish Bean Soup, The Original Cuban Sandwich, a variety of Tapas, Paella, Red Snapper “Alicante,” Pompano en Papillot, Roast Pork “A la Cubana,” Chicken and Yellow Rice “Valenciana,” Filet Mignon “Chacho,” Café con Leche and Flan. A gluten-free menu is available. 
Winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence, every year since 2004, for an outstanding collection of Spanish wines (more than 1,056 wines, inventory exceeds 50,000 bottles). 
There is always entertainment at the Ybor City location, with Flamenco and Spanish classical dance performances nightly ($6 per person cover charge). There are no shows on Sunday, a live jazz band Tuesday through Saturday nights, live music every Friday and Saturday night in the Tapas Bar and at the Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center on the Tampa Riverwalk, live music every Friday and Saturday night. 

 

When we arrived for dinner we took advantage of the valet parking and got in line to see the hostess. We were escorted to our table and handed a menu which necessitated a lot of study on our part. It had been 23 years since my last visit to this restaurant and it remains a fabulous dining experience.

 

After some white sangria was brought to the table, the three of us agreed to share some items from the menu starting with the Tapas (pronounced TAH-pahs) section. These are popular throughout Spain in bars and restaurants. Tapas usually accompany a glass of sherry or other aperitifs. Simply put, they are appetizers. Together they can form an entire meal, ranging from simple items such as olives or croquettes to more elaborate preparations such as mussels in a spicy sauce.  We opted for the tapeo sampler, which allowed us to make three choices. Ours were: Empanadas de Picadillo (spiced ground beef, garlic, tomato, onions, raisins and olives, wrapped in two pastry turnovers);  Croquetas de Langosta (two large croquettes made with Maine lobster meat, blended into a delicate roux, breaded with Cuban bread crumbs, served with a lobster sauce); and Scallops “Casimiro” (Colossal fresh scallops baked in a clay casserole with lemon butter and topped with seasoned bread crumbs and white wine). It arrived on a tower of three plates.

 

We moved on to share two main courses. The Ropa Vieja was originally introduced to Cuba by Spanish sailors. The name means “old clothes” because the choice beef is shredded, sautéed and simmered with onions, green peppers and tomatoes.  Served with platanos and white rice we thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The same goes for the baked stuffed grouper. This featured a boneless fillet of red grouper stuffed with crabmeat and a tropical passion fruit butter sauce. Gently baked, it was served with yellow rice and fresh vegetables.

 

When it came time to have dessert, we had just enough room to share the Churros “Tres Amigos” Golden brown Spanish pastry, dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with three sauces of rich warm chocolate, caramel and guava. It was a terrific meal and let me add that this represents a very affordable choice for families.

 

The entrance to the restaurant and to the different rooms are handicapped accessible.

 

RUTH’S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE

 

Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse locations can be found across the United States and elsewhere around the world. While in Tampa, we dined at the 350- seat 1700 North Westshore Blvd. location in what would mark my long awaited first review of this very famous restaurant chain.

 

More than 50 years ago, the “First Lady of Steak,” Ruth Fertel, bought a local steak house in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was called Chris Steak House. She had never planned to expand, but after a fierce kitchen fire decimated the property she was forced to relocate in order to stay in business. Within 10 days she had the restaurant up and running. But the Chris Steak House name was not allowed to move with it. With little time and a mischievous smile, Ruth added her own name to the sign, making it “Ruth’s Chris Steak House.” Later Ruth admitted the name was strange, but she managed to work around it.

 

In 1965, Fertel was a single mom trying to earn enough to send her two sons to college.  She worked every job at the restaurant: from butchering and broiling steak, to waiting tables, keeping the books and washing the dishes. Fertel’s hard work paid off, and her restaurant soon became the most popular steak house in New Orleans.

 

Ruth’s Chris Steak House began with a team of working mothers, hired by Fertel for their hardworking attitudes and dedication to doing things right. Having established a “this is how it’s done” tradition – passion, hard work and business savvy – Ruth’s Chris Steak House began to grow. In the years that followed, Ruth’s Chris Steak House brought its signature sizzle to more than 150 company and franchised owned locations in the U.S and internationally. It sure has stood the test of time; more than 120 employees have been with the company nearly 20 years or more.

 

Ruth passed away in 2002, but her legacy of community, philanthropy, and commitment to serving only the best lives on.  What started as one restaurant has grown into the largest collection of upscale steak houses in the world. Now guests routinely savor the sizzle of USDA prime steak and genuine hospitality across the globe

 

As for Canada there are two locations in Toronto and one each in Calgary and Edmonton. As for Montreal, officials tell me there has really never been any interest shown. All one needs to do is email franchisedevelopment@rhgi.com.  Three new locations opened last year: Waltham, Massachusetts, Cleveland, Ohio and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

 

“Ruth had a recipe for everything from preparing the best steak of your life to simply living right,” said Mike O’Donnell, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc. “She knew the value of hard work and the true meaning of hospitality.”

 

Jim Martin, the general manager of the Tampa location, gave us a warm greeting and proudly told some stories about his nearly 30 years with the company. He also shared a few personal anecdotes of his memories of Ruth Fertel, whom he had the pleasure of interacting with on many occasions.

 

At Ruth’s Chris, your last bite is just as good as your first. Their perfected broiling method and seasoning techniques ensure each cut of USDA Prime beef they serve arrives cooked to perfection and sizzling on a 500 degree plate. The menu includes seafood, appetizers, sides and desserts.

 

At Ruth’s Chris, there’s more to their bar than world-class wines. They specialize in handcrafted cocktails, from vintage classics to their very own house specialties. All made with fresh-squeezed juices, premium spirits and the perfect finishing touches, I started the evening off with a sweet and tasty cosmopolitan.

 

For dinner let us recommend the Porterhouse steak for two – 40 ounces of prime beef with the rich flavor of a strip and the tenderness of a filet. This was more than enough for our party of three, with some roasted cremini mushrooms and fingerling potatoes on the side. While we each had our eyes on one of the many excellent soups and salads as a pre-meal selection, instead we agreed to share a small (but it is actually quite large) chilled seafood tower – Maine lobster, king crab legs and knuckles, colossal lump crab meat and jumbo cocktail shrimp served with both Sriracha-lime seafood and cocktail sauces.

 

When it came to dessert, our waiter Wayne suggested we go with the crème brulee and we did so with a few spoons. Wayne was right on the mark.

 

Ruth’s Chris does offer a gluten-free menu. The items available are either gluten-free as prepared, or are modified to be gluten-free. If you have an allergy or dietary concern, contact the restaurant before your reservation time or ask to speak with a manager or chef upon arrival. They do offer vegetarian options.

 

To learn more about the legend of Ruth Fertel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, visit http://RuthsChris.com

 

OYSTERCATCHERS

 

When on holiday we always try to find the best seafood restaurant in town. In Tampa, that would be Oystercatchers (http://www.oystercatchersrestaurant.com) at the Grand Hyatt at 2900 Bayport Drive. To get there you drive down a winding road approaching the illuminated circle drive, flanked by palm trees and bright flowerbeds. There is valet parking.

 

As you enter the restaurant through the lounge, you are taken back by the spectacular panoramic view of Old Tampa Bay. With its innovative cocktails and contemporary furniture, the lounge, outside patio and lower bay-level deck provide a comfortable yet chic hotspot for locals and visitors alike. The visually stimulating water views and sunsets provide a unique environment to enjoy feature wines and appetizers. As for the menu, it highlights an array of the freshest, wild and line caught fish available, organic produce and seafood specialties with a unique and contemporary flair.

 

We indulged in the flavorful creations of Chef de Cuisine Shane Clarke, who artfully blends the freshest catch with innovative touches, as only one born to the water can do.

 

Our server, Donald, has been part of the Oystercatchers staff for well over 20 years and he guided us excellently. General Manager Justin Beach and Chef Clarke actually greeted us at the start of the evening with a special sampling of their scallops. They were so delicious we knew we had to include this as part of our main course.

 

For our party of three we chose to share a number of dishes and that started with the appetizers: eight splendid oysters, an order of golden calamari fries, an arugula salad and yellowfin tuna (red in color, served medium rare from Florida’s East coast).  This was a great combination!

 

When it came to the main course, we opted to share a two-pound lobster. It came to the table completely cut up and easy to dip into the garlic butter. We also added an order of large juicy sea scallops from the Mexican Gulf, perfectly prepared and among the best I have tasted in many years.

 

For dessert we shared the house specialty, a slice of key lime pie and a piece of sumptuous chocolate cake.

 

Unquestionably this is the place you should go for seafood in Tampa Bay! It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm and Sunday from 6 pm to 9 pm. A popular brunch is served from 10:30 am to 2 pm Sundays. And you can drop by for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. For more information, call (813)

 

BIZOU BRASSERIE

 

I had breakfast one morning in one of downtown Tampa’s most iconic and historic buildings, the city’s former federal courthouse. Bizou Brasserie (http://www.bizoutampa.com) may look formal on the outside, but inside you’ll find a downtown Tampa restaurant to remember in a casual, fun environment. Located within Le Méridien Tampa at 601 N. Florida Avenue, Bizou (meaning “kiss” in French) is just the place to kick off a great evening at a restaurant in downtown Tampa or wind down after a night on the town. Here you’ll find a comfortable, relaxed setting for all kinds of occasions including before or after a special evening downtown visiting the museum, Tampa Theatre or a performance at the Straz Center. The breakfast was pretty good, some corned beef hash with potatoes, poached eggs and a choice of toast.

 

BERN’S FOR DESSERT

 

We had dined at the famous Jewish-owned Bern’s Steak House (http://www.bernsteakhouse.com) in Tampa a year earlier. It was great to learn about the history. Founder Bern Laxer was born to a Romanian mother and Polish father on the Lower East Side of New York in 1923, and grew up in the Bronx. After serving in World War II, he returned to New York where he pursued a degree in advertising from New York University. He met his wife Gert in a copywriting class and they married in 1950. They ought a small luncheonette in 1953 which would grow into Bern’s.

 

We decided to go to Bern’s after our own dinner one night and back inside the world famous Harry Waugh Dessert Room. Built in 1985 using redwood wine casks to create 48 private rooms, guests get to enjoy nearly 50 desserts, wines, ports, sherries, and madeiras. This represents a separate sitting. All desserts – ice creams, sherbets, pies, pastries, hot fudge, whipped cream, breads and crackers – are made by Bern’s with the freshest and best ingredients available. Make sure you have a reservation or prepare to wait a long time for a table.

 

In the end one member of our party opted for a specialty drink, a Butterscotch Bern’s (vanilla ice cream with butterscotch liqueur and other special liqueurs) as well as two outstanding desserts: the s’mores cheesecake (chocolate cheesecake, graham cracker crust and toasted vanilla marshmallow crème) and a piece of Granny Smith Apple Pie (caramelized apple filling wrapped in a sweet buttery dough and served with a caramel sauce and cinnamon ice cream).

 

If you are in the area of 1208 S. Howard Street then make a reservation by calling 813-251-2421. You can valet park for $5.