By Janet K. Keeler
Niches of nature are abundant throughout the region and offer unique activities, including horseback riding in the surf, flying solo with a jetpack over the Gulf of Mexico, and sightseeing from a hot air balloon.
Here are some ways to be adventurous in the Tampa Bay area...
It’s a Paddleboard. It’s a bicycle. No wait, it’s both, with a touch of catamaran thrown in. For a unique experience that comes with a view of the Tampa skyline, rent solo or tandem water bikes and cruise the part of the 59-mile long Hillsborough River that flows through downtown. The Tampa Bay Water Bike Co. also rents “biyaks,” which are kayaks operated by pedal-power rather than oars. Think of it as a lower body workout and a serene respite in the middle of the bustling city. After you cruise the river under your own power, consider a stop at Armature Works on the river for refreshments.
BIKING THE TRAILS
For adventurers that want to pedal on land, the Tampa Bay area boasts two extensive bike trails. The Pinellas Trail is a 38-mile paved walking and biking trail that runs from the Greek-influenced town of Tarpon Springs in the north to quirky-arty downtown St. Petersburg in the south. The 42-mile paved Suncoast Trail starts in Hillsborough County on the other side of the bay and continues north through Pasco County, ending in Hernando County. There are wildlife viewing areas along the way and multiple entry points and comfort facilities.
HIGH IN THE SKY
If you are an early riser and you like your thrills from the sky, consider a ride in a hot air balloon. Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventure provides a bird’s-eye view of the lakes and wide-open spaces of the Tampa Bay area. Riders will meet an hour before sunrise and then board a balloon for about an hour of flight time. If they are lucky, they might even see an alligator cruising a freshwater lagoon. A champagne toast plus full breakfast are included.
Fort De Soto Park at the tip of Pinellas County is made up of five interconnected islands, called keys in Florida. There is an amazing array of activities offered at this 1,100-acre county park including camping, kayaking, swimming and miles of paved trails to walk, bike or Rollerblade, and boat launching facilities and picnic shelters. There’s a 100-year-old-plus fort that’s worth exploring, plus birdwatchers have a chance to spy more than 300 species, including egrets, herons and lots of sweet shorebirds. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret as it is popular with locals, but it’s a bit of a hidden gem for tourists. All the more reason to check it out but make sure to reserve campsites well in advance.
Jump from a plane? You? Yes, you. Skydive City Z-Hills just northeast of Tampa in Zephyrhills will have you skydiving in a matter of hours. First timers skydive in tandem with an experienced thrill-seeker. You’ll be jumping at about 5,000 feet for the four- to six-minute, 120-mph ride back to the ground. It’s a roughly half-day experience and if you think the folks back home won’t believe it you can show them the video, complete with an interview with you, made by a Skydive City videographer.
GIDDY-UP, FLORIDA STYLE
Just south of the Skyway Bridge and west toward Anna Maria Island, equestrian wannabes can find some unique terrain to ride horseback. C Ponies takes riders along the beach and into Tampa Bay for hourlong rides atop horses who have been rescued and rehabilitated. C Ponies also offers excursions along St. Pete Beach. Beach Horses also helps riders saddle up.
MAKE LIKE A JETSON
Flying solo with your very own jetpack is a cool way to experience the Gulf of Mexico. Strap on a JetLev Flyer pack at the TradeWinds Island Resort on St. Pete Beach and skim the Gulf of Mexico coast like a bird. Or at least like a character from the old cartoon. The adventure includes 15 minutes of training and 30 minutes of flying. Flyers go as high as 30 feet and as fast as 30 mph. Someone will follow you along on a WaveRunner to assist if you need help. If the gulf winds are unfavorable, the experience can move to the Intracoastal Waterway, basically across the street but protected by the barrier island.
KITEBOARDING WITH A VIEW
One of the most iconic sites in the Tampa Bay area is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans the bay from Pinellas to Manatee counties. Once you see it, you might recognize it from movies or commercials. Another cool way to see the bridge is to kiteboard in the bay from the southern approach to the Skyway. The winds are optimum for kiteboarding October through May. Elite Watersports rents the equipment and gives lessons, too. There are several packages to choose from but be warned: you might get hooked on the experience and the view. Elite also offers other watersport adventures, including Paddleboarding.
REEL 'EM IN
Coming to Florida and not fishing is like an adventurer going to Colorado and not skiing or visiting the Grand Canyon and not riding a donkey to the bottom. Fishing is what we do here and there are plenty of charters to help visiting anglers reel in their dinner. Or more likely experience catch-and-release fishing. Florida Light Tackle Charters is one such company and in the Tampa Bay area, they offer near-shore fishing that can bring in cobia, tarpon, shark, kingfish, barracuda and snapper. Make sure your phone has a full charge so you can snap a photo of your bounty.
ZIPPITY ZIP LINE
Strap on your GoPro to record your zip lining adventure just north of Tampa at Empower Adventures. A 55-foot tower is the start of five zip lines of varying lengths and you can do them all if you’d like. There is also a number of bridges, including a 200-foot suspension bridge, to negotiate. Zippers skim the trees and get a good view of the lagoons below. Empower offers nighttime packages, too, and in the distance you can see the Tampa skyline.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Let loose your inner Mario Andretti at Tampa Bay Grand Prix, an innovative indoor go-karting center with two Tampa Bay locations. You can test your talents racing against others in electric karts that can go a blistering 50 mph, with tracks designed for all skill levels.
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