By Janet K. Keeler
Tampa and environs offer many opportunities for eco-travelers. In the third-most populous city in Florida, a visitor looking to make a low impact while having a high-impact experience can do so on both land and water.
There are 1.4 million people living in Hillsborough County but visitors might not notice that once they dip a paddle into the Hillsborough or Alafia rivers. The Hillsborough and its state park cuts through the city north and south, skirting the high-rise buildings of downtown, which is quite a sight from a paddleboard. The Alafia, which also includes a state park, runs east and west with plenty of opportunities for boating and fishing. Both rivers feed into Tampa Bay.
Here are more suggestions for visitors who want to travel to Tampa and leave mostly footprints behind.
Go to College
The University of South Florida is a sprawling campus with some 50,000 students studying everything from marine biology to marketing to modern dance. The 16-acre USF Botanical Gardens offers a respite from busy campus life and welcomes visitors. The gardens boast 3,000 species of plants including the orchid, which is glorious in full bloom. There is also a medicinal garden plus several festivals and plant sales held annually. The gardens host regular events, including a honey tasting with the sweet stuff coming from all over the world and one produced on campus.
Call them what you will -- sea cows, gentle giants or manatees -- getting a chance to see this interesting mammal close up is a treat. The herbivore is as peaceful as they come, and they almost seem to pose for photos as they glide just below the surface of the water or poke their snouts up for air. At the TECO manatee viewing station in Apollo Beach, the mammals gather in the warm water there from November to April. The Big Bend Power Station’s discharge channel has attracted the mammals for decades. Admission and parking is free and there is a viewing tower and a boardwalk to provide visitors with a closer vantage point.
It’s easy for drivers to miss Diamond Back Nature Preserve as they whiz across the Howard Frankland Bridge that spans Tampa Bay. Just north of the bridge on Old Tampa Bay is this nine-acre preserve that features a tidal creek plus a hammock and mangrove forest. A hiking trail leads visitors through the natural oasis, plus there’s free parking in front of the FBI building. Bring binoculars for bird watching.
The history of Ybor City has long been a lure to the tiny city within a city. In year’s past, it was bustling with cigar manufacturers and big halls where the cigars were rolled by hand. There are still some cigar stores now where visitors can see the rollers in action. Cuban food with a Spanish (from Spain) accent is also on the menu at iconic Ybor restaurants such as La Teresita and the Columbia. Don’t leave without having a Cuban sandwich, Tampa-style.
Two walking tours will get you out of the car to explore the area. Ybor City Walking Tours guides focus on Ybor’s history and if they don’t talk about el lectors, the people who read to the workers as they rolled cigars, ask them. When day turns to night, Ybor City Ghost Tours get spooky with tales of haunted buildings and lovers who met an untimely end.
Get off your feet and into a canoe for an adventure along the Hillsborough River with Canoe Escape. Excursions include two-hour paddles and full-day adventures that explore the natural surroundings. Birds are plentiful, including springtime songbirds that serenade paddlers as they cruise along. The trips launch about 15 miles east of downtown Tampa but the quiet of the river will make it seem like dozens more.
FOOD AND DINING
Hang out on Sunday morning with the locals for brunch at Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple. Wat Temple hosts an outdoor market and the big draw is the prepared food, including papaya salad, curry dishes, noodle soup and egg rolls. The lines begin to form at about 8:30 a.m. when people fill up their plates and head to the picnic tables under the trees. It’s open until 1 p.m. but those who arrive past 12:30 p.m. won’t have their choice of all the food. When the food runs out, it’s gone. It’s cash only and a good place to chat with locals about their favorite eco-friendly attractions in the area.
Big Ray’s Fish Camp has deep Tampa roots, thanks to the chef who learned how to fish Tampa Bay waters from his grandfather just a few blocks from this Ballast Point restaurant. It’s nothing fancy but the grouper sandwich is one of the best around. Big Ray’s has gotten a lot of accolades from reviewers who don’t mind sitting on picnic benches outside of a tiny hut that’s cooking up big things. And it’s not exactly local but the lobster corndog is a splurge that’s worth it.
Explore downtown Tampa and Ybor City by way of the Historic Street Car system. The street cars make stops in Ybor City and the Channelside area where Amalie Arena is home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a popular concert venue, and the Florida Aquarium features the state’s aquatic wonders. The cars run later on weekends and when there are home games. Sparkman Wharf along the Hillsborough River is a collection of excellent local restaurants that feature a variety of cuisines. Check out Edison’s Swigamajig for seafood prepared by Jeannie Pierola, one of Tampa’s best chefs and a Florida native. The streetcars also stop downtown near hotels and there are plans to extend service to other areas.
Cross Bay Ferry
The Cross Bay Ferry provides seasonal transportation across Tampa Bay from the Channelside area to downtown St. Petersburg. Besides avoiding busy highways, riders get a chance to sightsee on the glittering bay. Once in St. Petersburg, there are numerous restaurants on nearby Beach Drive plus several museums within walking distance including the Dali Museum and Museum of Fine Art St. Petersburg.
Ride along downtown’s Riverwalk with a bicycle from Coast Bike Share. There are several places to rent the bikes and then drop them at stations along the way. The newly developed Riverwalk has turned a once sleepy area into a bustling promenade with music and art events, museums and places to eat, including the Armature Works food hall, the Hall on Franklin and Ulele, a restaurant that celebrates Florida cuisine in a refurbished water utility building.
North of Tampa is the Saddlebrook Resort, which is all about the eco-mantra “reduce, reuse and recycle.” It is situated on a 480-acre gated preserve that includes a nature walk through the property. On this walk, visitors can spy bald cypress trees as well as blooming plants and birds such as egrets, herons and cranes. This is a luxury resort for sure but it’s also a certified Florida Green Lodging facility. A new irrigation system has reduced the amount of water used on its Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Most employees travel around the property via electric cart.
If you want your luxury more rustic, consider camping at one of 80 sites at the Alafia River State Park. There are even sites that accommodate equestrian campers, and primitive sites, too, for youth groups. There is RV and tent camping at Hillsborough River State Park, plus a half-acre ADA-accessible pool to cool off in. Nature trails meander along the river.
In Florida, the Certified Green Lodging program encourages hotels, motels, resorts and B&Bs to be sustainable and environmentally aware. You can peruse this list to find accommodations that do this.
Many organizations that focus on the environment and wildlife and those that provide assistance for the homeless or youth at risk depend on volunteers. For visitors seeking to help for a limited amount of time, it’s best to call ahead to find out how best to contribute.
Metropolitan Ministries provides many services for the homeless, including feeding hundreds of people every day. The non-profit is fueled by its many volunteers and can often accommodate visitors for short-term stints. November and December are especially busy because of holiday meals and extra hands are always needed.
Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful has a number of programs that put the focus on the environment. Clean-up days are part of the group’s mission and volunteers are needed to pick up trash in various locations.
The Florida Learning Garden at the Florida State Fairgrounds is a one-acre teaching facility that features a walking trail, rain gardens, more than 75 types of trees and an interactive greenhouse. Volunteers also work here. The year-round garden is a popular spot for school field trips and is helping to create a network for people who want to learn more about local food sources.
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