That One Time I Totally Failed At Swimming With Manatees

Everything about this moment feels wrong.

That One Time I Totally Failed At Swimming With Manatees

Everything about this moment feels wrong.

It’s Saturday and we’re up before dawn. The temperature is barely above freezing. We’re wrapped in scarves, gloves, our warmest jackets, and getting ready to go – of all things – swimming.

Winters in Florida are prime manatee viewing times. Hundreds of these 1,000-plus pound marine mammals gather in the springs to wait out the winter in the 72-degree water. Citrus County, about 90 minutes north of Tampa, is especially popular with the endangered vegetarians.

And unlike the rest of the country, heck unlike the rest of North America, Citrus County is the only place where you can legally swim with the manatee in its natural habitat. You just have to be willing to get a little chilly.

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All aboard! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop.

At the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop that Saturday morning, Captain Ross Files sizes up Greg and me and hands us each a wetsuit. Our group – a family from Denmark, a man from nearby Deland, and an Oregon couple on a road trip from Disney – stand in our skintight wetsuits in the dive center’s gift shop, an awkward group of human seals amid rows of manatee t-shirts, magnets and stuffed animals. Outside we can see steam rising off the river.

Crystal River, FL

Sunrise on the Crystal River.

The sun rises as our pontoon boat skims across the water. Ospreys fly overhead and the occasional cormorant dries its wings on a mangrove branch.

We turn into a wide canal lined with other boats, kayaks and paddle boards. The water is punctured by circles of snorkels and the occasional manatee snout coming up for air.

The rules regarding the interaction between manatees and people are strict. Before we set sail we had watched the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Manatee Manners video.

The agency allows for “passive observation” of manatees in the water. This means you can swim with and even pet the massive mammals, provided the manatee approaches you first. Undercover wildlife officers patrol the springs to monitor the behavior of swimmers and boaters. Mistreat a manatee and you could face up to a year in jail or a $100,000 fine.

manatee in crystal river

Come on, these guys are adorable. Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

As Captain Ross leads us into the water, he says it’s important to go with a guide who swims with you, walking you through the encounter for the most manatee-friendly experience.

I’m the last off the boat. The 72 degree water feels surprisingly warm. At first.

Then I get chest-deep. That’s when I start hyperventilating. Between the cold air, the cool water, and the fact that I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer, my body just freaks out.

I try to follow the group, but I can’t breathe. The snorkel amplifies my erratic breathing as I doggy-paddle awkwardly back to the boat. Other swimmers stare.

While Greg and the rest of the crew are rubbing manatee bellies, getting flipper hugs, and enduring the inspection of curious calves, I sit shivering on the boat.

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Those who didn’t freak out in the cold water get face to face with the manatees. Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

My only company is a little girl from Denmark who doesn’t speak English. She couldn’t handle the cold water either. A woman about my mom’s age is also onboard, bundled in her coat, a scarf and boots. She came along for the boat ride but knew it would be too cold to swim.

Smart.

Suddenly she calls to me from the back of the boat.

“Look!!” she says. “They’re everywhere!”

Sure enough, four or five manatees are gathered near the anchor. They inspect the rope and move on. Others come up for air just a few feet away. A baby and mama float by.

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Extreme manatee closeup! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

I grew up in a small town just south of here and spent my childhood summers swimming and tubing down these rivers. But I’ve never seen anything like this.

Captain Ross comes back to check on me and the girl from Denmark. She has already taken off her suit and is quite happy to never step foot in the river again. He convinces me to give it another go.

I grab a life jacket and slip back in the water. Breathe slow, he says. A manatee appears a few minutes later. I get to pet it. It’s amazing.

Swimming with manatees

Take two in the cold water. Success! Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

Rather than follow him back to the springs, I stay by the boat. The water’s murkier, but I can stand here. Manatees come and go. They sniff the muddy ground beneath my feet. My friends on the boat call out instructions: “take three steps to your left and you’ll see a baby!” “There’s a big one on your right!” “Look behind you!”

There’s something primeval about seeing a creature ten times your size materialize next to you in the water; hearing it chirp and squeak as it floats by; watching the sun sparkle on the propellor scars that slash its back.

swimming with manatees

Photo by Captain Ross Files of the Plantation’s Adventure Center & Dive Shop

After a few hours, the rest of the crew comes back from the spring. Our boat ride out here was quiet. Families kept to themselves. Couples spoke only to each other. But after the swim, everyone can’t stop talking about what they saw.

“Did you see the mother and that tiny calf?” “I swear I saw its eyes trying to focus on me.” “It suckled on my foot!”

This is common, Captain John Pann, the dive shop’s manager tells me. “It’s a life-changing experience for most folks.”

We were guests of the Plantation on Crystal River. No one reviewed this article before it was published. All opinions here are our own.

Dude. The New Tampa Riverwalk Is Pretty Awesome.

When we first moved here a decade ago, we used to joke that you could film an apocalypse movie in downtown Tampa on the weekends.

Dude. The New Tampa Riverwalk Is Pretty Awesome.

When we first moved here a decade ago, we used to joke that you could film an apocalypse movie in downtown Tampa on the weekends. Save for a few half-empty restaurants and smoky bars, this part of town was dead after business hours.

But last Sunday, it took us 20 minutes to find a parking spot. As we drove in circles, passing recently-opened restaurants, apartment complexes, and even a new cigar bar, it was clear no one could get away with filming a zombie flick in downtown Tampa anymore.

What brought us here was the opening of the newest extension of the Tampa Riverwalk. The freshly paved 1,460-foot strip marks the completion of a 1.8 mile walkway that winds along the Hillsborough River from downtown’s northwest corner to its southern tip.

Tampa Riverwalk bench

It took almost 40 years, the effort of a half dozen mayors, and more than $30 million to get this trail up and running, but it’s finally here.

And dude, it’s awesome.

The trail starts at the riverside Curtis Hixon Park. Ten years ago, this was a parking lot. When we visited Sunday, hundreds of yogis were practicing their downward dogs on the grassy steps in front of the new Museum of Art building. Frisbees, drones and kites floated over families scattered about in lawn chairs and on picnic blankets.

Tampa Riverwalk yoga night

We were lucky to snag a seat at a popup bar called The Plank that had set up shop for the Riverwalk extension’s grand opening. Around us people with dogs, tattoos and leather pants drank beer and watched the sun set. It would be awesome if The Plank was open every weekend (hint hint, Tampa), but for now we’ll settle for the city’s recent ruling allowing visitors to drink booze bought from select vendors along the riverfront.

(No need to hide it in a red Solo cup. Not that anyone would ever do that.)

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As we walked along the Riverwalk, beers in hand, there was a sense of not knowing where we were. We’ve lived in Tampa nearly 10 years and had never been to these parts of downtown. The path wove under four bridges we’d previously only seen from the car. Dog walkers passed. Bikers chimed their bells. Kids on skateboards clattered by.

Tampa Riverwalk

The sun started to set behind the minarets of the University of Tampa and the Agua Luces, a new art installation illuminating downtown’s bridges, turned the roadways over our heads purple and pink.

Tampa Riverwalk Agua Luces
Tampa Riverwalk Agua Luces

Pretty soon (well, in a year or so), the Riverwalk will extend up to our neighborhood.

We can’t wait.

Old Becomes New In Tampa’s Historic Buildings

A few years ago, this strip of riverfront was an abandoned, weed-clogged marsh that few Tampanians had any reason to visit.

Old Becomes New In Tampa’s Historic Buildings

A few years ago, this strip of riverfront was an abandoned, weed-clogged marsh that few Tampanians had any reason to visit.

Today, well-heeled guests sip craft beers while waiting to be seated at a restaurant named by OpenTable as one of the top 100 in America.

Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits, a new seafood restaurant located in a former abandoned pump station along the Hillsborough River, is the latest in a series of renovation projects that have opened formerly vacant strips of Tampa to residents and travelers alike.

Ulele Tampa FL

Up until a year ago, this was a vacant (and scary!) abandoned pump station. Today it’s one of the city’s most popular restaurants.

Today, you can spend an entire weekend eating, drinking and cavorting in historic Tampa buildings where Teddy Roosevelt once slept and Babe Ruth hit his longest home run. Most of the structures have danced with demolition or had been abandoned for years before being reincarnated as restaurants, bars and hotels.

“It’s exciting because there have been plans to do things with these buildings for a long time — and now they’re actually coming to fruition,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Historic Downtown Tampa Gems

About a mile from Ulele, travelers roll their suitcases over the marble floors where some of the area’s most important civil rights trials were held and the city’s former mafia bosses took their last steps as free men.

The swanky Le Meridien hotel opened last year in the city’s century-old federal courthouse. Before Le Meridien, the building sat empty for about a decade, silent except for the hum of the air conditioners that kept the mold at bay.

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The facade of the old Tampa federal courthouse. The building sat empty for years before being renovated into a swanky hotel.

Around the corner, an investment made by the city more than 30 years ago saved another historic building from the wrecking ball.

When the Tampa Theatre opened in 1926, it was designed to transport moviegoers to an- other world — even when there was nothing on the screen. Inside, the theater looks like a Mediterranean courtyard. Statues and columns flank the stage; taxidermy doves and peacocks perch on fairytale terraces. The ceiling is studded with 99 tiny twinkling bulbs.

Tampa theatre sign

The marquee of the Tampa Theatre glitters like it did in the 1920s.

It was paradise until the 1960s, when the neighborhood went to pot and the theater was doomed for demolition. The city swooped in and bought the building for $1. A price some at the time said was too high.

Today, the theater is one of the most active
 of its kind, opening its doors more than 600 times a year for indie film screenings, concerts and the city’s local Gasparilla International Film Festival.

Before each filming, a Mighty Wurlitzer rises from the stage floor for a 15-minute live show.

Tampa theatre Mighty Wurlitzer

It’s a real treat to catch the live Mighty Wurlitzer performance before each show at the Tampa Theatre.

A Hotel Like No Other

The jewels in Tampa’s historic-building crown are the sparkling minarets of the former Tampa Bay Hotel. Built in 1891 by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, the opulent downtown hotel hosted everyone from Babe Ruth — who hit his longest home run on the hotel’s grounds — to bandmaster John Philip Sousa.

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The minarets of the former Tampa Bay Hotel. Today the building serves as the campus for the University of Tampa.

At its heyday, the hotel’s private golf course, 2,000-seat performance hall and heated indoor swimming pool offered
 a luxury unparalleled in the area. Even the Queen of England came by to check it out.

But when Plant died in 1899, his family showed little interest in running the grand hotel. Then, the Great Depression hit. The building sat vacant for a short time before re-opening as the University of Tampa. The on-site Henry B. Plant Museum celebrates the school’s history of hospitality.

Cigar Factories Turned Indie Bars

The whole “repurpose a historic building in
to something new” thing is old news in Ybor City, just two miles east of downtown.

From the 1880s to the mid-1920s, the cigar industry was the foundation of Tampa’s economy. More than 400 million cigars were produced in Ybor annually, earning Tampa the nickname the “Cigar Capital of the World.”

Today, the factories and stores that served the workers are home to indie-music venues, tattoo parlors and high-end Italian restaurants.

The James Joyce Irish Pub & Eatery dishes out shepherd’s pie and Guinness in the former shell of the Castellano & Pizzo grocery store, one of the first Italian markets in Tampa. It opened in 1892 to serve the Italians who had traded backbreaking work in Louisiana’s sugarcane fields for jobs in Ybor’s budding cigar industry.

James Joyce Ybor

A sign in front of the James Joyce Irish Pub gives an overview of the building’s history.

Around the corner, Cigar City Cider and Mead opened last year in one of the city’s most famed historic buildings. That is, if you believe the rumors.

Teddy Roosevelt brought his Rough Riders to Tampa in the spring 
of 1898 to await orders to ship to Cuba. That much is true. But whether Teddy and his buddies drank beer in a tavern that once stood here, as lore would have it, is debatable.

Even more unlikely 
is the local tale that one Rough Rider fired his gun in the air and accidentally killed a woman — uhm “working” — on the second floor, making her the first casualty of the Spanish-American War.

Tampa historians shoot this story down faster than you can say, “I’ll have another round of mead.”
But hey, a city can dream.

A version of the story originally appeared in the travel section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

Gasparilla Music Festival: Big Bands. Local Vibe.

“We are going to tell the world Tampa has arrived!” Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced to the crowd gathered in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

Gasparilla Music Festival: Big Bands. Local Vibe.

“We are going to tell the world Tampa has arrived!” Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced to the crowd gathered in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

It was opening day of the fourth annual Gasparilla Music Festival. More than 40 bands were scheduled to play on four stages set up throughout the downtown park. We’ve come to this festival every year and watched it evolve from a one-day affair with a lot of local bands, to a two-day event that pulls in a solid lineup.

Over the years we’ve seen some great performances: Jason Isbell, Dr. Dog, Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr, to name a few. But what I love is the event’s local vibe. The Gasparilla Music Festival is delightfully Tampa. Independent restaurants sell Cuban sandwiches. Local bands pack the house. Cigar City, the granddaddy of Tampa beers, pours freely.

The location, smack dab in the middle of downtown, shows off the Hillsborough River and the minarets of the University of Tampa.

It’s a real come as you are event. You’ll find yourself dancing next to people with dreadlocks or designer glasses, tie dye or board shorts. Because the park’s capacity is limited to 10,000 people, the crowds are never overwhelming.

Buckhorn, the mayor, has boasted this music festival is a sign of downtown Tampa’s revival. And it’s true. When we first moved here ten years ago, this strip of land was a parking lot. No one came downtown on the weekends.

On stage, the mayor jazzed the crowd with talk of the upcoming events in downtown. An extension of the city’s Riverwalk is opening at the end of the month. Next week they’re dyeing the river green for St Patrick’s Day. The week after that, an international film festival kicks off at the historic Tampa Theatre downtown.

But tonight, Buckhorn said, it’s all about the music.

“Let’s rock and roll!” he said.

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Wax Wings performs at the amphitheatre in Kiley Gardens, our favorite stage at the festival. In the background, you can see the Hillsborough River and the minarets of the University of Tampa.

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Another shot from a performance in the ampitheatre. Tampa rapper Dynasty hugs an audience member who had participated in her show. Dynasty’s set was by far the highlight of the festival for us.

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The action isn’t just limited to the four official stages. Bands perform impromptu sets throughout the park. On Saturday, the Kuumba Dancers and Drummers of Tampa performed on the lawn of Curtis Hixon Park.

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The Gasparilla Music Festival’s logo was projected on the downtown skyscrapers Saturday night.

Today’s My Birthday. It’s Also My Last Day at the 9 to 5

This is all Victor Hugo’s fault.

Today’s My Birthday. It’s Also My Last Day at the 9 to 5

This is all Victor Hugo’s fault.

In 1862, Hugo published a little story called Les Miserables. The book would become a bestseller, a Broadway production, and a touring musical that would land in Tampa in 1998. My mom and I would dress up and drive 50 minutes from the small town where I grew up to attend. And I would become obsessed.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the musical, listened to the album (the original Broadway production version is my favorite, though I love the extended songs on the first London recording), or how many times I’ve watched the video where the cast just kinda stands around and sings.

I knew the story would make for a great movie. And, as crazy as it sounds, I figured that if a movie was made, I would be a part of it.

les_miserable_people sing with HA

Yup, that’s me in the bottom right. The producers knew I loved Les Mis so they called and said I could wave a flag in the movie.

Sure, I can’t sing, I have zero production experience, and I live on the opposite side of the country from Hollywood. But surely – SURELY – my passion for the musical would land me on that set. I waited for someone to call and offer me a spot on the catering team, or ask for my help in the wardrobe department.

But the call never came and in 2012 the Les Mis movie came out. Without me.

I realized I’d miss a lot in life if I sat around waiting for the phone to ring.

Les-Miserables_square

You had one job, Javert.

That’s when this journey began.

Sure, the dream of working on the Les Mis movie may have been a little far-fetched. (Okay, very far-fetched.) But if I had had the guts to pursue it then maybe – just maybe – I could have made something happen. I mean, someone needs to sweep the barricades at the end of the day.

I started reflecting on my life. Was there anything else I was putting off pursuing? Anything else I really wanted to do and would regret missing out on?

Of course there was: travel writing.

It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I first started traveling in college. I would bring notebooks on trips and fill them with stories, notes about the destination, and detailed descriptions of what we ate, drank and experienced. All my disposable income went to traveling. All my free time went to planning the next trip.

It was time to take action and make this dream happen.

I started looking for opportunities and found some really cool companies that needed freelance writers. I attended travel blogging conferences and talked to other writers who were successfully freelancing full time. I started this blog … and people read it!

Friends, your support over the past two years has been a huge source of motivation. I couldn’t have done this without you guys.

So thanks to you all and to our buddy Victor Hugo, today’s my last day at the 9 to 5. For my birthday I’m giving myself the chance to pursue a freelance travel writing career.

Helen Anne Travis

Me in my new office with one of my fuzzy new officemates. Yes, I stole the nameplate from my current job. Yes, I’ll give it back if they every hire someone else named Helen Anne Travis.

Today at 5pm (let’s be honest, it will probably be closer to 4pm, maybe even 3:30), I’ll say goodbye to the awesome internet marketing team I’ve worked with for the past five years and hope my 1999 Saturn will last long enough for one more commute home.

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up a year older and get to work on all the projects, pitches and stories I haven’t had time to start. I’m working with some incredibly awesome companies and publications, and have a ton of stories to write from our recent visit to Michigan. There are also trips to London, Malta and Hawaii to plan.

Keep an eye on this blog for some big changes, too. Greg has been busy redesigning From Way Up High and we hope to launch the new version in the coming weeks.

Thank you all again for your support these past two years. And thank you to the Les Mis team for making the movie without me. It was the wake up call I needed.

Hiking Tampa Bay: Violet Cury Nature Preserve

After throwing a housewarming party to break in our new apartment, we were moving slow the next morning.

Hiking Tampa Bay: Violet Cury Nature Preserve

After throwing a housewarming party to break in our new apartment, we were moving slow the next morning. To clear the fog and get the blood flowing we decided to go for a hike. Nothing cures a hangover like some sun and sweat.

We chose Violet Cury Nature Preserve because of its central location and the preserve’s wild, untouched feel. Just 15 miles north of downtown Tampa, this park is a quick jaunt for anyone within the city limits.

A clearing within Violet Cury Nature Preserve.

The state of Florida acquired the 160-acre Violet Cury Nature Preserve in 1995 and opened it to the public five years later. This park is not regularly maintained by the county so it’s pleasantly overgrown. The only reason trails exist is thanks to a Boy Scout leader who took his troupe out one summer to mark them.

Getting to Violet Cury Nature Preserve

The entrance to the park is small and unimposing. If you’re moving too quickly down Sinclair Hills Road you may even pass it. It’s only a half mile down or so. A clearing under large oak trees is the best indicator you’re getting close.

Park your car alongside the road. As you walk towards the metal gate, cars zip past and you wonder how many of them know this place even exists.

We visited in the morning after a rainstorm and the park was surprisingly cool. It was August, but all of a sudden it felt like October. As we approached the only picnic table in the park, we were engulfed by a canopy of oaks, pines and palmettos.

This is where the two mile loop begins

The Trails

The main trail is a two mile loop and could take a couple of hours to complete if moving at a leisurely pace. Off the main trail are paths crisscrossing left and right, each connecting back to the main trail.

The trail alternates from sand to flattened grass. Yellow flowers and the shards of trees struck by lightning decorate the path. Butterflies appear out of nowhere, playfully bopping along, seeming to follow hikers for a minute before going on their way.

Yellow flowers dot the fields.

We encountered just one other person on our trip – a man and his dog out for a morning jog. AC/DC blared on the man’s phone as he ran by.

“Good morning,” he said.

What to Expect

The only potential drawbacks of the park are the absence of bathrooms and water facilities. Bring plenty of water. Also, the north end of the park backs into an apartment complex. You walk right by their dumpsters.

But these are minor blemishes on an otherwise outstanding park. What we enjoy most about Violet Cury Nature Preserve are all the twists and turns. It’s perfect to get lost in. Every impulse to change direction enhances the feeling of wilderness wanderlust. This may be about as in nature as you can get in Tampa. It’s quite satisfying to feel as if you’ve left it all behind, if only for an hour.

And with civilization on all sides and the hum of traffic always in the background, you can rest easy. Your chances of getting really lost are pretty slim.

Learn More

Check out the county’s guide to Violet Cury Nature Reserve to learn more.

The canopy

Ulele Restaurant: Honoring Tampa’s Past. Celebrating Its Future

If you look for it, Tampa’s history is everywhere at Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits.

Ulele Restaurant: Honoring Tampa’s Past. Celebrating Its Future

If you look for it, Tampa’s history is everywhere at Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits.

The restaurant sits at the southern edge of Tampa Heights, the oldest neighborhood in the city. A century ago, this 6,800-square-foot brick building was a pump station that supplied Tampa with water from an on-site freshwater spring.

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Tampa’s Ulele restaurant sits inside the renovated shell of the city’s former water building.

Inside, arrowheads found nearby decorate the walls and diners sit on benches salvaged from the old federal courthouse downtown.

The restaurant’s name, pronounced you-lay-lee, comes from the Native American princess Ulele who convinced her father to spare the life of one of Tampa’s early European explorers, a story some believe inspired the legend of Pocahontas.

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Media and local foodies mingle inside the 6,800-square-foot renovated building.

Even Ulele’s menu pays homage to the city’s past. Oysters, fish and crabs once harvested by Tampa’s Tocobaga Indians are the stars of the show here, as are the pork products brought over by the European explorers who first sailed in to Tampa Bay.

But what’s most exciting about Ulele is that you can also feel the city’s future here.

The restaurant serves as the final stop of the Tampa Riverwalk, a series of parks that hug the Hillsborough River as it weaves through downtown. When we first moved to Tampa a decade ago this strip was mostly parking lots and chain link fences. Today you’ll find large parks, concert venues and riverside promenades.

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Sunset on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa.

Next door to Ulele is a brand new $6 million water park, playground and amphitheater. On its northern side is the old Armature Works warehouse, another historic building slated to house more riverside restaurants and retail. A few blocks to the east, condos are rising on the city’s formerly dilapidated Central Avenue, the site where Ray Charles recorded his first song and the dance the Twist was supposedly invented.

Tampa’s foodies have been awaiting Ulele’s opening since construction started last summer. We were invited to a media party two days before the restaurant opened to the public. Based on our experience we’re confident Tampa’s newest restaurant will live up to its hype.

The Ulele Story

The restaurant has loosely been in the works since 1998 when the city first started throwing around ideas to revitalize the historic Tampa Heights neighborhoods. The Great Recession stalled the project for a few more years. In 2011, the city called for bids from developers interested in renovating the neighborhood’s old pump station.

The most enthusiastic proposal came from Tampa restaurateur Richard Gonzmart. More than a century ago, Richard’s family opened the nearby Columbia Restaurant, today the oldest restaurant in the state. Richard was born just three blocks from where Ulele stands today. He grew up water skiing on the river flowing behind the restaurant. He won the bid.

The city invested in clearing the abandoned Ulele spring on the restaurant’s south side. The morning after the spring’s restorations were complete, manatees were spotted swimming in a natural pool near the restaurant’s entrance.

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Look out for manatees in the pool outside Ulele.

Ulele’s reputation started to build. The mayor called it Tampa’s Tavern on the Green. For months, Ulele teased the city with opening dates: early 2014, spring 2014, late spring 2014.

Finally the grand opening was set for the last Tuesday in August.

The Menu

Local ingredients and sustainability are the name of the game at Ulele. At the media party we ate grilled oysters, raw oysters, and oyster shooters swimming in tequila. Juicy shrimp as long as my hand were served with cocktail sauce. The humanely-raised Florida beef was served medium rare with a side of okra fries and homemade ketchup.

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Oysters, octopus carpaccio, shrimp and beef from Ulele.

Everything was delicious and tasted minimally processed, allowing the natural flavors to shine through.

For me the highlight was the crab claws. I’ve always had trouble hacking through the shells of this local delicacy to get the buttery meat inside. At Ulele, the crab claws were already prepared and served in perfect bite size chunks.

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Behold, a perfectly prepared crab claw. I cannot tell you how hard it normally is to get the buttery-tasting meat out of this Florida delicacy. Thank you Ulele. Thank you.

The house beers brewed with water from the Ulele spring were a light and refreshing complement to the seafood main dishes. The red was our favorite. We may have just imagined it, but we swear we could taste springwater in the ales.

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Ulele’s Native Summer and house caipirinha cocktails.

“There’s something native to Florida tied into everything on our menu,” said Executive Chef Eric Lackey who sat with us for a while at the party.

He pointed out his mom in the crowd. She had surprised him by showing up at the media event. When he tells us this he chokes up for a minute.

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Ulele Executive Chef Eric Lackey at the restaurant’s media party.

His mom was single. Her family came from France and he started his restaurant career knocking on the doors of European restaurants looking for work during trips to visit her relatives. Like Ulele does for Tampa, the restaurant also serves as a way to honor his past and future.

“I take a lot of pride of who I am and where I came from,” Eric told us. “When I learned what this restaurant is doing for the community, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

5 Things The Tampa Bay History Center Taught Us About Our Hometown

The Tampa Bay History Center sits on land just a few blocks from where this city began.

5 Things The Tampa Bay History Center Taught Us About Our Hometown

The Tampa Bay History Center sits on land just a few blocks from where this city began.

Tampa’s first official residents were 500 soldiers sent here in 1824 to keep an eye on the native populations. Sixty years later the first train pulled into town, opening up Tampa to the rest of the state. Twenty-five years after that, a channel was dug through the bay, opening up Tampa to the rest of the world.

The Tampa Bay History Center traces Tampa’s evolution from a military outpost, to the one-time cigar capital of the world, to the 350,000-strong city is it today. All the stories Greg and I barely recall from our Florida history classes are vividly retold through interactive exhibits, multimedia displays and interesting collections.

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A temporary exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Museum on African American artists who made their living selling artwork in the segregated 1960’s South.

As Tampa-based travel writers, we’ve spent a good amount of time studying and writing about our hometown’s history. But this museum made us look at Tampa in a whole new way.

Here are five things we didn’t know about Tampa until our visit to the Tampa Bay History Center.

The Story of Pocahontas (Probably) Originated Here

Nearly 70 years before Pocahontas was even born, Tampa native Ulele saved the life of European explorer Juan Ortiz. Ulele convinced her father, the Tocobagan chief Hirrahigua, to spare Juan from death by slow roasting, a particularly violent torture called barbacoa.

The story is said to have “inspired” John Smith’s tale of his rescue by Pocahontas. John claimed Pocahontas threw herself over his body just before one of her tribesman was about to bring a big old club down on John’s head. Pocahontas was only 11 when she reportedly performed this act of self-sacrifice, leading some historians to believe John took the story of Tampa’s Ulele and made it his own.

Bonus Fact! We can credit Tampa for the Pocahontas legend, as well as the word “barbecue,” which comes from the delicious-sounding Tocobagan form of torture – barbacoa – planned for the man Ulele saved.

Air Travel As We Know it Was Invented in Tampa

(Confession: we already knew this. But it’s still a really cool Tampa story.)

Delta, American Airlines and British Airways can all thank Tampa for today’s $160-billion airline industry.

On January 1, 1914, the world’s first commercial flight landed near downtown Tampa. Local pilot Tony Jannus, 24, flew the former mayor of St. Petersburg, normally three hours away by train, across the bay in 23 minutes.

The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line lasted only three months, but it proved there was a demand for regularly scheduled air travel. The next time you hop on a plane, think of us.

Tampa Bay History Center Tony Jannus Exhibit

Tony Jannus and the former mayor of St. Petersburg pose in front of the plane flown in the world’s first commercial flight.

Bonus Fact! Tampa is home to the USA’s only airport brewery. Try the Tony Jannus Pale Ale, brewed on site at the Tampa International Airport.

Tampa Cigars Were a Really, Really Big Deal

From the 1880s to the mid 1920s, the cigar industry was the foundation of Tampa’s economy. The humid weather and proximity to Cuba, producer of the world’s favorite tobacco, made the location a no-brainer for cigar entrepreneur Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor.

He set up shop in what is today called Ybor City, just northeast of downtown Tampa. Other cigar manufacturers followed suit and at its peak, Ybor City produced more than 400 million cigars annually. Tampa was nicknamed the “Cigar Capital of the World.”

Tampa Bay History Center cigar sign

Promotional signs from Tampa’s cigar heyday.

The city’s name was so associated with quality cigars, other companies from out of town put the word “Tampa” in their products’ names to boost sales.

The Cigar Factories Had Air Conditioning. Sort Of.

Today Ybor City, the former heart of Tampa’s cigar empire, is one of our favorite neighborhoods. We spent a good chunk of time exploring the museum’s cigar exhibits.

Here’s a fun fact: the city’s cigar factories were built on an east-west axis. This allowed breezes to stream in through large north-facing windows all day. Smaller windows on the factories’ south sides encouraged air to circulate.

So if you ever find yourself lost in Ybor City, just use the cigar factories as a compass.

Tampa Bay History Center cigar exhibit

Cigar cutting and rolling instruments from Tampa’s old cigar factories.

Working In The Cigar Factories Was A Sweet Gig

Ybor founded his cigar operations “with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners,” according to the National Parks Service.

Factory workers were fairly paid, and the jobs were open to all. Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian immigrants worked with local men and woman. Little kids stripped the stems of wet tobacco leaves on the factories’ top floors.

To keep the workers entertained, readers called Lectors read aloud Spanish newspapers and novels. They updated the workers on the winnings and losings of their favorite sports teams, and read to them from local newspapers.

The Lectors had to audition for the role and were elected by the factory workers. It was the employees who decided what would be read.

The gig ended 1931 when strikes and slowdowns prompted the factory owners to blame the readings for planting socialist ideas in their workers’ heads.

Tampa Bay History museum lector book

Don Quixote was one of the most popular books with cigar workers. This copy was read by a Lector who worked at several factories.

After leaving the museum, we drove home through downtown, passing some of the buildings whose histories we had just studied.

There was the old courthouse, now renovated into a swanky new hotel. There was the abandoned shell of the Kress building, which for 40 years was the city’s most popular department store. Rumors are it will be restored into an apartment complex with retail space.

Tampa has a spirit and the Tampa Bay History Center really captured it. The museum made us proud of our hometown’s past, and excited about its future.

Learning the Fine Art of Beer and Food Pairing at the Epicurean Hotel

Here’s a combination that will blow your mind: Beer.

Learning the Fine Art of Beer and Food Pairing at the Epicurean Hotel

Here’s a combination that will blow your mind: Beer. And bacon.

And not just any bacon. At the Epicurean Hotel in Tampa’s inaugural beer and food pairing class, the “bacon” was thick chunks of pork belly prepared in a rye bread pocket by a James Beard Best Chef South Region semifinalist.

Epicurean hotel's interpretation of bacon

Now that’s what I call bacon. A pork belly cooked en croute by Executive Chef Chad Johnson at Tampa’s new Epicurean Hotel.

But don’t worry. Oscar Mayer fried on your stove works just as well.

Move over wine, because pairing beer with food has fewer rules, more combination possibilities, and frankly, it’s a heck of a lot more fun.

“Too often people look at beer as just a beverage. We elevate wine to this prestigious status. Beer deserves its equal place next to wine, especially when it comes to food pairing,” said Chris Fairchild, Craft Specialty & Import Account Manager for the distributor JJ Taylor.

Epicurean hotel beer tasting

We take time to smell, swirl and sip our wines, but too often we just pick up our pints and drink. Take time to note the appearance, aroma and characteristics of your next beer. It’s often just as complex as wine.

Chris, along with Thomas Barris from the Florida Beer Company, came to Tampa’s new Epicurean Hotel to teach the relatively new art of matching beer and food. Seven rounds of small plates prepared by the Epicurean’s executive chef, Chad Johnson, were paired with Florida Beer Company brews. Each combination included a quick lesson on why the food and beer complimented each other.

The beer and bacon dream team, for example, worked because the citrusy lager’s acidity and carbonation cut the bacon’s greasiness.

Epicurean beer tasting

Pro tip: To get the most from your beer, always – always – drink it from a glass, not the can or bottle. Much of what we taste is actually what we smell.

The Epicurean Hotel’s dinner and lesson was a prelude to the annual Tampa Bay Beer Week, a nearly month-long celebration of ales from around the bay area.

Florida may get picked on in the media, but we can do at least one thing right.

“People hate Florida,” said Thomas Harris, from the Florida Beer Company. “That’s why we have to make our beers better than everyone else’s.”

Epicurean hotel's fish and IPA pairing

Move over white wine, fish has a new friend. And its name is IPA. A tuna curry served with Florida Beer Company’s Devil’s Triangle IPA.

The tasting kicked off with Florida Beer Company’s 321 White IPA, a new release brewed for Tampa’s beer week. The IPA, a traditionally strong and sour beer, was served with a sea bass marinated in olive oil and lemon juice.

Fish is usually matched with a prissy white wine, not a powerful bitter ale. But the IPA had orange overtones that brought out the lemon in the sauce and, if you were paying attention, changed the flavor of the fish.

The dining room gets louder as we dive into another pairing, a double IPA (alcohol content 10%!), served with a mix of duck and duck confit.

The beer’s called Swamp Ape and it’s a strong and smoky punch in the face. The duck is equally delicious.

We’re encouraged to dip our next dish, a poppy seed biscotti, into our sweet stout microbrew before topping it with dank blue cheese.

There’s a murmur of surprised appreciation as the buzzed crowd bit into their slightly sopping biscottis. The cheese’s saltiness contrasted pleasantly with the velvety finish of the stout.

The last round was Florida Beer Company’s Gaspar’s Porter paired with French toast and Nutella ice cream. The dining room grew noisy, all reserve gone as we swirled the ice cream on our plates and washed it down with the rich dark beer.

Epicurean hotel's French toast and porter

French toast topped with glorious Nutella ice cream. Yes.

Earlier on my notes include terms like “delicate finish”, “acidic notes of local citrus” and “earthy aroma.”

But for this pairing, all I wrote down was “yes.”

Tips For Pairing Beer With Food

Want to make your own beer and food combinations? Follow these guidelines. But don’t forget, half the fun is experimenting!

See more photos from the dinner on Flickr »

Greg and I were guests of the Epicurean. But as always, all opinions are our own. To see a full list of upcoming lessons at the Epicurean Hotel, see the class schedule.