Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tampa Bay Area

On October 14, we traveled south from Clearwater to Tampa. Our first stop of the day was Ybor City (pronounced ee-bor) which is the Cuban district. It was mid-morning, so the streets were pretty quiet – Ybor City is known more for its nightlife than its daytime activities.

We parked and wandered up and down what seemed like the main drag. There were a number of cool-looking buildings, many of which were somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans with their brick facades and wrought-iron fences.

We also saw a number of stores selling cigars, and in one they were even rolling cigars. We had a nice stroll but felt like we were missing the history of the place. Finally, we stumbled upon the visitors center (the signage was absolutely horrible so we’d given up on finding it). The center had several informative displays and a movie about the area.

We learned that Ybor City was known as a big cigar manufacturing town in the late 1880s. Men and women as well as people from multiple ethnicities worked side-by-side in the cigar factories, each earning equal pay for equal work. In that sense, Ybor City was well ahead of its time. Another interesting fact about the factories was that they all employed lecturers. The lecturer’s job was to read newspapers and books and give talks to the people working making cigars. In this way, the population of the city became quite well educated, and that education led to Ybor City’s residents taking an interest in world politics and heavily supporting the Cuban Revolution. In one fundraising campaign, many cigar makers donated a day’s wages to the cause.

By the time we were finished at the visitors center, it was after 1 pm and we were hungry. The woman working there recommended a restaurant called the Columbia to us so we could try Cuban food.

On our way there, we passed this building, which was once the social hall for Cubans in town. There were similar halls for the Italians, Spanish, etc.

The Columbia is a family restaurant that is about 100 years old. The building that houses the restaurant today takes up an entire city block and has something like 15 dining rooms. The outside of the building is covered in tile murals.

Inside, we were seated in a lovely enclosed courtyard with a fountain in the middle. We choose to split a combo plate so that we’d get to try several different specialties. We were not disappointed – the huge plate of food contained black beans and rice, pork, beef with chorizo in the center, fried plantains, and an empanada covered with salsa. It was all delicious.

After our lunch, we drove around Tampa a bit more. It was mid-afternoon and hot so we were looking for an air-conditioned place to hang out for a while. We thought we’d hang out at a bookstore, but the one we choose turned out to be quite small and had only old, expensive used books. Then we drove through the neighborhoods of south Tampa, which were well manicured and vegetated and really quite lovely.

Eventually, we found our way over to St. Petersburg where we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out at a large bookstore called Haslam’s. It was just what we were looking for.

For the next three days, we’d be staying at Fort De Soto, just outside of St. Petersburg. Our guidebook and multiple people that we talked to had raved about Fort De Soto. It was rumored to have some of the best campsites in the state.

The campsites lived up to our expectations – they were palm-tree-shaded, reasonably spaced, and had an ocean view.

Even better, there was a nice breeze that kept the bugs at bay. The campsites might have been missing bugs, but they did have several other unusual critters. A couple of very brazen raccoons wandered around at all hours of the day (so much for raccoons being nocturnal). Sarah was also very surprised to find this guy floating in her water bottle after she refilled it.

Apparently, he was hanging out in the water spigot.

We got our campsite set up in time to see another great sunset.

We spent the next day relaxing around the campsite and at one of the park’s beaches. The water was really warm so we played Frisbee in it for a while. It’s fun to lay out for a Frisbee in the water. We also went to the fishing pier where we saw a couple of dolphins jumping nearby.

The next morning, we had to move our campsite because our first campsite wasn’t available for all three nights. We shuffled our tent down a few sites and then decided to drive into town for a while.

Our first stop was to vacuum out the car, which had been invaded by the Argentinean ants that were everywhere at the campground. Luckily, they don’t bite and vacuuming seemed to pretty much get rid of them. Then we spent the heat of the day at Starbucks, getting caught up on a few things. After that, we headed back to the beach at the park.

That evening, the wind died down, which sadly meant that the bugs were back. We took a couple pictures of sunset before jumping in the tent.

Our final morning at Fort De Soto, we packed up and then took a quick tour around the actual fort. Part of the structure of the fort remains near the fishing pier and it houses several exhibits about the fort from years past. Not surprisingly, it was not a popular place to be stationed due to the mosquitoes and the heat.

Finishing our quick tour, we were off to Sarasota.

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