YBOR City & Dunedin Florida
Thursday- December 24,2009-Tampa, Florida- Christmas Eve.
We were up by 6:00 A.M. It was 59 degrees out at sunrise. We prepped for the day as we watched the U.S. Senate vote, in special session at 7:00 A.M., to approve the National Health Care Bill 60-39. We then breakfasted in the first floor lobby area of the hotel. Scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, cinnamon buns, coffee and apple juice made for a substantial breakfast. Cereal waffles and fruits are also available. This place feeds you well.
Later that morning President Obama gave an address on national Television lauding the Senate’s efforts. He and his family then jumped on Air Force One for a speed run to Hawaii for a few weeks vacation.
At ten A.M. we set off along East Busch westward to Nebraska Ave and then took it south to 7th Avenue and the home of picturesque Ybor City (EEBOR). Spanish Cigar Manufacturer Joseph Martinez Ybor had developed the area in the 1880’s. He had been making cigars in Cuba and Key West before selecting the Tampa area as a newer and more stable base of operations. Around his plant, he built housing for legions of imported Cuban and Spanish cigar workers. Other cigar manufacturers followed and a local industry flourished.
The Great Depression crippled the cigar industry and started a decades long decline for the area. Then, in the 1980’s, gentrification and redevelopment brought the area back to life as a trendy spot for restaurants bars and other late night attractions. The venerable Columbia Restaurant located its first site here on 7th Avenue. It is still open today after 100 years of service. The food at Columbia is ethnic Cubano and wonderful.
We walked first along 8th Avenue near Hillsboro Community College. Renovations had refurbished the façade of the Cubano Collective nearby. This building and others like it are interesting period pieces from the late 1800’s. A small open-air trolley runs up and down the tracks here for about a mile to encourage and amuse the tourists.
7th Avenue however is the heart of the district. “La Sieta” the locals call it. Like Calle Ocho in Miami, Bourbon Street in New Orleans and Duval Street in Key West, it is loaded with scores of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. Several cigar stores still survive, selling their aromatic products. Newer commerce in the form of a head shop, with a giant water bong in the window, introduced the counter culture to the area. A substantial gay and lesbian community thrives further down 8th Avenue. There is also a Florida State History Museum and a visitor Center Complex for tourists.
The architecture here is classic late 19th century, overlaid with French style wrought iron railings and sprinkled with a few 1950’s era Art Deco buildings. It reminds one of the French Quarter in New Orleans. We wandered up and down “La Sieta” enjoying the look of the street. There were few people about. This area rocks after dark until the wee hours. Only the tourists like us wander through the place in the day light hours.
We had thought to have lunch in the famed Columbia restaurant but were still on carbo over load from breakfast. Maybe we would come back later for an early dinner.
From YBor City we drove down Nebraska to Kennedy and headed west towards Tampa Bay. This street is also Route # 60 and runs into the pleasant Causeway across the Bay that leads to Clearwater. We followed it along enjoying the blue of the Bay and the sky and feeling the sea air rush past us. Tampa Airport abuts Rte # 60. It was awash in holiday traffic.
The traffic in Clearwater was building. Last minute shoppers were scurrying to fill their lists in the Malls and shops along Route # 60. We peeled off onto Rte. #19 North, one of the principal coastal arteries in the area. It too was wall-to-wall traffic. The pace was getting more frantic by the hour. Along Rte. # 19 North, we exited for the picturesque little town of Dunedin. Its roots are Scottish and an ethnic festival is held here yearly.
We parked in the angled parking section of the small main street area. Then, we browsed a few of the gift and antique shops, looking for nothing in particular. Two young women were playing Christmas Carols on their violins in front of the small Train station, hoping for tips from the tourists. A Celtic shop drew us in and we browsed its merchandize. A strolling guitar player entered the shop and entertained us with goofy versions of Christmas Carols. The pace is slower here in this small town on the Bay.
From Dunedin, we followed Rte # 19 A North to Tarpon Springs. It is another picturesque Tourist Town founded by Greek Sponge Fishermen in the 1800’s. We had enjoyed a few lunches and a Bay Cruise here on previous visits. The traffic today was heavy, clogging the small Streets. It was cooling off and the skies were clouding over promising rain. It was time to head in to the barns. We veered right onto rural route #582 east and drove across the top of Hillsboro County. It is rural here, speckled with horse farms and islands of affluence. It led us back to commercial Route #41 south, to East Busch Avenue and our hotel. Three hours of driving in heavy traffic had tired us somewhat. We read our books and chilled out for an hour or so, enjoying the respite.
Five O’clock rang the dinner bell for us. Next door to the hotel sits an Olive Garden Restaurant. We had enough driving for the day so we decided to give it a try. It was comfortable enough in the manner of all chain restaurants. We were seated right away and sat down to some iced tea and their trademark bread rolls. We opted for a house salad and a wonderful dish called Shrimp Calabrese. Mussels and scallops also added flavor. It was a good choice with pleasant service and came in at a reasonable $40.
After dinner we sat outside the hotel for a time enjoying the 75-degree temperature and the soft breezes blowing about us. We could see the tops of two roller coasters in nearby Busch Gardens and watched the silent visage of several roller coaster cars racing around their high metal tracks. We couldn’t hear the screams of the riders form this far away but knew them to be there.
Reluctantly we repaired to our room. We enjoyed a glass of Cabernet and read our books for a time. A huge snowstorm was crippling the Midwest this night and we hoped that all of those poor denizens of the Snow Belt would make it home this Christmas Eve. We appreciated as always being together in this warm and beautiful environment. Merry Christmas Florida Style!