Want a Caribbean cruise without the crowds and congestion of Miami or Fort Lauderdale? Tampa is the port many people overlook, but it offers a great alternative to Florida’s Big Two as the gateway to the Western Caribbean, Cuba and the Panama Canal. This is also a convenient port to access, just nine miles (14.4km) from Tampa International Airport. Modern Tampa is a tempting destination in its own right, with a dazzling array of restaurants, shopping centres and nightlife.
Ports don’t come better situated than Tampa for all the city’s attractions. There are dozens of hotels, restaurants and other diversions within walking distance, while the TECO trolley – from the city centre to the Ybor City historic district – stops right outside. Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Line all home-port here.
With the port’s location, nothing is far away, hence taxis, Uber and public transport (the reliable TECO trolley and HART bus services) are all you need, and even then many of the main attractions are within a 15 to 20-minute walk in this compact city. A taxi from the airport to cruise port shouldn’t take more than 25 minutes, and there is a flat-rate $28 fee. The best place for a pre or post-cruise stopover is downtown Tampa itself, including the trendy Bayshore Gardens and Ybor City districts. The trolley is a fun, safe system to try at least once, keeping alive a city heritage dating back to 1885.
In keeping with its modern, millennial-friendly image, Tampa boasts a terrific array of hotels, especially in the city centre. Many of the big-name brands are well situated for the port, including Le Meridien, Sheraton, Hyatt, Westin and Hilton. Choose the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and you’re within five minutes’ walk of the cruise gangway. There are several boutique options, such as Aloft Tampa, the budget-priced Hyde Park Hotel and the foodie-centric Epicurean Hotel. Families are well catered for at the gorgeously-situated Grand Hyatt, just nine miles (14km) from the port, while the Westin Waterside is also a good family choice and is less than a mile (1.3km) away.
What to see and do
If you have several days to spare either side of your cruise, Tampa will happily keep you occupied, with a theme park, major zoo, aquarium, water park, chic shopping, fabulous dining and surprising history.
What can I do with one extra day in Tampa?
There are three major attractions that all require the best part of a day to enjoy fully, especially for families. Busch Gardens is a 335-acre theme park offering animal habitats and a fabulous array of rides (including five superb roller-coasters) in a heavily Africa-themed setting, while the Florida Aquarium – within a five-minute walk of the port – is another great option, particularly if you take its Wild Dolphin Cruise into the waters of Tampa Bay. ZooTampa at Lowry Park is the other notable family attraction..
Those looking for a more cultural experience should head for the history-packed Ybor City district, where the Visitor Center and Ybor City Museum present the story of this Cuban-influenced settlement that turned out millions of cigars from 1885 to the early 1930s. Today, most of the cigar factories have gone, but the turn-of-the-century architecture remains, with many buildings now serving as shops, cafes and bars, as well as a highly-regarded brewery and distillery.
More fascinating history is on offer at the 1891-vintage Henry Plant Museum, the former grand Tampa Bay Hotel that unveils the city’s Victorian heritage along with the vision of railroad pioneer Henry Plant.
What can I do with two or three days?
You have free rein to travel beyond the city limits to places like Dunedin and Tarpon Springs, cute seaside fishing resorts that remain heavily influenced by the Scots and Greek immigrants who founded them. Both are just a 40-minute journey out to the Gulf Coast and the drive is a pleasant one, as it features one of the long causeways over the Bay.
There are great nature expeditions to be explored at places like Weedon Island Preserve, a 3,700-acre stretch of tidal wetlands renowned for rich bird and marine life. Going inland just 18 miles (29km) brings you to Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, which includes 60 miles of forest trails, riverside boardwalks and kayaking opportunities. Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal sanctuary just 18 miles to the north of the city, has an assortment of 100-plus cougars, tigers, leopards and other big cats.
Families might also like to fit in a visit to Dinosaur World (ideal for children 3-8), which is located an easy 25-minute drive east at Plant City, or the Museum of Science and Industry that welcomes children from 4-14 with hands-on adventures, exhibits and IMAX films.
What can I do with a full week?
Set your sights on true seaside indulgence, as the coast just 28 miles (45km) to the west boasts some of the best beaches in America, plus a bevy of gorgeous resorts to go with them. Clearwater Beach is the closest, with unbroken white sands as far as the eye can see, but St Pete Beach just to the south is slightly less busy and equally enticing, with the majority of hotels (like the historic Don CeSar and action-packed Tradewinds Resort) on the beach.
Here you can enjoy the full range of Florida’s famed watersports, from parasailing and jet ski rides, to deep-sea fishing, paddle-boarding and dolphin-watch cruises. Visit in late summer and early autumn and the sealife – from dolphins and manatees to sea turtles and stingrays – is absolutely stunning.
Eat and drink
Tampa is a great foodie destination, with a growing profile for signature seafood and craft breweries (more than 30). The invasive Lionfish is a problem in the sea but makes for good eating, along with other specialities like grouper, blue crab and mahi-mahi. If you can visit only one restaurant, make it the Cuban-influenced Columbia in Ybor City, dating back to 1905.
Don’t leave without…
Purpose-built centres such as International Plaza and Bay Street, Westshore Plaza, Hyde Park Village and Tampa Premium Outlets offer big-name brands and designer labels. For something different, Tarpon Springs offers uniquely Greek arts and crafts.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK
A direct flight with British Airways from London is 9.5 hours, but there is more choice flying to Orlando (9 hours), which is a 75-minute drive from Tampa.
All holiday visitors to the US must apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) at least 72 hours in advance, at: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/
Safety / crime
Tampa is very safe in tourist terms, but you should still take precautions as for any big city. Stick to the main areas in the city centre and don’t go wandering at night without local advice.
When to go
The summer is fiendishly hot – with temperatures topping 30C – while August to October is peak hurricane season, with the possibility of major storms. The best weather is November to April but is also peak cruise season. Tampa is packed for the Gasparilla Pirate Festival over weekends in late January and early February.
The Tampa CityPass is ideal for visiting the main attractions, including Busch Gardens, the Aquarium and Zoo, with up to 51 per cent savings.