Tampa’s riverfront is its new star
TAMPA — From the waterside Tampa Convention Center, which looks more like a beach resort than a conference destination with its open-air café and rows of rental-boat kiosks, we pedaled out the mouth of the Hillsborough River toward Seddon Channel. Pelicans flew overhead as we headed for a wall of mangroves on Davis Islands, a mostly residential area near downtown. A man hosing down his docked boat waved and I took one hand off the handlebar to return the greeting.
Yes, we were cycling on the water — not in those clunky paddle boats you see on lakes, but on upright floating bicycles my wife and I had rented from Tampa Bay Water Bike Co. The single-speed bike sits atop a very stable pontoon and as it’s pedaled, it activates a small rear propeller, moving the boat forward or backward.
More remarkable than our mode of transportation was that we were on the water — in downtown Tampa. During my 35-year association with this Gulf Coast city, including a few years as a resident in the 1980s, I’d barely paid it any attention. For decades, downtown was deadsville and the Hillsborough River was something to be crossed while going somewhere else. Downtown started springing to life a few years ago, thanks to several new retail and residential developments. Then last year, its slow-moving 2.4-mile Riverwalk project was completed, finally giving the river its full due.
On our 90-minute outing, we opted for a leisurely exploration of the shoreline, also taking in Tampa’s busy industrial port before returning alongside Harbour Island, packed with million-dollar waterfront houses and condos.
The view before docking was like none I’d ever expected to see in Tampa – a skyline of skyscrapers and docks filled with options for visitors to tour the waterways, including dolphin tours, electric boat rentals, a hop-on, hop-off tour boat called Pirate Water Taxi, and even a “paddle pub,” a group pedal-powered boat with the slogan “pedal pedal drink.”
By the time we dismounted, ready to tackle the Riverwalk, it was noon and already in the 80s (in December!), so we decided to cool down indoors. The trail connects several cultural and educational spots, including the Florida Aquarium, Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa Museum of Art, and Glazer Children’s Museum, and two performance spaces, one being the Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team.
Walking to the history center, we passed Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park, a 4.5-acre green space along Garrison Channel which once housed an early 19th-century US military fortification and includes a memorial honoring those lost in the Seminole Wars of Florida. The history museum, which gives an interesting overview of Tampa’s timeline, including Native Americans, Spanish explorers and phosphate miners, and cigar rollers, later this year will add a large permanent display focused on crowd-pleasing pirates and shipwrecks.
Back on the Riverwalk and headed in the opposite direction, we saw that art and history also can be found along the trail itself, in a series of bronze busts honoring local historical figures, multicolored ceramic and glass panels, sculptures, and a massive mural by street artists Tes One and Bask painted on a five-story parking garage.
By early afternoon, the walkway was getting busy with walkers and joggers, some pushing strollers, and a number of cyclists, several using the Coast Bike Share system. One of those was Savannah Lugo, 20, who had brought three visiting friends. Lugo, who lives in suburban Spring Hill an hour north and had moved down from New York, said she’d heard about the Riverwalk and was curious to check it out.
“I’m excited to see it. It’s my first time in the city and I love how it’s built up,” she said as her crew readied their rides and hoped to hit the water later.
Continuing up the trail, we concluded that the one thing seriously missing was shade. A few covered areas dot the path, and perhaps newly planted trees will provide more protection over the years, but for now it can get toasty out there.
Despite the heat, I chatted with a pair of locals who frequent the Riverwalk year-round and swear that a breeze always comes off the river.
“We’ve lived here 15 years and we absolutely love what’s it’s shaped up to be,” said Malia Spranger, who, with her husband, Kurt, had taken a break from cycling to share a half-shaded swinging bench overlooking the water.
“It’s great to see so many people using the trail, and at night it’s safe and well lit,” she said. “It’s really cool to be downtown these days.”
One contributor to that “cool” is the restaurant , at the trail’s terminus. An always-hopping culinary destination, its menu of “native-inspired” dishes is served inside a red brick building or on a sprawling lawn next to the namesake Ulele spring.
Action of another kind takes place next door at the recently completed Water Works Park, where shooting fountains and tumbling buckets of water douse playing children, and some adults.
Just beyond the Riverwalk, yet another project is rising. Armature Works is the first phase of a 43-acre development called The Heights. Set in a former streetcar storage lot and scheduled to open soon, it will house restaurants, a market hall, and a rooftop bar.
The following day, we cruised by that work-in-progress in the 21-foot electric boat we rented from eBoats, the first business to set up shop at the convention center, four years earlier, and all alone there for two years. We took turns captaining with a few long-time local friends, none of whom had been on the water side of the Riverwalk and were all enjoying the inverse view.
A few days later, we took a more expansive waterfront ride – across Tampa Bay on the new Cross-Bay Ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The pilot service, for now through April 30, is using a boat that usually runs between Boston and Provincetown.
“That was the coolest thing ever,” proclaimed Olivia Schweinle, a 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident, as we disembarked at the Tampa dock next to the convention center. “The bay-to-bay scenery was great. I’d never seen it from the water.”
She was meeting up with friends and staying over for the night, but our trip was only a joy ride and we were heading back to St. Pete an hour later. We had beers at the Sail Pavilion overlooking the busy marina and toasted to a once-neglected river, now Tampa’s superstar.