Amtrak to Underrated Tampa

Jan 2nd, 2019, 03:54 PM
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Amtrak to Underrated Tampa

*Dec 30 to Jan 3 Tampa Trip: Why?*

For this year's Christmas/ New Year's break, I initially was thinking I'd just do things in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. where my parents live & where I go every year; I'd see family & friends within at most a few hour drive from the capital. But then, I learned some friends were going to be away, then heard a forecast in the fall saying that this would be an unusually harsh winter in Montreal, where I live. Looking at my Amtrak points, I then said "all right, that's it, I'm going to go somewhere warm over the holidays for a few days". I'd already been to a many of the more popular Amtrak-accessible southerly points, like Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans and even done some train/bus or train/ferry combos like Key West, St. Augustine (from Jacksonville) and the Bahamas. It then occurred to me that Amtrak's Silver Star passes through Tampa, one of the remaining areas on the east coast I'd never been to before. I tend to like exploring cities so just like that, I thought "Why not?" and purchased my sleeper car tickets. I also thought it would be good to have some experience with Florida's Gulf Coast, as other than Key West, my only visits to coastal Florida had been to the Atlantic side.

In the run-up to the vacation, people would ask "why are you going there?" I began to question my own decision as Tampa is not a place people I know seem to have knowledge of or interest in. Then, the weather was delightful, perfect for cycling while I visited my parents in DC, and again I questioned, did I really need to go further south?

Well, all I can say is I'm glad I just went with it as Tampa & vicinity I now think is a fantastic place to spend a holiday! OK, well maybe I have bit more to say lol.

*Coming Up: Thoughts on Downtown Tampa, Ybor City, Downtown St. Pete, Pass-a-Grille. Getting Around the Tampa Bay Area Without a Car.*
Daniel_Williams is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 03:45 AM
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I always love your reports. Can't wait to hear more.
schmerl is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2019, 02:04 PM
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*Downtown Tampa*. My hotel, the Barrymore Hotel, where I chose to stay was in downtown Tampa. With the general lack of interest in Tampa among people I know, I wondered if I might be in for one of those deserted-ish city centres that exist. I was not deterred by this even, as I thought deserted but warm would be just fine for this Canadian. However, upon arrival in Tampa, I quickly surmised that my wonderings were very far from the truth. Tampa near my hotel is a vibrant city, with a terrific energy especially along the Riverwalk. The Hixon Park was beautiful with lit-up trees & fountains, and an ice rink, and cyclists and pedestrians were out enjoying the Hillsborough River in force. Jazz musicians and dancers peppered the Riverwalk in a variety of spots, music emanated from boats and people were out on the water with sporty contraptions I'd never seen before, such as the water bike! New Year's Eve, the ambience on the Riverwalk was electric & I had a blast with the festivities as well as the high-quality fireworks, which were visible in a panorama of directions on the arrival of 2019

While downtown, I visited 2 museums, the Tampa Museum of Art and the the Tampa Bay History Center. The former was worth it alone for Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Room (temporary exhibit). The history Center was extremely well-done, with some well-put-together films about Narvaez's failed expedition to the bay in the 16th century, the Seminole Wars and the rise of Ybor City as cigar-making-USA Central in the early 20th century. I appreciate history museums where I learn a lot & this was one, but I give extra kudos, as the museum was very entertaining as well! The Florida Aquarium I felt was overpriced for what it was, although I did appreciate some of the fascinating and odd aquatic denizens, like the pipefish, leafy Seahorse and giant grouper.

*Outings to come: St. Pete, Pass-a-Grille, Ybor City*
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Jan 3rd, 2019, 03:42 PM
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I look forward to your reports!
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Jan 4th, 2019, 06:00 AM
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*Logistics*. Uber & other similar services I think have revolutionized travel generally and made a place like Tampa much more feasible for those who don't or prefer not to rent a car on their vacation--filling in gaps where public transit was not easy & taxis less reliable. This trip, I used Uber between hotel & Tampa Union Station, as well as between downtown St. Pete & Pass-a-Grille.

I did also use public transit. The free trolley between downtown Tampa & Ybor City was a terrific way to get between these neighbourhoods, with stops by the Aquarium & Tampa Bay History Center. The 100x PSTA bus I used 3 times between Downtown Tampa (Marion Transit Center) and the Pier in downtown St. Pete with great views of the Tampa Bay from the Gandy bridge in between--they call it an "express" bus but this seems a bit of a misnomer, since it stops for 20 Minutes at a suburban mall, taking between 75 & 90 minutes--but the $3 price tag kept me coming back, even though I had to adjust myself to the limited service. The even less frequent Cross Bay Ferry in comparison took only 45 minutes and I would recommend that for those who want to get a fuller sense of the Tampa Bay: really, a lovely ride as the Tampa skyline approaches with snacks & beverages on board--seems a pity it's only twice a day Tuesday to Thursday (4:45 & 9:45 pm from St. Pete), no service Mondays, extra crossings Friday & Saturday.
Daniel_Williams is offline  
Jan 4th, 2019, 07:36 AM
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*Downtown St. Pete*. I pretty much spent 3 hours here New Year's Eve. It's quite a pleasant downtown core, with pastel coloured buildings, an active outdoor restaurant seating scene (as Tampa has as well) red brick sidewalks and green spaces such as Demens Park overlooking Tampa Bay. The unquestionable highlight for me though was the Dali Museum, where they had an exhibit comparing the styles of Salvador Dali & René Magritte. The audio was excellent, Dali's work genius (as was Magritte's) and the building itself quite the masterpiece of design, in a great setting overlooking a green, palm-filled park adjacent the blue of the bay.

*Ybor City*. Settled largely by Cubans and Italians, Ybor City dates from the 1880s, and became synonymous apparently with quality cigars and active social clubs for a significant part of the 20th century. Largely abandoned at one point, Ybor City is experiencing a renaissance apparently. Independent restaurants & cafes seem to be flourishing and it definitely feels Old World
by Florida standards. I ate at the Columbia, a Tampa-famous Cuban restaurant institution dating from 1905, where I highly enjoyed the decor, my caldo Gallego and Cuban sandwich. I sat at the original bar and enjoyed hearing from my waitress about events taking place there, such as flamenco dancing nights. I would definitely recommend visitors to Tampa to take a look at Ybor City, very walkable & accessible by the free TECO trolley that some kids loved when it went toot toot.

*Pass-a-Grille*

While there is a trolley from downtown St. Pete to this beach, I opted to Uber from there instead to save time. Thanks to Fodor contributor starrs, I was informed of this lovely community which hearkens to Old beachy Florida with its lovely eclectic painted wooden buildings, where I waded my feet with a friend in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, walking from the extremely friendly and atmospheric Seahorse Restaurant, where I had a simply divine Atlantic cod sandwich, all the way to the pink Don Cesar Hotel (est. 1928). The weather could not have been lovelier, around 80 degrees C and sunny, with nary a sign of the red tide.

*Summary*

I mostly decided to go to the Tampa Bay Area just to do something different this year and ended up being completely delighted. I hope to have possibly sparked an interest in visiting this neat area! .

Happy New Year to you all, Daniel
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Jan 4th, 2019, 10:38 AM
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Glad to hear you're still riding Amtrak Daniel. I got off the Coast Starlight about an hour ago (45 minutes late). Because the train was late, I got a great view of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Scott
DW, DD and I were in Tampa/St. Pete a few years ago but not by train.
tomfuller is offline  
Jan 4th, 2019, 11:49 AM
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NiceTom!

The Coast Starlight is an Amtrak train I've not yet taken. I'm on the Silver Star northbound at this moment--running close to 4 hours late. Near Richmond now. Was maybe an hour late southbound into Tampa, not bad. I'm in a sleeper, so am unperturbed, very relaxed actually at this instant since I just had a nap--I'll just crash whenever I get to New York City, where I spend the weekend visiting people (nothing planned for tonight, as I knew Amtrak could be late) & catch a show before returning home.

All the Best, Daniel
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Jan 4th, 2019, 01:15 PM
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Thanks for the report Daniel,

It sounds like you had a very nice respite from the cold. Enjoy the time in NY city too.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 01:23 PM
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Daniel, always enjoy your trip reports. A very fine one, too, as I know this area quite well.

The little trolley in Tampa works fine for Ybor City and the downtown core. The history museum is indeed interesting yet not oppressively large. The art museum is probably best visited when there’s something interesting for temporary exhibits as its permanent collection is a little thin — also true of the small Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Ybor City is fun to stroll, and choosing the Columbia was optimal — fine food and this location has lovely old-timey decor; there are also a small history museum and a couple historic cottages you can see. The Florida Aquarium is good of its kind, and I also liked the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa. And if you’re up for theme parks, Busch Gardens is good, though may be tough to reach by bus.

Agreed that the Dali Museum is a must, and Pass-a-Grille is great, the latter very much a slice of old time Florida, which is increasingly hard to find in that state.

Public transportation is a bear in these cities. Routes tend to float haphazardly from here to not-there and neither run often nor reliably. Glad you managed it okay — and things like Uber likely help a lot.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 02:10 PM
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Thanks schmerl, emalloy & Sylvia for your kind comments. And yes, given the icy sidewalks I face in Montreal on my return, this warm break was great for the soul.

Bachslunch-- Glad you enjoyed also, as I know our travel styles resemble to some extent, I am often inspired by your trip reports. I agree about the Tampa Museum of Art--the permanent collection was small but the Yayoi Kusama exhibit made that visit worthwhile. Were it not for Uber, I also agree that trying to do what I did using only public transit, while perhaps possible, would have been tiring. Uber made it more reasonable.
Daniel_Williams is offline  
Jan 4th, 2019, 05:00 PM
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My buddy used to work for Amtrak. It would be better if they split the through cars to Tampa at Jacksonville instead of backtracking the Silver Star. Back in ACL days the Miami section went down the FEC from Jacksonville. They even ran separate East Coast and West Coast Champions down the respective routes. The SAL also had Miami and Tampa / St Petersburg sections, through they split at Wildwood with both sections bypassing Orlando.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 05:38 PM
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swadianh-- Funny, as the train backed in to Tampa this trip, I thought about the various cities where Amtrak does a similar maneuver and as one who has travelled a number of Amtrak routes, I could think of only a handful in my experience: New Orleans, Tampa and I *think* San Antonio. The Tampa operation went compared to the others fairly quickly...The maneuver into San Antonio is the one that drives me most nuts. I can't recall 100% if they do a backward move (I seem to recollect they did) but have to remind myself that after you see the Tower of the Americas (very near the station), then the Texas Eagle train goes round and round that city for what seems like an eternity before finally reaching the station.
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Jan 4th, 2019, 11:08 PM
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The California Zephyr backs in past the stadium in Denver. I do remember once being on a train that backed into Union station in Chicago. Usually they just pull straight in when arriving. Amtrak seems to back out of Chicago to clean and do any maintenance to prepare for the next days departure. They back the empty train into the bay for departure.
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Jan 5th, 2019, 04:54 AM
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Daneil,
Thanks for another wonderful report. You always provide a history lesson.
I love the way you manage to get everywhere you want to go without driving.
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Jan 5th, 2019, 06:57 AM
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Xoxo schmerl. In truth I pick destinations that I feel have a shot of working without my needing to drive. Often involves a city or a compact town/village as a base. All the best, Daniel!
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Jan 6th, 2019, 06:35 AM
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Daniel - Once again, a great trip report from a fellow rail buff. I've enjoyed the Florida west coast further south (Fort Myers down to Key West) several times but I've never done more than passing through the Tampa-St. Pete area so I enjoyed your descriptions.
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Jan 6th, 2019, 10:16 AM
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Hi dwooddon--Now that my appetite has been whetted with a trip to the region, I'm curious about other locales out on Florida's Gulf Coast such as Fort Myers.

Tom Fuller--Thanks for the reminder about Denver. It's been 12 years since I've taken the California Zephyr! Hard to believe.

Happy New Year to you both
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Jan 6th, 2019, 10:41 AM
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My understanding given the minimal research I’ve done is that there isn’t a lot to see in Ft. Myers. It looks primarily like a springboard for Captiva and Sanibel Islands more than anything else (car looks necessary here, though, and it’s likely more just a — reportedly nice — beach type destination than anything else). There appears likely to be more to do in Naples, but I’ve never been especially taken with going there.

There are a few days worth or so of things to see in Sarasota and nearby Bradenton, though. Have seen some of the attractions there.

Last edited by bachslunch; Jan 6th, 2019 at 10:43 AM.
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Jan 6th, 2019, 02:24 PM
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Originally Posted by Daniel_Williams View Post
swadianh-- Funny, as the train backed in to Tampa this trip, I thought about the various cities where Amtrak does a similar maneuver and as one who has travelled a number of Amtrak routes, I could think of only a handful in my experience: New Orleans, Tampa and I *think* San Antonio. The Tampa operation went compared to the others fairly quickly...The maneuver into San Antonio is the one that drives me most nuts. I can't recall 100% if they do a backward move (I seem to recollect they did) but have to remind myself that after you see the Tower of the Americas (very near the station), then the Texas Eagle train goes round and round that city for what seems like an eternity before finally reaching the station.
The original Texas Eagle started in Saint Louis, rather than Chicago, and split up at Texarkana into 3 sections - one to El Paso via Dallas / Fort Worth, one to Austin / San Antonio, and one to Houston. When Amtrak was created they took over the Texas Chief as the Lone Star (Chicago - Kansas City - DFW - Houston), not the Texas Eagle. Later they resurrected the Texas Eagle but got rid of the Lone Star. The current Texas Eagle runs on Alton to Saint Louis, then the original route to DFW, then the former MKT Texas Special route to San Antonio. Needless to say, not the most efficient routing.

Also the Texas Eagle was suffering extreme delays for a few months in late 2018.

I wish the UP Cites were still running instead of Amtrak's messy routes. The Cities ran on double-track Overland Route with cab signalling, which still exists today but is no longer used by Amtrak. In fact UP instead CTC and extremely heavy 141 lb/yd welded rail. The Interstates didn't kill the Cities as I-80 on the Overland Route wasn't completed until 1980, 9 years after the creation of Amtrak. Actually I doubt the Interstates would compete with the Cities at all.
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