3 magical places in the Tampa Bay area

Prime vantage points for relaxing in the fresh winter air.

click to enlarge DO YOU SEE WHAT I.C.? The view from I.C. Sharks. - Linda Saul-Sena
Linda Saul-Sena
DO YOU SEE WHAT I.C.? The view from I.C. Sharks.

I crave beauty in my surroundings. This extravagantly perfect time of year, when the world feels organically air-conditioned — the humidity is low, so the air is clear and soft — I’m eager to enjoy our great urban out-of-doors.
Here are three of the loveliest places to take the air while perhaps enjoying an adult beverage.

Ballast Point Pier From the tip of the Ballast Point Pier, Tampa’s skyline looks like the Emerald City. Since the City of Tampa replaced the pier’s uneven planks with a smoothly rebuilt surface, the 600-foot promenade to the pier’s end is a perfect place for a stroll. Our currently cooler weather transforms the fresh fish smells to the level of sensory engagement rather than rank, and the happy hollers of successul fishermen are always fun.
Ballast Point’s history is a hoot. In 1897, Mrs. Emelia Chapin, wife of the electric company’s owner, purchased three acres at the end of the streetcar line which provided transportation well beyond Tampa’s city boundary at Howard Avenue, past mudflats and fields. She created a tropical garden with a zoo and a Japanese-style pavilion which housed a theater and restaurant.
In honor of the novel A Trip to the Moon, which set this area as the launch site, the park was originally named Jules Verne Park after the book’s author, and the Ballast Point Pavilion was a social center for the community until it was blown away in the Hurricane of 1921. Rebuilt, then lost to a fire, the pier was replaced but not the ornate structure.
The trolley station’s wooden frame still stands, but the park is now enlivened with a gazebo, psychedelic water play area, swings, slides and a colorful neighborhood-painted mural loosely depicting pirates. At the pier’s base stands a bait and tackle shop and the Taste of Boston Cafe, with seating both indoors and out.

I.C. Sharks Originally a small fresh seafood store, this unpretentious spot on the Pinellas side of Gandy Boulevard, located between the bridge and the dog track, is a new Old Florida treasure. The Tiki Hut Bar, sporting a traditional palm frond roof, stands on stilts over a marina. Boats pull up with their fresh catches, which are off-loaded and smoked on the premises. The intoxicating scent of the fire perfumes the air.
Tiki Bar seating overlooks the wilds of Weedon Island and the sparkling water dances among the mangrove roots. Visitors with ambitions to catch their own or just cruise around can rent boats, ranging from 15-foot whalers to 24-foot deck boats for two to eight hours. I.C. Sharks also sells bait, tackle and tchotckes. The construction of a firepit with surrounding seating and a roof bar is underway. My prediction is that this place will soon be too popular when these additional attractions lure customers in, so visit now, while you can still find parking.

Sono Cafe A standing joke about downtown Tampa used to be that if you wanted an al fresco meal with a view, drive to the top floor of the Poe Garage with a take-out burger. Sono Cafe now provides that rare opportunity to eat or drink downtown with an unobstructed river view. (Rick’s on the River blew their chance when they put a parking lot between their restaurant and the water.)
Sono Cafe’s vista includes the exotic minarets from our 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel, the animated Hillsborough River and picture-perfect dogs and children gamboling on the lawn of Curtis Hixon Park. You can sit inside or out and nothing obscures your sightlines. Temperature is usually the determinant of my seating decision, but the breezes from the river are beefed up from the building’s angle.
When Stanley Saitowitz designed the Tampa Museum of Art, his most graceful and sweeping gesture was the 40-foot-wide cantilevered balcony. This generously deep overhang shelters visitors from the sun and directs all passersby toward the dramatic views to the west. The Museum’s steel skin could be cold and off-putting, but the splendor of the view, made visible through the glass first floor, warms the senses of all who enter.
Sono Cafe, owned by Maryann Ferenc and Marty Blitz, Mise en Place’s creators, has that team’s trademark originality and quality of food and wine. The menu offers different choices from lunch to happy hour to weekend brunch. Open daily from 11-5 and Friday evening until the Museum’s close at 7 p.m., the outstanding gelato provides the perfect treat to top off a downtown bike ride or museum visit.
Fifty years ago, decaying warehouses with large rodents occupied this very space. The dramatic changes on the east bank of the river at this location prove that with good design, vision and money, all is possible.

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