Even with the wetsuits, the water chilled us to the bone. Our masks were fogging up and we dog-paddled lazily, tired from getting up at the crack of dawn to make the two-hour drive to Crystal River. But at that moment, when the first large, oafish manatee approached us, looked my friend Mandy in the eye and flipped over so we could rub its belly, I knew she was convinced — she would move to Florida.
For the last year since moving back to my native state, I've eagerly tried to convince friends in other states to move to Tampa Bay. Selfish as it may be, I want my loved ones close to me, and since I'm not planning on leaving my little slice of paradise any time soon, the only other option is to bring them here.
Slowly, I'm creating my own tribe of non-natives, enticing them with sunny skies, year-round adventures and that postcard-perfect picture of sipping a Bloody Mary on the beach during a lunch break. It seems to be working; I've already convinced three friends to move here and I'm working on several more. It's almost become a science: figuring out what to play up (the weather, beaches, nice people) and what to play down (the summer, hurricanes, public transportation).
It's not always easy. What do you tell your potential roommate when nine gunshots ring out only a block away? How do you convince a loyal Democrat to move to a region known for the Terri Schiavo and Steve Stanton fiascos?
But I've found the secret. The trick is to match their personalities with whatever part of Tampa Bay speaks to them.
Take Shannon, for example. A Midwest girl for most of her life, with just a yearlong stint in another landlocked state, Arizona, she had only seen the ocean once (in California). She expressed interest in moving here, but as an avid hiker, camper and all-around nature freak, she was a little concerned about living someplace where mosquitoes are permanent camping guests and a hot campfire makes no sense. And what could I show her? There's no breathtaking mountains, lush rainforests or awe-inspiring valleys.
I started out simple, pointing her (and her dog) toward downtown St. Pete's Vinoy Park — full of open space, large banyan trees, a dog park and great views of the bay. What I didn't tell her about was the group of dolphins that appear almost every sunset. For the next week, after returning from a particularly beautiful sunset and dolphin experience, all she could talk about on long distance phone calls to friends and family were the playful dolphins of Vinoy Park.
But she still wasn't convinced.
Plan B? Book a date on one of those ubiquitous sunset cruises. I chose the Dolphin Encounter on Clearwater Beach, a 125-passenger boat that travels out into the Gulf of Mexico, promising dolphin sightings.
We floated past the mansions of celebrities like John Travolta, Hulk Hogan and Tom Cruise (she thought she saw Cruise's dog playing in his yard). She peered out at the beach boardwalk and loud cover bands playing in kitschy tiki bars. And then there were the dolphins, leaping out of the water and frolicking in the boat's wake. She stood dazed, enraptured. I'm sure the unlimited beer and wine didn't hurt either.
After that night, I knew Florida had captured her imagination. Looking back, it was almost too easy.
But Robin was going to be a little more difficult. She lives in Connecticut, on the coast, so the ocean couldn't be a draw. And as a true-blue Yankee, she loves her winters. With only a few days for her short visit, I had to act fast. First, I tried convincing her there was culture in Florida, showing her Tampa Theatre, Museum of Fine Arts and, of course, the Dalí Museum. She was impressed, but also noticed the world's most comprehensive collection lacked Dalí's signature painting (the one with the clocks). Then I tried the neighborhood tour, showing her St. Petersburg's historic Roser Park neighborhood and Tampa's Hyde Park. But an accidental drive through Largo's strip mall suburban wasteland soured the experience.
I racked my brain. What did Tampa Bay have that the rest of the East Coast lacked? On a trip to a "mom and pop" pizza shop, I realized it: Nice people. Genuinely nice people. So everywhere we went — restaurants, bars, grocery stores — I talked to the clerks and customers, introducing my new potential resident.
But the moment Robin realized the good nature that comes with a slower pace and syrupy climate was when she met a drug-addled transient on the way to a corner store. Returning to the car, she commented,
"That was the nicest crackhead I've ever met."
Mike, I know, will be another hard case when he comes to visit this summer. Except for six weeks in Minnesota, the lifelong Iowa resident has never left his boyhood home in Des Moines. But he has one weakness: '80s hair-metal music. Poison, Dio and Skid Row posters adorn every wall in his house and fill his CD disc changer. He likes the buxom blondes that dance in the '80s music videos. He's a strip club fan.
I have it covered already: On the way to one of the many '80s-era bands that play the Ford Amphitheatre, I'll turn the radio to 101.5 FM The Point, and after the concert, we'll hit Mons Venus. I might as well find him an apartment now.
For my middle-aged friend Joanne, an avowed Wiccan, I'll just point her to the annual Pinellas Park Pagan Festival. For Emily, who enjoys dancing on top of bars, I'll drop her off in Ybor City. Dan, another no-nonsense Northeasterner, has a weakness for Cuban sandwiches, buying them frozen by the box up north. Even my gothic friend Drew, who hates anything and everything, will find a home at The Castle. I've even convinced a small portion of the punk rock traveler circuit to stop here while they train-hop and hitchhike their way through the South. Sometimes my house resembles a hostel.
And for those fuzzy-hearted animal lovers, like Mandy, I'll bring out my secret weapon — the manatee. It seems to work. After four days of uninterrupted Florida fun, it was time for her to head to the airport. On the way, Mandy recapped her entire experience. Her cheeks hurt from smiling so much. She had a good-enough tan to make her entire state jealous. She finally met one of those Scientologists she'd heard so much about, and caught a glimpse of Flava Flav at Jannus Landing before she left. But, more importantly, Florida had captured her heart.
"I don't want to leave," she griped and began making plans for her move within the year. She fell silent while looking at the morning sun rising from the bay as we crossed the Howard Frankland Bridge, remarking on its beauty (I didn't tell her about the traffic). When I dropped her off, we didn't linger and exchanged quick goodbyes.
Because we both knew she would be back. For good.
So blame me for the increased traffic and the lack of parking spaces. And I'll take the heat for a few more bikinis on the beach and happy revelers in our downtowns.
Face it: People won't ever stop coming to Florida. They might as well be my people.
Find out How to get them to move.