"Just like Dubai": Seeing Tampa Bay through visitors' eyes

Sometimes it takes a foreign visitor to open your eyes to Tampa Bay.

As I write, my husband's family is in the next room, packing up bathing suits and newly found seashells, sunscreen and gifts for loved ones. Tomorrow we will be saying our sad goodbyes. Misha's relatives live in the Czech Republic, and they're preparing to endure the 10-plus-hour trip back home to their land-locked country in Eastern Europe.

When I first heard that I would have houseguests for 17 days, I was not thrilled. I was also surprised to learn that not only Misha's mother and father would be staying with us, but that we'd be entertaining his aunt, uncle and cousin from Vienna.

I'll be honest, I was worried.

When I have guests, I tend to see Tampa Bay as I expect them to see it: The imperfections of the 1925 bungalow we have been attempting to restore for the past five years. The ugly confusion of our interstate system. The litter wafting along in the breeze. The wilting, dry, dead grass.

I know that this type of drab scenery exists everywhere, not just Tampa, but I found it hard to spot when I visited Vienna and Opava, my husband's hometown. Did I just have visitor blinders on? Was I so mesmerized by the Viennese cafes and Baroque architecture that I failed to see the gum sticking to the streets? Would my visitors leave with the same gleaming impression of Tampa Bay that I had of their European cities?

I instantly snapped out of the Tampa vs. Europe mindset the minute their plane landed. After all, our airport is beautiful — clean and easy to navigate, even with all the new construction. And the interstate ride was an adventure: The new northbound section of I-275 had just opened near the Howard/Armenia exit. The traffic was slow, but it gave me time to explain the history of Tampa when my passengers asked about the tall brick cigar factories peeking over the new interstate walls.

I was born here in Tampa. I know all that this city has to offer. I was prepared to show it off, rain or shine, litter or no litter.

So, for our first day with the family, we decided to hit the beach. Misha and I usually take our dogs to Fort DeSoto's Paw Playground, but this time we left the pups at home and headed for Clearwater Beach. And as we drove over Memorial Causeway Bridge, I suddenly realized: We live in paradise.

My relatives were stunned at the beautiful turquoise water, the soft white sand, the condos and palm trees lining the streets. "This is just like Dubai," one of them said, in Czech of course. Did I mention that only one of them speaks English? It didn't matter because the looks on their faces told me they couldn't believe what they were seeing.

And I was shocked, too. I always knew that the strip of beaches that lined our coast was nice, but my eyes were opened to the real beauty that is Tampa Bay. I was seeing everything in a new light. During their trip, we also went to Fort DeSoto and Sand Key beaches, where we found some amazing shells that you would need to buy in the beach gift shop anywhere else. We drove the strip to St. John's Pass and in a fit of tourism, I bought us all tickets for the Dolphin Encounter, an hour-and-a-half cruise that guarantees you'll see dolphins. A little skeptical, I climbed aboard and within two minutes of leaving the dock, we saw dolphins right at the edge of our boat. The crew was friendly and they had beer — we were cruising Boca Ciega Bay in style!

My husband's aunt, uncle and cousin stayed at the beautiful Westin Harbour Island. With their room on the 11th floor, my family snapped some incredible pics of the Tampa skyline. They took the trolley to Channelside and checked out the new Tampa Bay History Center and enjoyed Cuban sandwiches at the Tropicana in Ybor City. They walked to the University of Tampa and learned the history of the once famous hotel. And this was all in one day.

Over the course of their trip, we had black bean soup at La Teresita, mojitos at The Columbia, and Greek coffee and cake at Hella's Restaurant in the Sponge Docks district of Tarpon Springs. And even with the absence of free beer at Busch Gardens, everything there was picture perfect.

As I finish typing this, my husband and his mom and dad have finished packing and are outside on our back patio, drinking beer and sitting underneath the swaying palm trees. "To the warm winds of the Gulf breeze" has always been my admittedly cheesy toast on May nights like this — nights when the weather is still cool, right before the hot humid July is upon us. I assume Misha's folks are reminiscing about their great summer vacation. I know I am.

And I didn't even have to leave home.

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