What follows is a personal Julie Andrews list of my favorite things about this area, the simple pleasures, mostly free, some with nominal costs — the kind of ¨attractions¨ we´d otherwise overlook because they don´t require a $59 ticket and 2-mile tram ride from the parking lot. The list is in no particular order, but I´ve decided to rank them because that seems to cause trouble.
1. BEST PLACE TO WATCH A SHUTTLE LAUNCH
Tampa International Airport, Top Deck of Short-term Parking
Perfect place to view space shuttle launches, especially at night. I saw the John Glenn launch up there and was stunned by the hundreds of other residents who spontaneously showed up. Until the manned launches resume, you can find NASA schedules of satellite launches on the Internet. Same with spotting the orbiting International Space Station. At other times, the parking deck is a great vantage to clear out your head and watch a sunset, or maybe observe the handful of other people loitering with no apparent business at the airport and wonder, ¨What´s their problem?¨
2. BEST VIEW OF THE BAY
Friendship Trail Bridge
Another stress reducer. This magnificent 2.6-mile span of the old Gandy Bridge was slated for demolition until being rescued by an unlikely alliance of health-crazed joggers and beer-pounding fishermen. More great views that showcase our geography´s natural beauty. Lots of dolphins, pelicans and afternoon electrical storms that get the all-important cardiovascular up as you race down the hump for your car.
3. BEST PEOPLE´S FIREWORKS DISPLAY
Fourth of July, Gandy Causeway
You´ll have to wait till next year for this one, but mark your calendars. It´s the best pyrotechnics display in five counties — and it´s interactive! I tripped over it by accident in 2003 while driving over to Pinellas looking for an officially sanctioned show. It´s that part of the causeway featuring Jet Skis, free-range dogs, rebel flags and T-back hotdog vendors. Each Independence Day, the beach-goers stay after dark to ignite a week´s salary of fireworks bought from tents along Dale Mabry. As Dave Barry says, I´m not making this up: I´ve never seen a fire truck ¨on patrol¨ before, but one was going up and down the causeway as people twirled sparklers next to piles of ordnance and knocked over Roman Candle launchers, sending flaming balls horizontally through traffic. The best analogy is the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, where all kinds of flares and tracers flew over the river. My wife and I drove back and forth three times. Best Fourth you could ever have. Just keep the windows up.
4. BEST PLACE TO PLACE A BET
This grand dame of Tampa Bay´s old social scene has survived since the 1920s. It seems hard to imagine now, but the ¨Lane¨ used to be huge, attracting promotional appearances by the likes of Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth. But we are no longer in the golden age of the parimutuels, and many other tracks across the state have become a bit too, well, sketchy. And mind you, I´m all about sketchy. That´s what makes Derby so special: a rare combination of keeping the place up without altering the historic retro look, which is what attracted the makers of Ocean´s Eleven for the Carl Reiner intro scene. Hopefully it will be around for many more decades, but I´m not going to take it for granted like I did the Tampa Jai Alai Fronton, where my favorite seats are now a lug-wrench display in The Home Depot.
Derby Lane, 10490 Gandy Blvd., St. Petersburg, 727-812-3339.
5. BEST MOVIE SET TO SHOOT AN OLD GUY BREAK DANCING
Most of the old pre-World War II era ballroom dancing facilities are long gone, but we´re still lucky to have one of the best. The Coliseum still hosts some oldie music shows, or you can visit during the annual antiquarian book show in March. Like Derby Lane, it´s another survivor whose exquisite architecture attracted Hollywood. In this case, the scene in Cocoon where Don Ameche break dances.
The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave N., St Petersburg, 727-892-5202.
Dang, I´m running out of time and space here, so I´ll wrap it up with a lightning-round of:
BEST OF THE REST
6. Union Station, 601 N. Nebraska Ave., Tampa.
Another great transportation hub to visit when you have no legitimate business. Winner of the ¨Comeback from Sketchiness Award.¨ Take the Amtrak out of here while you still can.
7. La Teresita, 3246 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa.
Plentiful, inexpensive Cuban home-cooking in another historic setting. Forgo the dining room for the lunch counter experience.
8. Tampa Theatre, 711 N. Franklin St., Tampa.
One of the state´s only classic balcony theaters still showing movies.
9. The Bayshore Balustrade
From the psychedelic fish to the giant slinky sculpture, the ¨world´s longest continuous sidewalk¨ along Tampa´s most coveted address is worth the stroll just to see what floats up to the seawall from the Bay.
10. Bern´s, 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa.
Not a simple pleasure and definitely not cheap, but Tampa´s world-famous steak house must be included for its positive-weirdness score. Outside, a warehouse; inside, a brothel; upstairs, dessert with Rod Serling.
11. Port Tampa Library, 4902 W. Commerce St., Tampa.
The remaining crown jewel of what used to be a sister city before it was all connected by growth.
12. Hotel Ponce DeLeon, 95 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.
Venerable hotel raised from the grave. Have to love the old hand-operated elevator and below-street-level piano bar.
13. St. Pete Beach Holiday Inn, revolving rooftop bar, 5250 Gulf Blvd., St Pete Beach.
The Don Cesar down the street may be more fashionable, but why drink if you can´t revolve?
14. R.I.P. The Chatterbox, The Hub (original location on Florida Avenue).
Tim Dorsey is the author of six Florida novels and a columnist for Tampa Bay Illustrated. Visit his website at www.timdorsey.com.