Monday, April 21, 2014

The Guys Trip: Tampa, Florida - Part 2 of 2

Our third day in ‘The Bay’ began with another early morning to maximize the fantastic weather. After a quick stop at the breakfast buffet we were on our way to Fort De Soto Park. This is a protected beach area with pristine sand and sparkling water. While it lacks the action and amenities of Clearwater Beach, we figured it would be a nice change of pace for a few hours. It lived up to its billing, however the winds became quite intense and started to take away from our beach-going experience. After getting sand-blasted for a good hour or so we decided to pack up and head to a beach bar for lunch and drinks.

The calmness of Fort De Soto Park
Gotta love that crystal clear water

Using my handy iPhone equipped with a US roaming data package, I was able to find a highly regarded beach bar called Bongo’s in nearby St. Pete Beach. It covered our criteria of great seafood options and an ocean-view patio. This was actually the in-house restaurant of a popular beach resort complex. Good eats, drinks and cigars followed and as usual I received a healthy dose of “props” from the boys for this clutch find. After lunch we decided to take advantage of what would be our final hours of sunshine on the trip by catching some more rays on famous St. Pete Beach.

Little lunch action beach-side at Bongos

Aside for the equally impressive white sand and clear water, St Pete Beach was nothing like the bustling Clearwater Beach. It’s possible that the fact that it was quite windy and a Monday could have had a lot to do with it. We took our waterproof camera into the ocean and got some great shots while avoiding the sandstorm that was building on land.

Going for a TD pass at St Pete Beach 

Once back in Tampa for the evening we chose to head back to Ybor City, as there seemed to be quite a bit going on there a couple nights earlier before we had to leave for the game. We started off the night yet again at Tampa Bay Brewing Co. for some more cider wings and other assorted apps. While deciding where to head next we were approached by a group, led by two suggestively dressed women who advised us that there was a great karaoke night happening at a bar down the street. The single friends in our group were instantly sold, and we headed on over.

Tampa Bay Brewing Co. - One last time 

The bar, Dopple Decker, was a tad divey, but had a decent crowd and reasonably priced drinks so we decided to stick around. My buddy John, riding high on 'liquid courage' asked me to sign him up for some karaoke, which I did. What followed was a decidedly awful, yet hilariously entertaining rendition of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. (R.I.P Kurt, 20 Years). We stuck around for a few more songs after that, before heading back to the hotel to try and make a little more of a dent in our in-house booze stash as we were now in our 2nd last night of the trip.

A 'legendary' performance, and by 'legendary' I mean 'drunk'

We woke up the morning of our final full day in Tampa to cool temps and a steady rain. As we were expecting this, we had made plans to drive out to Ellenton, for a little outlet shopping. A combination of crappy weather, big crowds and lack of any significant deals caused us to tire of the shopping experience rather quickly. As we were in line at the mall’s disappointing food court, my iPhone and data plan once again came to the rescue and we were off to an authentic BBQ joint only a few minutes away.

Hickory Hollow provided us with some delicious southern BBQ fare including pulled pork, ribs, rotisserie chicken, and of course delicious corn bread! We were soon stuffed beyond proper function and returned to the hotel in preparation of the main event of the trip. A (sadly, nearly meaningless) hockey game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and our hometown Toronto Maple Leafs!

The boys are ready for game time! 

After cleaning up from the beach and indulging in a few pre-game adult pops in the room we headed down to the hotel’s happy hour for a couple bites and of course the free beer. We had the front-desk call us a cab, and we were advised it would be up to a 45min wait. Well over an hour later (with the free beer still flowing) there was no sign of our cabbie. Eventually one pulled up looking for “Shane”. Since no one else was in sight we decided ‘what the hell’ and jumped in with our incognito coffee cup brewskis.

Lots of coffee consumed on this trip

We arrived at the stadium to a large crowd and some pre-game festivities out front. As beer prices were through the roof, we just decided to head to our seats a bit early. Our group had to split up into two packs of three, but all of us had awesome seats to the game. We passionately belted out O’Canada, but unfortunately that’s where our cheering ended as the Leafs were bounced 3-0 in a rather dull affair. After the final buzzer we made our way back to the Bud Light Party Deck for some more of their famous $2 draughts. While drowning our sorrows we met a couple of friendly locals. One of whom was a Lightning fan/season ticket holder who was originally from Toronto, and now is living and working in Tampa. We also met a chick who came to the game solo after her friend bailed on her and she kindly offered to take us to some hot spots downtown.

Loving their seats 
Making friends @ the Bud Light Party Deck

First stop was Hooters, which was closed (common mid-week theme apparently)… so we sauntered a little further to a really cool adult slushie bar. Basically a room that looked like a high-end ice cream parlor with about two-dozen flavors of alcoholic slushies. Being the frozen drink connoisseur that I am, this was quite the find. We stayed here as long as we could until they (politely) kicked us out. After that we hung out on their patio a little longer before heading back to the hotel. We spent our final hour with a few more drinks, before retiring for the night and catching a flight back to reality in the morning.

Alcoholic slushie anyone?

Random Musing – with a return connection in DC, I realized that the North American terminal @ Ronald Regan National Airport is a joke. No duty-free, under 5 food options, tiny and crowded.

Mike @ Palms & Pints

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Guys Trip: Tampa, Florida - Part 1 of 2

I continued my long tradition of NHL hockey 'guys trips' this month with a journey down to sunny Tampa, Florida with five buddies. Previous to this trip we had seen live NHL hockey in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Nashville, Phoenix and New Jersey, so it was nice to be able to combo up the hockey with a side of lovely Florida Gulf Coast beach action.

After an uneventful but ungodly early travel morning we arrived in Tampa. Things started positively with some welcomed sunshine and a quick check-in to the Homewood Suites Tampa Westshore. We chose the airport location as it was sort of central between the beaches to the west and the core of the city to the east, and we had a van rented for easy transportation.  I had stayed at this hotel previously, and typically always go for a Homewood when in the US, as their vast array of amenities and perks can't be beat.

The Boys rollin' up to Homewood Suites

After the eternal winter we have been experiencing here in southern Ontario, the boys opted for a trip down to the outdoor pool to catch a few rays prior to our first of two Tampa Bay Lightning games that evening. We loaded our coffee cups up with "coffee" and kicked off the party pool-side. 

Poolside in FLA can't be beat

After a bit of swimming and tanning (well, burning) we headed down to Ybor City, a historic district of the city originally known for early Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrants and cigar manufacturing in the late 1800's, recently revitalized into a vibrant nightlife hub. Our first good eats of the trip came at Tampa Bay Brewing Company. A cool brew-pub whose delicious apple cider wings were featured on Food Network's Diners Drive-ins & Dives. The wings were outstanding, but the reviews from the group were mixed on the craft beer offerings. Although there seemed to be no shortage of action going on in Ybor that night, we couldn't stick around for long as we had to run to the hockey game.

Historic Ybor City
Getting pumped up for some wings @ Tampa Bay Brewing Co. 

As is the case with many US-based NHL teams, we were able to grab scalped tickets to the game for below face value. As the marquee game featuring our hometown Toronto Maple Leafs wasn't until a few days later we decided to just grab upper bowl seats for the unheard-of (in Toronto anyways) price of $15. This worked out well as by the 2nd period we were able to migrate down to some unoccupied lower bowl seats to enjoy the rest of the game. The Lightning were smoked by the visitors from Dallas, but our discovery of the in-stadium Bud Light Party Deck with $2 draught beers after the game and a great view of the downtown ended up being the highlight of the night. Afterwards the majority of us decided to head back to the hotel as we were running on fumes after our 4AM wakeup call that morning. We finished the night with a brief musical session around the hotel fire pit with a few others who were winding down.

Great view from the Bud Light Party Deck @ The Tampa Bay Times Fourm  
$10 beers that magically dropped to $2 after the final buzzer

The next day we set out to Clearwater Beach, the closest and most popular of the Tampa-area Gulf beaches. Being the weekend and a beautiful day, the beach was apparently a quite popular idea. Traffic was horrendous coming in from Tampa and parking was relegated to the 7th floor of a hotel parking structure. Wanting to keep some semblance of a workout regime while away, I went for an 8KM run down the main strip and across a large bridge to a neighbouring island and Sand Key Park. I eventually hoofed it back to the beach for my first taste of the ocean and to try and even out my tan. The crystal clear water and fine white sand of the Florida Gulf Coast simply can't be beat outside of the Caribbean for any beach lover. Although Clearwater Beach was beyond busy, the strip is so massive that we had no issue securing our own piece of real estate for the afternoon.

Apparently the beach is a popular idea on a hot sunny day
View from Sand Key park during my run

That evening we returned to Tampa and decided to stay close to our hotel. I recommended the nearby classic American institution The Cheesecake Factory for dinner, and the crew was not disappointed. Afterwards we kicked around the International Plaza area for a few drinks. This is a cool little modern entertainment district with a bunch of restaurants and bars inter-connected by a cobbled courtyard. However, being a Sunday everything was closing up earlier than expected. We tried to get into the one place that was still hopping called Blue Martini but apparently the bouncer wasn't impressed with our shorts (it's Florida man!). We were able to grab a hotel shuttle bus from an affiliate hotel who said he could take us to another bar not too far away (The Brickhouse), which also ended up closing shortly thereafter. At this point we had to decide whether to grab a pricy cab downtown or accept defeat and head back to the hotel. We chose the latter and finished the night with beers and the horrible film 2012.

Step 1: Try not to look like a huge tourist --- Step 2: Fail miserably 

Part Two to follow. 

Mike @ Palms & Pints