I actually only planned this trip a couple of weeks before I left. It was the third time I was receiving promotional emails from an airline with direct flights to Orlando from Dublin. I needed a holiday and I wanted to catch up with my best friend: the decision was made!
On our last trip to Florida, we had mostly been traveling outside of Tampa with our friends so this time, I was happy taking it easy and discovering more of this city itself (with the occasional little trips elsewhere). In no particular order, here are some of the highlights of this trip:
- Heights Public Market: Last February, an article in Food & Wine mentioned two food halls that have recently opened up in Tampa (read it here). This was obviously high on my list of things to discover (aka eat all of the things) while there. The first we tried was Heights Public Market (Armature Works). The hall itself is very spacious with many food stalls and great choices for everybody. We settled in the outdoor area under a large parasol and took turns to go in the food hall and decide what delights we wanted to taste. I went to the Surf and Turf stall and got some very tasty grilled shrimp tacos and a side of parmesan truffle fries (which were just incredible!). Rebekah and Frank went to the Ava stall and got a Salsiccia pizza (with fennel sausage, san marzano tomatoes and ricotta) which was perfect. We swapped some of our dishes so we could taste everything. A part of me wanted to go back for more savoury options and try a few more delicious looking things but finally decided to stick with a small ice cream dessert. There is a place there called Astro where ice cream is made fresh on demand using liquid nitrogen. We all got a small cup of butter pecan ice cream with fresh strawberries and a shot of caramel. It was really delicious and a good way to end lunch before taking a small walk along the river.
- Bodega in St Petersburg: I already mentioned this place the last time we were in Florida. I had been dreaming about going back there since then so it was a very obvious lunch stop after a morning at the beach (see below). And there is a specific reason for this: the Cuban sandwich is to die for! Rebekah and I shared one between us as well as black rice, maduro (fried plantain) and hibiscus drinks while sitting in the back courtyard listening to Cuban music and enjoying the welcome fresh air from a large fan. The sandwich was as excellent as I remembered. If you are ever in the area, definitely put it on your list.
- Clearwater Beach: One morning, we grabbed our towels, sunscreen, magazines, Kindle tablets and headed to Clearwater for a few hours of lounging under a large sun shade on the beach. There was an amazing contrast between the whiteness of the sand and the blue of the sky and sea (see it here on my Instagram). We stayed there until lunch time, embracing the warmth and vibrant colours while reading. I love these types of moments during a holiday as it allows me to go into a completely relaxing zone.
- Ybor City: Imagine a small city area with streetcars, painted tile street name signs, street art, cigar shops and free roaming roosters. Add to this historic old buildings and iconic restaurant Columbia and you are in Ybor City. We walked around a bit admiring all the architectural details and then stopped for refreshments at Columbia. There, we had virgin mojitos (I hear the real deal is amazing but alas, I was taking strong antibiotics and it wouldn't have been a great mix with alcohol) and Cuban bread with butter before heading out to discover another part of the city. If we did not have dinner plans involving an amazing steakhouse that evening, I could have eaten a lot of that Cuban bread. It was so wonderfully light and delicious.
- Supermarkets browsing: Whenever I travel to a foreign country, I love going to supermarkets and discover what locals buy for they everyday meals. This is something I find fascinating. I could spend a lot of time going from aisle to aisle and marvel at products (or sometimes be absolutely baffled by some of the things on offer). I find it is a good way to understand a country's food culture.
- The Hall on Franklin: The day after visiting Heights Public Market, we all headed to this other food hall (they are not that far from one another). The idea is a bit different at Hall on Franklin. We were seated at one of the tables and handed a menu showing all the food on offer at the different counters (you give your order to your waiter/waitress and food is then served at your table from the various areas). After much deliberating (everything looked so tempting), we all ordered from different places. I chose a poké bowl from Poké Rose which had ahi tuna, edamame, avocado, radish, jasmine rice, spicy aioli and togarashi. It was really fresh and enjoyable with a great combination of flavours. I also ordered courgette fries from another counter which we shared along with a platter of waffle fries covered in melted cheese. There was a dessert special from Bake'n Babes and it sounded so nice that I ordered it (I was clearly quite full at that stage but I always seem to find space when it comes to interesting desserts - I call this the mystery of the dessert stomach). It was a Belgian waffle with guava compote and cream cheese frosting. The waffle was perfect, fluffy and warm, exactly to my liking. Let's say that after all the food we had, a little nap was fully appreciated later that day.
- Bern's Steak House: My friends took me out to dinner at this fantastic steak house one evening. It was a great experience from start to finish. I ordered a medium-rare filet mignon steak which was cooked to perfection (when they say they 'elevated the steak dinner to an art', you can absolutely trust it). I had it served with béarnaise sauce. The thing to know is that when you order steak at Bern's, you don't only get steak with whatever side you choose, you get a whole lot of things included starting with a French onion soup au gratin. This is followed by a house salad with a dressing of your choice. The salad itself is assembled on a side table by the waiter. It had many really fresh ingredients from shredded lettuce, grated carrots, thinly sliced tomatoes and cucumber to sliced boiled egg, avocado and black olives. I had mine with homemade buttermilk ranch dressing which was really tasty. Then, the steak itself is served with crisply fried onion rings (it was very thin and delicate looking), a small serving of seasonal vegetables (many of the vegetables there are grown organically in their farm) and a baked potato. Each individual baked potato was prepared by our waiter at a side table with toppings of our choice. I had mine with butter, sour cream and chives. I was blown away by all the attention to details and more than anything else, by the most delicious steak I have had in a long time. After our dinner, we asked to do the kitchen and wine cellar tour. Bern's has the largest collection of wines in the world with more than half a million bottles (not all stored in the restaurant obviously but the rows upon rows of bottles were impressive enough on their own). We then walked up to the dessert room where I ordered the macadamia nut sundae. This was pure self-indulgence as I was not even hungry anymore. It was delightful but I was just unable to finish it which is a pity.
- Disneyworld in Orlando: When my friend Rebekah asked me if I would like to go to Disneyworld during the week, the 5-year old me internally shouted a huge 'yaassssss!!' and the whatever-year old I actually am said 'of course, that would be great!'. We spent an entire day with Rebekah and her brother in the Magic Kingdom part of Disneyworld and had a great time. All the rides are adapted for younger ages so nothing too dramatic (you will never find yourself upside down on any of the rides). We had fast passes and were able to skip the queues for the rides we had picked the day before. And yes, one of those was 'It's a small world'. I mean, how could you not? It's so adorable. Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Walt Disney's Carousel of Knowledge, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, Space Mountain, the Little Mermaid etc. were part of the rides we fit in. It was quite hot so we refreshed ourselves with lots of water and some delicious pineapple Dole whips. We stayed until late so we could see the fireworks and amazing projections on the castle. It really is a magical place (and yours truly even managed to get her photo taken with Buzz Lightyear - I do love Pixar films very much). On a side note: it was only April but the park was crowded and the weather was quite hot and humid. Plan to bring some good sunscreen, a hat and a lot of water if visiting in Spring or Summer (or better yet, plan a visit during Winter time or at the end of Autumn).
Cameras used: Olympus Pen E-PL8 and iPhone SE
Podcast listened to on this trip: My Favorite Murder
Book read: Her Final Breath, by Robert Dugoni