Planning a Caribbean cruise this year? Are you booking a flight to Miami or Fort Lauderdale so you won’t miss the boat? You don't have to. Instead, check out Tampa, one of the nation's up-and-coming cruise ports, situated on the Sunshine State's mellow Gulf Coast. In 2003, more than 810,000 visitors -- that’s a record -- shipped out of Tampa, thanks largely to the introduction of several home-ported ships and service expansion. As many as 830,000 passengers were expected to sail out of Tampa this year, 2004.
Only 20 minutes from Tampa International Airport, the Tampa Port Authority is keeping pace with increasing cruise business by expanding its facilities. In 2002, the Port Authority unveiled the 110,000 square-foot Cruise Terminal 3, which joins three other terminals. Cruise Terminal 2 was refurbished in 1998 and now boasts a 45,000 square-foot baggage area. Other passenger services include superior security, a tourism information kiosk, a spacious lounge and a 2200-space, multi-level parking garage across the street. Cruise Terminals 6 (which also accommodates ferries) and 7 also offer good passenger amenities and on-terminal parking.
Ships joining the Port of Tampa roster include Royal Caribbean International's Nordic Empress, which now originates seven-day sailings to such ports of call as Belize and Cozumel. Next year, 2005, Royal Caribbean will replace Nordic Empress with the larger Splendour of the Seas. Carnival Cruise Lines now has two Fantasy Class vessels in Tampa, the Inspiration and the Sensation with four-and five-day cruises, as well as seven-day outings. Celebrity Cruises' Horizon makes a home in Tampa. The vessel takes passengers on 10 and 11-day cruises to ports of call including Costa Rica and Grand Cayman.
After vacationing with friends in the Sarasota area, we returned to Tampa for a pleasant day before catching our evening flight back to Washington. We crossed the Causeway and headed toward downtown, passing Legends Field (3802 W. Martin Luther King Boulevard), where the New York Yankees hold spring training. (Years ago, the team trained in St. Petersburg). It required some searching and helpful directions from locals, but we finally found Ybor City, the Cuban-American heart of Tampa. Famous for hand-rolled cigars and jumping night life, the neighborhood seems slightly run down, but still exudes a funky charm. After poking our heads in a few shops, we settled on Carmine's, 1802 East Seventh Ave. (813-248-3834) for lunch. Founded in 1946, the place has a rich history. Besides reigning as one of Tampa's top Cuban restaurants, Carmine's claims another distinction: Presidential candidates Al Gore and Joe Lieberman dined there during the 2000 campaign.