I’m always on the hunt for unusual statement jewellery, so when a striking silver choker featuring a replica shark’s tooth catches my eye, I’m tempted to buy.
It’s not the sort of thing I’d expect to find in Florida. But at the Oxford Exchange, a fashionable restaurant, coffee house and shopping emporium in Tampa, all sorts of unusual wares are on offer.
Housed in a renovated 100-year-old brick building and designed in the style of a British gentleman’s club, it’s the in-place for daytime dining and typifies Tampa’s booming bar and restaurant scene. All across this city on the west coast of Florida, entrepreneurs are breathing new life into abandoned properties.
Once the cigar capital of the world, Tampa has more than 250 factories in Ybor City (the historic Latin quarter) and West Tampa.
The cigar industry is still booming, with J C Newman Cigars producing up to 12 million cigars a year, but now hops, barley and yeast are slowly replacing tobacco as the city’s source of gold.
Florida is one of the fastest-growing states for craft beer and Tampa Bay recently ranked second as America’s Best Beer Town in a poll by USA Today. Some of the best brews can be found at hipster restaurant and bar Ulele, which sits on the banks of the Hillsborough River and has its own craft brewery. A former water pump house, it opened two years ago after a $5 million restoration.
A cultural and business hub for the Gulf Coast of Florida, Tampa Bay is built on a grid system that’s easy to navigate on two wheels. Visitors can hire sturdy blue bikes with GPS from Coast Bike Share (www.coastbikeshare.com). Download the Social Bicycles app and pay $8 an hour.
I’m a bit wobbly to begin with, but my confidence grows as I pedal along the Bayshore Boulevard, enjoying views of the city skyline and fleets of boats.
We slowly wind our way back to Hyde Park Village, three miles from downtown and known locally as SoHo. The leafy streets are lined with 1920s-style bungalows with white picket fences and even the occasional rocking chair on the terrace. It all reminds me of an old movie.
SoHo (or South Howard Avenue) is rapidly becoming one of South Tampa’s hottest neighbourhoods, with hip hangouts and high-end interior and fashion boutiques, all largely undiscovered by tourists.
There’s temptation at every turn, but having already purchased my shark’s tooth necklace, I decide to put my final pennies towards dinner and dig my teeth into something tastier.
WHERE TO STAY
n The Epicurean Hotel, www.epicureanhotel.com.
Never mind the beer – it’s all about fine food and wine at this chic, urban hotel within walking distance of Hyde Park Village, not far from the waterfront. The wine shop is stocked with more than a thousand bottles and there’s a wine-themed spa with 20,000 corks on the wall. Even the treatment rooms are named after merlot, chardonnay and champagne. Locals come for Happy Hour (3pm-7pm) when wine, beer and cocktails cost $5 a glass.
WHERE TO EAT
n Bern’s Steak House, www.bernssteakhouse.com.
Opposite The Epicurean, this famous steak house is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Cavernous, with a 70s-style decor, it’s a carnivore’s paradise. Excellent steaks are ordered by weight and thickness - but have a high price tag to match. It boasts one of the largest wine collections in the world, with 500,000 bottles available. A cellar tour after dinner is a must, before heading to the dedicated Dessert Room upstairs. Reservation required.
n Bartaco, www.bartaco.com. This modern, trendy Mexican in the centre of Hyde Park Village has lunchtime specials of three tacos and a chopped salad or soup for $10. Bring ID – even though the legal drinking age is 21, I was carded when I ordered a lager and it’s a long time since that birthday!
WHERE TO PARTY
n Ciro’s Speakeasy & Supper Club, www.cirostampa.com.
You’ll need to whisper a password through a hatch in a wooden door to enter this basement 1920s-style cocktail bar, which harks back to Prohibition and the jazz age. Bartender Alexi made me the best Vesper martini this side of the pond. Happy Hour is 5pm-7pm, Monday to Friday.
n Coppertail Brewing Company, www.coppertail brewing.com. At the crossroads of Ybor City and downtown Tampa, this craft brewery has a library of beers. There’s a large tasting hall with industrial decor and a blackboard listing beers. My prize pint was the Wheat Stroke.