By Valerie Moloney
As a metro transplant, I’m always a little amused when people learn I was once a Floridian. While well-meaning friends tend to box their Sunshine State perceptions into three categories — beach vacations, Disney and strip malls — I have to laugh a little. Limiting a Florida vacation to such obvious experiences is like going to Chicago and only eating deep-dish pizza. There’s so much more to digest. You just have to ask the locals.
During this time of year, which might be the toughest to endure because it d r a g s on so long, I actually miss my old haunts in Tampa. While the rest of the country is fighting the winter blues, Tampanians actually have something to look forward to: the annual Gasparilla Pirate Parade.
The event — a tribute to the Spaniard who reportedly captured and burned 36 ships during his first 12 years as a pirate — stages the “invasion” of the city in true swashbuckling style. Enacted by Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla on Jan. 29, the spectacle starts with the docking of the Jose Gaspar pirate boat close to many downtown Tampa hotels and follows with a parade down McMansion-specked Bayshore Boulevard for a booze-fueled party a la Mardi Gras — complete with flinging beads and awful (but lovable) fake pirate accents. As I recall, after a few cocktails, the delivery actually got better.
Some of my most vivid memories entailed hearing the firing cannons and watching my friends pile into the bars(yes, that’s bar with an “s”) post-parade, necks wrapped in purple and green plastic chains, heads topped in pirates’ hats, beer spilling from plastic cups until the bartenders kicked us out.
In 2005, three years after I left the city, Tampa introduced a more family-appropriate version of the festival called the Children’s Gasparilla Parade, which happens this year on Jan. 22. Locals love the fact that their junior pirates under 5 can participate in the fun with a stroll down Bayshore in tricycles and wagons. The fireworks display is always a crowd pleaser, too.
Not to be outdone by New Orleans, Tampa keeps the party going on Feb. 12, when the Knight Parade hosted by The Krewe of Sant’ Yago glides through historic Ybor City on floats for another round of bead throwing, coin tossing and public debauchery to be enjoyed by more than 110,000 attendees. Once you recover from your hangover, spend the rest of the trip exploring this Latin Quarter, which was once home to hundreds of cigar factories and still boasts some of the best cafe con leche and pan Cubano I’ve ever tasted.
So to the city snobs in my past circles who thumbed their noses at my stint in Tampa Bay, I say this in my best pirate accent: “Arrg. Get ye to the plank!”
Hotels close to the parade route
- Hyatt Regency Tampa
- Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina
- Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel
- Hampton Inn & Suites Tampa/Downtown/Ybor City, FL
Valerie Moloney is an in-house writer for Orbitz who lived in Tampa for five years. She now covers hotels around the world and contributes to the Orbitz blog.