7 reasons why you should visit Tampa Bay, Florida

Tampa Bay is not a typical Florida city, though the weather is as beautiful, it is rich in culture and history, and roosters rule the town. As travel slowly resumes, North America is emerging as a number one long haul destination for British travellers – and Tampa Bay in Florida is quickly becoming a hit. With theme parks, museums, the historical Ybor City and a bar on every corner, it has attractions to suit everyone. In fact, the choice of activities is almost overwhelming. Here’s a summary of the best bits…

1. Busch Gardens

The sheer size and versatility of Busch Gardens makes it the number one thing to do in Tampa. Expect to find a safari experience, several roller-coasters, a waterpark, and a zoo all included in the $100/£74 ticket price. I spent around five hours walking through the park, with stops for food and drink. But I could easily have spent twice as long enjoying the entertainment on offer.

Without a doubt, a highlight is the guided safari tour, where guests can learn about endangered species, observe rhinos and even hand-feed giraffes. Led by a tour guide, who shares information about the animals and the park’s contributions to conservation, the Serengeti Safari costs an extra $40/£30 per person.

Find some of the best food and drink stalls in a Mardi Gras-themed section of the park, including an outlet selling homemade jambalaya. A live band and dancers complete the party atmosphere. Visit buschgardens.com/tampa.

2. J.C. Newman Cigar Factory tour

This historic building, named El Reloj, still functions as a working cigar factory, and guests can watch as each step of the cigar-making process is completed across three floors.

For only $15/£11 you can take a guided walking tour which details the history of the building and the family that still owns and runs it. Guests can also visit the cigar museum, theatre, rolling room, and factory store for free.

The museum is full of interactive elements, including screens where you can listen to original audio recordings of the owners in the 1900s, while the cigar rollers are more than happy to have you take pictures of them as they work. Visit jcnewman.com/visit-us.

3. Walking Tour of Ybor City

Ybor City is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, due to its huge contribution to the cigar industry, its history of immigration and connections to the Cuban revolution. The best way to see the city and to learn about its rich culture is with a guided tour for $25/£18.50, by Ybor City Walking Tours.

We were able to go inside some of the older buildings in the area, including several Italian and Spanish social clubs which were key for these communities. Reflecting the current day diversity of residents, a local newspaper is still printed in English, Italian and Spanish. Look out for a plot of land still legally owned by Cuba; when you step onto it, you officially leave the United States.

Perhaps even more bizarre, however, is the role roosters and chickens play in the city. Allowed to roam freely, each rooster is a direct descendent of the livestock brought to Florida during the immigration wave during the cigar boom, and this family line gives them federal protection. So even touching a bird could leave you with a $500/£370 fine. Visit yborwalkingtours.com.

4. Dinner at the Columbia, the oldest restaurant

The Columbia first opened as a cafe in 1919, and is still owned by the same family five generations later. This is a key part of why this restaurant is so special; it has survived through extremely tough times, including the fall of the cigar boom, when so many other businesses in Ybor City failed.

A maze of a building, the 52,000 square foot restaurant boasts 15 dining rooms, with seating for up to 1,700 people, and encompasses an entire city block. There is a huge array of Cuban and Spanish-inspired meals on offer, but special mention must be given to the famous Cuban Sandwich and paella. Main meals cost between $28/£21-$40/£30 on average, but are extremely large and filling, not to mention delicious. Visit columbiarestaurant.com.

5. Drinks and food at Sparkman Wharf

Sparkman Wharf in downtown Tampa is a riverside area that has recently undergone huge renovations. Choose to dine in a vast selection of restaurants and food huts, including a large beer garden/patio that overlooks the water, with socially distanced seating and a stage for live music.

6. The Riverwalk

Visitors to Tampa Bay can now buy an all inclusive Riverwalk Attraction Pass for $55/£41, covering entry to many of the waterfront attractions, including the aquarium and several museums. The pass also covers a 30-minute guided ride on a water taxi with fully-equipped bar, where a guide explains the history of the area. Visit visittampabay.com/riverwalk-pass.

7. Candle making and shopping at Hyde Park Village

Hyde Park Village is home to many high-end iconic brands and is a truly beautiful place to walk around. But make a beeline for The Candle Pour, a quaint shop that teaches its customers the art of candle making. Workshops can only usually be booked for groups, but it’s still a joy to sniff (and splurge) on the delicious scents. Find all the paraphernalia you need – including a snuffer and wick trimmer. Visit thecandlepour.com

How to plan your trip

British Airways flies from London Gatwick to Tampa from £510 return, including taxes/fees/carrier charges and checked baggage. To book, please visit ba.com/tampa or call 0344 493 0124.

Rooms at the Hotel Haya (hotelhaya.com) start from £153 per room per night.

Further information on Tampa Bay, go to visittampabay.com

Crime writer GR Halliday on discovering a little slice of Scottish paradise

North Erradale, Ross-shire.

Why do you go there?

My partner Sarah’s family live in North Erradale and since they moved there, we have had an amazing time exploring the area. Sarah and I are both into swimming and paddleboarding. We love spending time in the sea.

I also love rock climbing and bouldering. There are sea caves with cliffs and arches that are brilliant for climbing on.

I find North Erradale an incredibly inspiring place. I got the idea for my first novel, From The Shadows, while spending time there. We were on a walk and started talking about what it would be like to find a dead body within this beautiful environment.

How often do you go?

At least once a month in the summer. In the winter, it is a bit trickier because of the shorter days, but I love that time of year because it is atmospheric with the big storms coming in off the Minch.

HeraldScotland: Crime writer GR Halliday. Picture: Chris StuartCrime writer GR Halliday. Picture: Chris Stuart

How did you discover it?

Through Sarah’s mum and sister living there. We realised it was a paradise with turquoise waters that are amazing for swimming. We have seen incredible wildlife, including seals, cormorants, guillemots, shags and sea eagles.

What’s your favourite memory?

On a beautiful autumn evening we went for a walk along the headland and spotted a basking shark going up and down in the bay. To see it that close was incredible. Sarah’s mum was with us and all three of us sat on the rocks and watched. That was magical.

Who do you take?

Sarah. There are always friends and family who want to come with us. It is great to have a picnic, go swimming and enjoy a bonfire on the beach.

What do you take?

Lots of sports equipment stuffed into the car, including paddleboards, wetsuits, climbing gear and woolly jumpers. I always take my laptop and try to find a quiet spot to do a bit of writing once I have been in the sea. Relaxation, a beer and writing beside the fire.

What do you leave behind?

Our army of cats – we have six. It started with one feral cat called Dolly who brought her kittens into our woodshed. A year later she came back with another litter. They never left. That is our semi-feral cat family.

HeraldScotland: North Erradale. Picture: GR HallidayNorth Erradale. Picture: GR Halliday

Sum it up in five words.

Wild. Atmospheric. Beautiful. Inspiring. Magical.

What other travel spot is on your wish list?

I love travelling but that has been curtailed by the pandemic. I find myself thinking a lot about the Middle East, Iraq and Syria. I studied ancient history at university and have had a long-standing interest in those areas. I would love to visit at some point in my life.

Under The Marsh by GR Halliday, published by Vintage, £8.99, is out now. Serial Killers: Alice Hunter, GR Halliday and Victoria Selman is part of the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling on September 17. Visit bloodyscotland.com