South Tampa’s Secret Beaches

There’s a strong perception among Tampa residents that to go to the beach, you have to haul yourself down the highway to St. Pete, or across the sprawl of Clearwater.  After all, the body of water closes to Tampa itself is the industrialized Port of Tampa, fit for nothing but deep-keeled shipping vessels and hungry pelicans.  Right?

Not quite.  There are a handful of amazing beaches much closer to Tampa proper, out past the metallic clang of the port, and right at the doorstep of South Tampa residents.

cypress point park

Caption: Cypress Point Park. Credit: Vic Wagner, Flickr.

Cypress Point is a small park with a mix of beaches and hiking trails.  The beaches don’t quite match Fort DeSoto, but combine them with beautiful, forested paths and you’ve got something pretty special.

davis islands

Davis Islands Seaplane Park. Credit: Path to Enlightenment, Flickr

Maybe the most unusual beach in South Tampa is at the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin Park.  It’s located next to the Yacht Club, so if you’re into watching the tall ships come in, this one’s for you.  It’s also one of the better off-leash dog parks in town, so if you love both seafaring and canines, you’re truly blessed.

picnic island

Picnic Island Beach. Credit: the_blue_lotus, Flickr

But the best treat in store for Tampa beach bums might be Picnic Island Beach, perched right at the lip of the Port of Tampa.  You might catch a glimpse of a freighter or two, but you’re likely to be more occupied by the white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters – pretty much what you’d get if you trekked all the way to Passe-a-Grille, and it’s right in your South Tampa backyard.


Cypress Point Park is located at 5620 W. Cypress St., Tampa, FL 33607.

Davis Islands Seaplane Basin Park is located at 864 Severn Ave
Tampa, FL 33606.

Picnic Island Beach is located at 7409 Picnic Island Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33616


From Dining Rooms to Great Rooms

American life is pretty well known to change at a ferocious pace.  It’s strange to think about how different things were fifty years ago – most people still lived close to where they were born, social equality for women and minorities were much farther off, and families still sat down to the dining room table together every night.

Well, some things change for the better, and some things . . . just change.  While some of us work hard to hang on to the old dining room tradition, the vast majority of families on the go have settled into different rhythms than their parents or grandparents’ generation.  And naturally, they want a home that reflects those changes.  That’s why now, instead of a separate dining room, many architects, developers, and remodelers are opting for what’s known as a Great Room – a single space that flows between a kitchen, a dining area, and a living room or lounge area.

The Great Room concept is a response to a lot of social trends – some of them great, some maybe not so much.  The Great Room accommodates the hectic flow of modern family life, as dads, daughters, and Cousin Joe zoom around on their own missions, snatching snacks from the fridge and counter willy-nilly.  That might not please those who see the ideal family interaction as five people sitting down for an hour over a meal.  The Great Room is also a monument to contemporary informality – it makes just as much sense to carry a plate of food to the couch in front of the T.V. as to the kitchen table.


But the Great Room also strengthens families, since the open, flowing space makes it easier for us to connect. Mom is no longer sequestered away while the rest of the brood eagerly await the fruits of her labor – instead, the kitchen in a Great Room becomes a social space, with the kids hanging out and watching the magic. And for today’s sometimes larger families, which are more and more likely to include three generations under one roof, the spaciousness of a Great Room can be a very practical amenity.

When family isn’t the order of the day, a Great Room’s flow can make for a great football Sunday or wine bash, giving people different areas to congregate in.  And this sort of layout is truly at its best when our family lives mesh with our social lives – during the holidays. The cooks and gourmets can hang out in the kitchen, the social butterflies can chit-chat in the dining area, and the jocks can watch football – each doing their own thing, but staying connected by space, and freely mingling.  Certainly an improvement over the old days, when a family would be divided up between totally separate rooms.

So, if you’re in the market for a home, consider how your life works – and how you’d like your home to work with it.  Maybe a Great Room would fit your flow.

Sundays at South Tampa’s Thai Gem, Wat Tampa

Tampa is a city of immigrants – travel the byways of Temple Terrace or Clearwater and you can find almost any variety of ethnic grocery store, and South Tampa gets to taste the benefits in the form of an array of fantastic global restaurants.  But one of the most public, friendly, and authentic ways to get a glimpse of Tampa’s immigrant life has to be a Sunday-morning visit to Wat Mongkolratanaram.

Wat What?


Wat Mongkolratanaram ( (mercifully a.k.a. Wat Tampa) is a Thai Buddhist Temple serving Tampa’s Thai community.  It sits on the banks of the Hillsborough River just east of South Tampa, and every Sunday its parishioners hold an open Sunday Market, where they cook and sell a variety of authentic Thai home cooking.  The temple’s story ( is pretty amazing – it was founded in 1981, and its members have spent three decades expanding it to what you see today – including a glittering artwork of a central temple, where on Sundays you can catch both Buddhist services and a friendly cultural introduction for outsiders.

The temple has expanded in large part with proceeds from the Sunday Market, which began with two tables in 1993.  Now, it sprawls across the length and breadth of the place, including not just dozens of kinds of food, but fresh herbs and a variety of potted plants, as well.  Not surprisingly, you can get a really good deal here on herbs that are important to Thai cooking, like lemongrass and galang.

The experience of visiting this cultural landmark during the Sunday morning market is one of Tampa’s truly unique pleasures.  Look around and you’ll see all types of people coming together in a friendly, peaceful environment, spreading out on the dozens of red picnic tables, and strolling a few short paths – but most of all, enjoying rich Thai food cooked by the Temple’s members.


The food is homey and basic, including a variety of soups, noodles, and pastries (some are spicy, so be sure to ask).  I was surprised to find that these Buddhists are definitely not vegetarians, as most of the plates come piled with beef or chicken.  Be prepared to wait on line, especially for the fresh soups – but it’s worth it.  On a Zagat scale, the food might not compete with plates from South Tampa’s array of polished Thai experiences, such as Lemongrass (  But take your dish and settle into the park-like atmosphere, say hello to a neighbor, and enjoy one of the most relaxing Sundays I can imagine.  (That said the deep-fried plantains are worth the trip on their own – sweet, crusty, crunchy balls of batter that, I’m sure, have a banana in there somewhere.)


To get to Wat Tampa, take I-4 east from downtown,  take the North 50th street exit heading south, then head east on Palm River Road until you hit the slow-moving column of cars waiting for a spot in the Temple’s crowded parking lot. Don’t’ worry, though – the small army of parking attendants find a way to squeeze everyone in, and after that, the bustle is part of the charm.

Great Society: Touring the Nightlife on Soho

Of all the advantages of living in South Tampa, social life is high on the list. Everyone’s happy to see some buzz finally cropping up downtown, and Ybor City still has a few worthwhile destinations, but the SoHodistrict is the real sweet spot for bars, nightclubs, pubs, lounges, and every other possible combinations of people, drinking, and music.  Here’s a quick overview of some of the best and most interesting spots on South Howard.

MacDinton’s, 405 South Howard Avenue ( What most of us are looking for in a bar is a comfortable place to unwind after work, hang out with our friends, and maybe make some new ones before heading home.  A place like MacDinton’s fits the bill, with a homey Irish pub atmosphere and a neighborly culture including frequent charity events and fun runs (Jogging and Guinness – a mysterious match).  It’s also the place to be in Tampa if you’re a soccer fan.

World of BeerSoHo, 402 South Howard Avenue (link: It’s a chain among one-of-a-kind neighborhood joints, but you can’t fault World of Beer’s comfortable atmosphere or its seemingly infinite variety of tap and bottled beers.  The South Tampa location features what is clearly more important to a bar even than beer – Trivia, starting at 7pm.  Watch out, though, as Wednesday’s discounts for University faculty and students might attract undesirable characters, like UT philosophy professors looking to talk Nietzche over a goblet of Tripel.  THE HORROR.

The Dubliner, 2307 West Azeele Street(link: It’s not as if you can have too many comfortable Irish pubs with great food. Like MacDinton’s, the Dubliner’s menu features Irish classics like Sheperd’s Pie and Fish and Chips. But the Dubliner claims the distinction of featuring an Irish Nacho Pizza, which is . . . well, you’ll have to find out for yourself.

The Green Lemon,915 South Howard Avenue–( – Formerly The Lime (see what they did there?) this is mostly a restaurant, with a sprawling Mexican menu.  But they also have a huge, and surprisingly reasonably priced, tequila list.

The Kennedy (2408 West Kennedy Blvd.) andHyde Park Café (1801 W. Platt Street) (links: and – Okay, in all likelihood you’re happy that your days of Jello shots, Red Bull and vodka, and sweaty dancing with multiple anonymous partners is behind you.  But sometimes even the best grown-ups get the urge to cut loose and relive the worst/best nights of college.  With throbbing dancefloors, celebrity appearances from the likes of Lady Gaga, and parties with names like “Menage Mondays,” thesetwo clubs have your arrested development covered.  Just don’t blame me if the music sounds like robots going to the bathroom, or if that’s where you end up at the end of the night, curled into the fetal position and longing for your couch.

Mangroves, 208 South Howard Avenue ( Luckily, catching up on the nightclub scene doesn’t have to be synonymous with a barrage of cheap booze and brain-melting music. If you’ve got a yin for partying but don’t mind being able to hear yourself think, Mangroves offers a more refined nightclub/lounge experience, including some amazing food.  Whether you’re a real high roller, or just want to play one for the night, their VIP bottle service will let you keep an eye on the action from a comfy private booth.  Oh, and ladies, hopefully the classy atmosphere will help you use your better judgment on Friday nights, when you can drink all you like between 9 and 11pm for just $10.

Get Your Kid a Great Education from International Baccalaureate Programs in South Tampa

All parents want the absolute best for their kids, which is why families looking for a place to live often put quality schooling at the top of their Needs list.  In South Tampa, there are several excellent private schools providing top-notch experiences for students at all levels.  But when planning for the future, it’s also worth considering International Baccalaureate programs, which offer a more challenging course of study within the public school system.

The idea for the International Baccalaureate (or IB) was born just after World War II, and its goal has always been to educate globally conscious citizens as a way to foster cooperation and peace.  In practice, this means not just encouraging awareness of other cultures, but fostering critical thinking, research, and writing skills – which are great for promoting world peace and excelling in the 21st century job market.  The programs tend to attract gifted and ambitious students with engaged parents, giving kids who join them a great social advantage on top of a good education.

IB has been established in Tampa high schools for years, but have recently expanded at the elementary and middle school levels (  South Tampa is home to IB programs at MacFarlane Elementary (1721 North MacDill Avenue), Roland Park K-8 (1510 North Manhattan Avenue), and Robinson High School (6311 South Lois Avenue).  The IB programs for Elementary and Middle School Students are what’s known as the Early Years and Middle Years programs, and include things like early language training (most often Spanish or French) and an array of arts programs that are, sadly, less available than they used to be in more typical public school programs.

After all that preparation, High School is where the IB program really comes into full force.  Earning an IB diploma requires an array of tests and projects, including 200 hours of extracurricular work and community service, special courses in logic, and an extended essay. Robinson High is already regularly listed as one of the best high schools in the nation, so you can imagine that adding the IB program gives students an educational experience above and beyond what you can expect almost anywhere else.

Because these programs are designated Magnet schools, they’re accessible to students who live outside of their regular feeder areas.  But those living within those areas have priority, as do students already in magnet programs For example, if your kid’s in a magnet elementary school, they’ll have priority in getting into a magnet middle – so living in South Tampa and starting early are important to getting into MacFarlane, Roland, and Robinson.  The application process, through the School Choice program of the Hillsborough Public Schools, is about as complicated as you’d expect (link  Still, to get a private-school quality education without those hefty tuition bills, a little paperwork seems worth it to me.

A South Tampa Renaissance: WS Development’s Plans for Hyde Park Village

There was big news for South Tampa just a few weeks ago when the Boston-based firm WS Development confirmed that it was buying Hyde Park Village for $45 million (link:  It’s great news for South Tampa for a lot of reasons, showing a huge vote of confidence in the area and opening up even more exciting possibilities.

It’s no secret that Hyde Park Village ( has been struggling a bit, with a number of empty storefronts and buildings that are beginning to show their age (most of the current structures date from the 1980s).  WS has said they’ll be investing heavily to spruce up the place physically, as well as lining up incentives to attract new tenants, and pursuing new ideas for making Hyde Park Village more of a destination. If you’re wondering about the extent of their ambition, the new developers have taken to referring to the project as “South Tampa’s Downtown.”

Just as important as the new energy is what the purchase represents for South Tampa going forward. The $45 million purchase price represents huge growth over the $31 Million paid by MW Hyde Park LLC in 2005.  That shows that investors have tagged South Tampa, and to some extent the city as a whole, as good bets.  It’s the kind of purchase that could very well trigger other investors to follow with similar or connected projects.

The concrete details of Hyde Park Village’s future will be worked out in collaboration between the developers and current tenants, who will get a say in what they want to see.  One intriguing possibility would be resurrecting plans for condos within the development – space was cleared for them years ago, but they were put on hold during the downturn (  If those condos get built, they could be a really great place to live, within a few minute’s walk of great shopping at Anthropologie, Brooks Brothers, and Pottery Barn – not to mention all the other great offerings of South Tampa.

Flood Insurance Deregulation – The (Abstract) Good, The (Obvious) Bad, and the (All-Around) Ugly

As the Biggert-Waters act of 2012 goes into effect, the tragic stories keep coming in, well, a flood –insurance quotes going from $5,126 to $36,584 in three weeks (, and people preparing to leave their homes (link: rather than deal with higher rates in coming years.  But is the reality of the end of flood insurance subsidies as bad as it sounds, or is it all hype?  And what does it mean for the real estate market in Florida, and South Tampa?

Passed in July of 2012, and officially the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, Biggert-Waters is probably the biggest news in the housing market since the bubble burst in 2008. It all started with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which put the public National Flood Insurance Program $18 billion in the hole. Over the next few years, the program stayed unbalanced, and its deficit is now $24 billion. The solution was to cut the large Federal subsidies that had been keeping insurance premiums artificially low in high-risk areas – and that’s exactly what Biggert-Waters does. The consequence (which somehow even the law’s authors claim not to have realized at the time Link: is that premiums for millions of homeowners nationwide are going to skyrocket over the next few years – and a lot of that rise will be centered in Florida.

It’s hard to swallow now – but long-term, the end of federal subsidies is good for the economy, for homeowners, and for the South Florida housing market, for a lot of reasons.  The biggest one is this – the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the public entity providing ‘insurance of last resort’ for all these years?  It was never actually solvent – it never had the money to provide the insurance it was promising.  As State Senator Garrett Richter explains here (link:, a real hurricane catastrophe in Florida would have required that the state borrow to fund damage claims, leaving every state resident making huge debt payments (up to 83% of then-current Citizens premiums) for up to 30 years.  The same problems that plagued Citizens also applied to the Federal Flood Insurance program, which was actually one of the biggest Federal government liabilities this side of Social Security.

So, those in favor of fiscal responsibility should be applauding Biggert-Waters for getting rid of some of the most risky big-government subsidies around.  And ultimately, by letting people know in big, bad numbers just how risky their location is, accurate insurance rates might even save lives.  Finally, the biggest beneficiaries will be people living in lower-risk areas – such as most of South Tampa (See map of high risk areas here.  They’ll see little or no change in rates, and their homeowners’ tax dollars won’t be going to subsidize the property of those living in higher-risk areas anymore.

But big-picture politics and abstractions about fairness aren’t much comfort to people facing quadrupling premiums in the next four or five years, and the chances of delaying the law’s biggest effects are narrowing by the day.  Despite a lot of talk about delay, neither the Federal or State legislature have identified any clear way to soften the blow (link:

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