A wonderful thing about the greater Tampa bay area is that it has all of these little pockets of art and vivid imagination and cultural and historical magic sprinkled throughout. It’s like coming across hidden treasure when you find them.
One of our favorites was Safety Harbor’s Whimzeyland, aka “The Bowling Ball House”. Think Willy Wonka meets psychedelic Bugs Bunny and Care Bears on steroids, sprinkled with some flower power, and you have Whimzeyland! It’s an art installation that was created out of a house in an otherwise normal, nondescript neighborhood. Constructed of plexiglass sculptures, paintings, bottle trees, recycled material sculptures and bowling balls, this magical eye-Candyland is the vision of Florida artists Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda. The project really got underway when the pair went to a flea market and came home with tons of free bowling balls (there are now over 500). Their ongoing labor of love has, per their website, been evolving for the past 20 years. In addition to the original house, they also now have a Mexican-themed guest house across the street.
The pair also has a hand in the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center (SHAMc), a nonprofit that serves as “a place where children and the children-at-heart can gather to celebrate art”. We met Todd when we were there and he told us about the live music performances at SHAMc, complete with cocktails served up at their tiny onsite bar. Between Ellie the pink elephant, the open air Odditorium, the unicorn and mannequins galore, our inner kids were over the rainbow.
We afterwards strolled around town and enjoyed all of the funky, eclectic buildings and businesses. Then we took a walk on the floating boardwalk that winds through the waterfront park, and capped it all off with a beer at Troubled Waters Brewing.
Safety Harbor is a true Florida gem that we highly recommend putting on your road trip itinerary!
We found another gem on one of our Friday field trips that took us across the Skyway Bridge to Bradenton’s Village of the Arts. All of these artists and local business owners have invested in the area by buying up the old 1920s-style bungalows there and turning them into artists-in-residence galleries, healing practices, restaurants and workshops. The Village now covers 36 acres and boasts 200 businesses.
We browsed some shops and galleries and talked to some of the artists. Mark from Art Junkies is a terrific storyteller and told us all about the history of the area and how it’s been elevated in the last 30 years from crime-ridden crack den to hip artist enclave. He also told us bout Homeland Security guarding the nearby Tropicana plant (because you know, those terrorists will want to go right for our oj), the hidden penises that are sprinkled throughout the village like the Hidden Mickeys at Disney World, and how houses there currently go for about $225k (he was trying to get us to move in, lol). He has lots of cool pieces that he crafts out of reclaimed materials, and he even gifted me with a hot pink plastic crucifix that I was admiring. Another gallery we loved was Divine Excess Folk Art. They had all of these beautiful crosses and angels and other religious icons that were made out of recycled vintage jewelry. We bought a small piece for our truck by Zoe Von Averkamp.
We stopped at Birdrock Tacos for lunch and the Thai peanut brussel sprout taco was nothing short of a revelation. These tacos were worth the trip alone! And we had to sample the kava at Adobe Graffiti Lounge, a cool little outdoor lounge that’s covered with murals. We wrapped up with a beer in Motorworks Brewing’s beautiful backyard. They sometimes have live music or screen movies out there.
In keeping with the eclectic, artsy vibes, we hit up one of the monthly evening events at a place in Gulfport called The Blueberry Patch. Founded on 7/7/77, t’s the site of a community of artists, writers, musicians and hippies at heart who throw events four times per month: always on the 1st, 7th, 11th and 22nd. They’ll have bands or theater or live painting, plus a byob policy. My coworker who lives nearby told me that it was a lot of fun and that sometimes there’s “hippy drama” when people paint over other people’s art at the easels lmao. The party didn’t disappoint, and everyone was just so lovely and welcoming and brimming with good energy. We walked into this gigantic backyard filled with art installations and tchotchkes and fairy lights and murals everywhere, like a mini Burning Man festival in the tropical forest. And we met some fun people there, including a guy named Doge who loved that we’re vanlifers. I told him that we also have a magical cat named Xiaozhang and he replied, “ Of course you have a magical cat!”
As a bonus, one guy invited us back to his house so that we could park in the driveway for the night. So it was an all around great night.
It wasn’t long before our Friday field trip took us into the heart of Tampa itself. Shane had a Meetup to go to in downtown, so I found us a nearby spot on iOverlander to overnight in once he was done. What I didn’t expect was that this stop in Ybor City would send us in a time machine to Cuba’s and Tampa’s historic pasts. The spot offered up some fantastic street parking in front of a church and we woke up to the cock-a-doodle-doo of some of the many roosters who rule Ybor’s roost and freely strut the streets. It kind of made our morning, not only because of the chickens but because I looked out the window and met the gaze of the most delightful, zen-looking orange cat. He was very friendly and were able to give him lots of pats. A nearby water bowl inscription clued us in that this cat’s name was Rusty. What a little darling.
Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we vacated our spot early and headed to Ybor’s flagship La Segunda bakery to pick up cafe con leche, some guava pastries and a loaf of authentic Cuban bread.
Then it was time to park by historic 7th Avenue to walk around and soak up some history. We discovered this great free app on @flhumanites website that enables you to download historical audio tours of all of these different regions of Florida, including Ybor. So we strolled the streets and used the app to learn lots about the area’s rich history. (We can’t wait to do more when we travel through Florida!). This is the area Cubans first settled in Florida starting in the late 1800, (as opposed to the more modern Miami, whose influx of immigrants came after Castro’s rise to power in 1959).
The city’s named after Cuban cigar factory owner Don Vincent Martinez Ybor, who started his cigar empire in 1886 and put Tampa on the map as the “Cigar Capital of the World.” Cuban freedom fighter and poet Jose Marti is honored everywhere. He’d often stay in a boarding house that is long gone but in its place is a tiny park that’s actually owned by the government of Cuba, so you can say you’ve been to Cuba for the day without even needing to pull out your passport. Also interesting is that Cubans both back and white, along with Spanish, Italian, Chinese, German and Jewish immigrants all lived together in peace and harmony. And while Tampa and Miami may fight over who invented the Cuban sandwich, Ybor City was the birthplace of Cuban bread. The Tampa version has a mix of ingredients added by Ybor’s melting pot of immigrants (i.e. salami by the Italians and mustards by the Germans). Both cities bicker to this day over who has the real deal Cuban sandwich.
We capped off our tour with a cigar and some strong Cuban coffee at Tabanero, followed by a local brew at Coppertail Brewing.
The biggest highlight for us by far, however, was having lunch at The Columbia. Founded in 1905 by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr, it’s both Florida’s oldest restaurant and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world (taking up an entire city block).
It started off as a cafe that served up Cuban sandwiches and coffee to cigar workers but has evolved into a 15-room, family-run business with multiple locations that’s hosted everyone from Marilyn Monroe to big name Latin performers to dignitaries to George Clooney. Our server told us a story about how Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio used to dine there and how he got so drunk and belligerent one night that they threw him out. He then sent over a signed baseball bat as an apology, which they have in their memorabilia museum. And she’s rumored to have had a hand in designing their red dining room.
They’re known for their 1905 salad, which they toss tableside and which was one of the most delicious salads we’ve ever had. We ordered up a pitcher of cava sangria, which they also prepare tableside for us, right down to the freshly squeezed oranges. We had Cuban sandwiches and white chocolate pudding for dessert, easily one of the top ten best things we’ve ever eaten.
This place is a gem, and you can just feel all of the history surrounding you in every room. It’s totally worth the stop if you’re ever passing through Tampa.
We stayed an extra night in Tampa so that we could check out Tampa’s eclectic and bohemian Seminole Heights neighborhood. You’ll find plenty of antique and vintage stores, boutique cafes and cocktail bars and restaurants. Our favorite was Mandarin Heights, which has a sister bar in downtown St Pete’s. The Tampa version is definitely that location’s younger, wilder sister and we loved everything, from the impeccable cocktails to the fun and vibrant decor.
Our final big outing in the greater bay was to Anna Maria Island, which had been on our radar for a while. And then our vanlife friends serendipitously suggested that as a meeting place when they were passing through Florida. We first met Lisa and Jamie last fall in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Who could’ve predicted that we’d all be reunited the following spring in Florida? One of the joys of vanlife that goes hand in hand with all.of the cool and unique experiences is the great people you meet along the way, especially fellow vanlifers. It’s always fun swapping stories of the adventures we’ve all had since we last met.
We explored some of Anna Maria Island together, stopping for lunch and to listen to a little live music before hitting the beach and then breaking bread over baked local yellowtail in the truck.
And you just know that we had to hit up a causeway before taking our leave of Anna Maria Island:
But it was soon enough time to get back to St Pete’s and prep for our departure, which was now only a small handful of weeks away…