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Six offbeat, active date nights in Tampa Bay

When it comes to dating, the typical dinner-and-a-movie night is tried and true. • And totally lame. • Research has shown that couples who try new activities together are more likely to be happier in their relationships. New experiences activate the brain's reward system, including the same neurological circuits ignited in the early stages of romantic love. • So whether you're an established couple looking to get the butterflies back, or a new-fangled duo trying to keep those buggers flapping, here's a rundown of six local experiences for your dating enjoyment. • You can thank us on your 50th wedding anniversary. — Helen Anne Travis

The Beach Date, Revised

What you'll do together: Instead of your typical day baking on the sand, you and your sweetie rent jet skis and zip around the intercoastal, dodging dolphins and other boaters. One person steers, the other sits in the back and holds on tight. (Note: this is a very up close and personal date. Don't skip deodorant.) The faster you go, the louder the engine, the less need to make conversation. More established couples may enjoy exploring the yards of homes on the canals. There's nothing wrong with daydreaming about your future beach house(s).

Best time to go: Weekends are busy, so call ahead for a reservation. Also, be prepared to smile and nod through a brief safety course from the staff.

Why it makes a good date: Bathing suits, dolphins, speed, an opportunity to straddle and hold on tight to your partner — why isn't this a good date?

Afterward: The area surrounding the rental spot is teeming with restaurants. There's an ice cream shop in the parking lot and a public beach across the street. Make a day of it and pack a picnic lunch and plan on dinner at any of Gulf Boulevard's come-as-you-are restaurants.

Ideal couple: Any pair who's been together long enough not to mind the physical contact.

Details: Dolphin Marine Rentals, 11025 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island. Jet skis are $65 per hour including gas and safety gear, $60 for any additional hour up to three hours. (Unless you're a huge skiing fan, you really only need an hour.) The center also rents bikes, small boats and scooters. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Get there by 4 p.m. to rent the jet skis. (727) 360-8408,

The Wheels Date

What you'll do together: Remember your first bike, the single-gear one with the pedal brakes? You and your honey will rent two of those and tour downtown St. Petersburg, admiring the bums, scenery and hipsters along the way. Locks are included in the rental, so the bikes can be secured while you and your honey stroll — hand in hand — through the area's eclectic shops, bars and restaurants. For a quieter option, pedal to the Gizella Kopsick Palm Arboretum, north of Vinoy Park, or any of the funky neighborhoods nearby.

Best time to go: Morning or evening, to avoid the midday heat.

Why it makes a good date: You don't have to struggle to make idle chitchat. The characters and sights along the route provide more than enough conversation fodder. And if you don't have anything to say, no biggie, just enjoy the ride.

Afterward: Secure your bike outside of the downtown restaurant of your choice. Or turn it in and hike to Baywalk, where you two can catch a movie. (Dinner and a movie outings are totally allowed after an adventure date.)

Ideal couple: Anyone.

Details: Wheel Fun Rentals at the pier, 800 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg. Hours are 10 a.m. to dusk Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to dusk Sunday. Cruiser rental is $8 per hour, with reduced rates for longer rentals. You can also rent some ridiculous-looking buggies and two-seater bikes. (727) 820-0375.

The River Date

What you'll do together: Paddle around the Hills­borough River, waving at other canoers, trying not to run into them or the alligators sunning on the bay.

Best time to go: Weekends may mean a long wait.

Why it makes a good date: The couple that rows together, stays together. Okay, we totally made that up. But this is a great place to find out if you guys are meant to be. On the other hand, for the inexperienced, canoeing can be downright tedious. If your partner has a bad attitude or gets impatient with you, leave him or her on the shore.

Afterward: Plenty of families hang out under the park's pavilions, so bring a picnic. Don't come hungry; there aren't any restaurants nearby, and the smoked mullet for sale on the side of the road looked questionable.

Ideal couple: A pair still in that rosy "I don't mind that you just steered us onto an alligator-infested bank" stage.

Details: Hillsborough River State Park, 15402 U.S. 301 N, Thonotosassa. (813) 987-6771 Open daily, canoes and bikes can be rented from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $4 per car, canoes are $10 per hour. The park is also loaded with trails. Just don't forget the bug spray.

The Zoo Date, Revised

What you'll do together: You know how the typical zoo date goes. You and your honey strain to see if the grey blob in the distance is an elephant or a rock. It turns out to be a rock, and you move on to the next exhibit. Well, Big Cat Rescue is not a zoo; it's a sanctuary for lions, tigers and other animals rescued from breeders and the exotic pet and fur trades. You can get extremely close to the animals, especially on the feeding tour when they come out of their lairs for raw chicken parts. Just back up if the lion turns its haunches to you and starts flicking its tail — you might get sprayed. A sure, and smelly, end to the date.

Best time to go: The feeding tours start at 4:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and last about two hours. You must make a reservation.

Why it makes a good date: If you're a new couple, this is great, because the trainer does all the talking for you. You just have to make chitchat during the walks between cages. Want to really impress? Bone up on your big cat trivia beforehand, so you have an answer when the trainer asks the group what color a cougar's eyes are at birth. (Answer: Blue.)

Afterward: This place is a hop, skip and jump away from Citrus Park Mall. All the typical chains are located just beyond the rescue center's dirt driveway.

Ideal couple: This is a group-guided tour, so it might be good for a double or triple date. If you two prefer to set your own pace and wander around at whim, it may not be the date for you.

Details: Big Cat Rescue, 12802 Easy St., Tampa. The feeding tour requires reservations and costs $50 per person. (813) 920-4130,

The Ranch Date

What you'll do together: You guys will channel your inner cowpokes and take a guided horseback tour through a wilderness preserve. Afterwards, play with baby bunnies, a potbellied pig and some skittish goats. Then, you wash your hands and talk about how sore your rear ends are from the ride.

Best time to go: Trail tours run Tuesday through Sunday by appointment only. Call early in the week for Saturday and Sunday tours, which fill up fast.

Why it makes a good date: The horses used for the trail rides are very gentle and practically steer themselves through the shaded winding trail. As long as you bring bug spray, it's a very relaxing experience. You and your honey won't get much time to chat, as the trail is only one horse wide, and you're with a guide and, potentially, other riders. But you'll be on your own in the small petting zoo. And if there's anything sweeter than watching your favorite hottie cuddle a baby bunny, we've yet to find it.

Afterward: On the weekends, the roads around the ranch are loaded with random produce stands. Plan on picking up some fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and preparing a meal back home.

Ideal couple: Any duo who doesn't mind the smell of potbellied pig.

Details: R&R Ranch, 9805 Bryant Road, Lithia. Trail rides last about 90 minutes and cost $30 per person for two or more people. Call ahead. (813) 546-9862,

The Muscle Date

What you'll do together: On Friday nights, Vertical Ventures rock climbing gym hosts a climbing free for all complete with a DJ and reduced price admission. Since it's usually crowded and there's no time for belaying instructions, climbers go harness-free on the walls. Don't worry, the floor is super-padded, and staff keeps an eye out to make sure you and your sweetie don't climb too high.

Best time to go: The half price special runs Friday nights from 8 p.m. to midnight. Come early, the gym fills up fast.

Why it makes a good date: Climbing harness-free is like being back on the elementary school playground. You two can climb together, or take turns reaching goals on the walls. (The latter option provides nice views for the person on the ground.) It's hard. Novice climbers will fall, so this is an excellent way to find out if your partner is capable of laughing at his or her mistakes. Soreness is unavoidable, and shoulder rubs may be necessary.

Afterward: The closest restaurant we could find nearby was a Perkins. Reward your body with a piece of strawberry pie.

Ideal couple: An adventurous, fearless duo not afraid to fall on their butts in front of a crowd.

Details: Vertical Ventures, 5402 Pioneer Park Blvd., Suite E, Tampa. Admission is $7. You will also have to shell out $5 each for shoes. (813) 884-7625,

Six offbeat, active date nights in Tampa Bay 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 4:30am]
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