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If "Super' is our goal, some areas fall short

Like about a billion other people who wouldn't be caught dead traveling during the holidays, I had to do it anyway, but at least I got the experience of arriving in Tampa like a visitor and getting a strong first impression. Like, say, a visitor on the soon-to-come weekend when Tampa welcomes the Super Bowl.

We're trying desperately, like a mother with an ugly daughter going on a blind date, to make a good impression. North Howard Avenue, a possible leg of many visitors' routes to Raymond James Stadium, suddenly _ and, as far as I can tell it's looked pretty much the same for the past 20 years _ is getting a face lift.

But back to the airport. People have heard about what a great airport TIA is, even though it slipped in some ratings this year, so it's got a reputation to uphold. I noticed a few, uh, kinks.

Descending the escalator to the baggage claim a message in blinking lights greets us: Welcome to Tampa. Bienvenidos A Tampa. I like the sentiment; it proudly announces our city's Spanish heritage. But the "A" should be lowercase. It's a small thing, but if it were my language _ and in my case, even though it's not _ I'd be offended.

Outside baggage claim, there were no taxis in sight. There was no taxi dispatcher. It was 3 in the afternoon. I stood by the bags while my husband crossed the drive to ask two airport police officers where to get a taxi. They said further up the drive but pointed to a column, which on closer examination said "Official Use." It had a button on one side and a phone on the other. We pushed the button, and a taxi appeared.

Inside, it was the dirtiest cab I've ever seen _ and I rode all over New York City in taxis before Giuliani. It had seat belts that strapped across your waist only. Visible dust aggravated my allergies and my nose started running. The hyperventilating driver, frustrated while driving south on West Shore behind a woman going the speed limit, got to the scary curve where West Shore meets Bay to Bay _ in two places _ and sped around her on the right.

"We're not in a real big hurry," I said.

"Oh, I always drive this way, ma'am," he answered with authority.

Probably this would not be a good enough answer for a Super Bowl Big.

But back to streets. Forget North Howard; at least it's got character. Dale Mabry is uglier than Howard even in the best parts of town. No time left _ only four weeks _ to beautify it; that would take about as long as the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. The only alternative is to close it, say, from Gandy to Columbus. It's true, traffic to the stadium would get a little circuitous, but do we really want anyone to see this street, or, worse, drive on it?

We're used to Dale Mabry, we see it all the time and go to lots of good places there, like Wright's and Woody's _ preferably accessed from the back. (Woody's once had directions to the restaurant bypassing Dale Mabry posted on its bulletin board.) We locals have all sorts of little detours to get to places on Dale Mabry without actually having to drive on Dale Mabry, but unless the mayor's office can distribute printouts in time _ maybe to people getting off airplanes _ it'd be better just to close it off.

But I wouldn't want our visitors to miss a Cuban sandwich at Havana Village, the little place wedged into Dale Mabry just north of Kennedy, a fixture for over 25 years. So here's how to get there without taking Dale Mabry; it's how I go anyway. Take Church to North A and turn west, which will bring you to the parking spots on the side of the restaurant, but don't go that far since they'll probably be full. Just pull into a spot next door at SophistiCates Lingerie Modeling. There's a real Tampa experience.

_ Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.