Ten places off the beaten path to visit during RNC

Published Aug. 25, 2012

Maybe you're here for the Republican National Convention and want to avoid Tampa's tourist traps of theme parks, museums and chain restaurants. Maybe you want a place just to hide out during the hustle and bustle of the event. Maybe you're the type of person who wants to explore the area's quirky history, lush nature and culinary oddities. Whatever you're in Tampa for, here are 10 destinations you won't find in a tour guide. These are places the natives frequent and where locals take out-of-town guests to give them a true taste of this side of Tampa Bay.

Ballast Point Park Pier

5300 Interbay Blvd., Tampa

Hours: Dawn to dusk, but the fishing pier is open around the clock.

6.5 miles from the Times Forum

They say it's the journey, not the destination. But you can enjoy both as you follow the world's longest continual sidewalk along Bayshore Boulevard, lined with stately mansions and palms, to this park's pier, which juts 960 feet into Old Tampa Bay. The view of Tampa's skyline is stunning. And, if you're lucky, you may catch a cool sea breeze. Bring your camera.

Airstream Ranch

Park at Bates RV, 4656 Mcintosh Road, Dover

Hours: Daylight

16 miles from the Times Forum

Where else can you see eight silver Airstream trailers planted in the ground, pointing skyward? Created by the owner of Bates RV, the art installment has attracted both negative and positive attention. Visible from Interstate 4, take a quick peek to the south as you drive by, or stop for a closer view by parking at Bates RV and walking to the site. Photo ops galore.

Oaklawn Cemetery

606 E Harrison St., Tampa

1 mile from the Tampa Bay Times Forum

Heartfelt inscriptions mark graves of 13 mayors, veterans of seven wars and victims of five yellow fever epidemics in this cemetery that was founded in 1850. Here, in the middle of downtown, lie pirates, gangsters, and a master and the slave he loved, William and Nancy Ashley, side by side. James C. Magbee donated much of the land for the cemetery, where he's also buried. His gravestone says he was Tampa's first lawyer, a Florida legislator, a circuit judge and an editor and publisher. He was also considered a scalawag. He was a Democrat during the Civil War but changed parties to side with Union forces. The fee to bury the dead in Oaklawn was once 2 ½ cents a square foot per burial plot, on top of a $5 interment charge. Today, only descendants of those already buried in Oaklawn may be laid to rest there.

Hillsborough River State Park

15402 N U.S. 301, Thonotosassa

Hours: 8 a.m. until sundown

25 miles from the Tampa Bay Times Forum

Your best bet to see a gator in the wild. So says Gretchen Caudill, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Florida alligators bask in the sun on hot days, especially during hatching season, which coincidentally is now. Her best piece of advice: "Observe from a safe distance and never feed gators." The park charges $2 to $6, depending on your mode of transportation and the number of visitors you bring along.

Bonus: Dare to taste gator? Visit Skipper's Smokehouse at 910 Skipper Road, Tampa.

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Picnic Island and Picnic Island Bayou

7409 Picnic Island Blvd., Tampa

Hours: Sunrise to sunset

11 miles from the Times Forum

This public park that includes nearly 8 acres of sandy beach sits on the southwest edge of Tampa. The west coast of the peninsula is beaches, boat ramps, fishing pier, canoe launch, dog beach, pavilions and playgrounds. The east is a habitat restoration wilderness. To get to a small lagoon known as Picnic Island Bayou, follow the road to the end and park. Then follow a shell footpath to the southernmost tip and walk east under mangroves on a trail that curls like an elephant's trunk to the bay. During low tide, hundreds of birds arrive to feed at the park.

JosÉ Marti Park in Ybor City

1303 E Eighth Ave., Tampa

Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays

2 miles from the Times Forum

Why not take a visa-free trip to Cuban soil? This park, dedicated to 19th century Cuban activist, poet and orator José Marti, is on the same spot as a boardinghouse Marti often visited. In the 1950s, in honor of the Cuban freedom fighter, the plot was given to the Republic of Cuba. The donation was made before Fidel Castro took over the country. In the early 1960s, pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans clashed in the park and occasional protests continued into the 1990s. Now, the park is open to anyone who wants to take a trip to the sanctioned country without leaving town. Before leaving, wander aimlessly through neighboring streets, where you'll find plenty of restaurants, shops and perhaps a cigar rolling demonstration.

Parkesdale Farm Market

3702 W Baker St., Plant City

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day

21 miles from the Times Forum

Two words — strawberry milkshakes. Strawberry season may be months away, but this market whips up signature milkshakes daily. And what better place to get one than Plant City, the strawberry capital of Florida? Set politics aside for the day and enjoy because this joint is bipartisan: Both Barack Obama and John McCain made pit stops here during their campaign trails in 2008.

Fish House

1902 W Shell Point Road, Ruskin

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

23 miles from the Times Forum

This hidden gem is a local favorite. Tucked into a rural corner of southern Hillsborough, the Fish House proves that fresh seafood can be found away from the beach. From shrimp and oysters to mullet and grouper, everything comes coated in a light batter. The atmosphere is laid-back with orders taken at a window and wooden picnic tables providing seating alfresco. Worried about the heat? Get the food to go.

Urban Kai Stand Up Paddle Board

2305 N Willow Ave., Tampa

Hours: Vary during the week. Call (813) 598-1634.

3 miles from the Times Forum

If you have yet to try this sport that originated in Hawaii and went mainstream in the 1990s, you'll find it relatively easy. And there's lots of water to paddle in Tampa. Tours are by the hour and launch from the riverside store headed upriver or from Davis Islands into the bay. Rental and lesson costs vary.

Boliche Boulevard

2902 to 3328 W Columbus Drive, Tampa

Hours: Breakfast, lunch, dinner and even midnight snacks

5 miles from the Times Forum

Start with Cuban bread so fresh palmetto leaves are still tucked into the crust. "Boliche Boulevard," named for the popular dish made from eye round roast, is a string of cheap restaurants mixing Cuban fare with Spanish or Italian or Chinese food, a nod to Tampa's interesting immigrant history. Order cafe con leche, vaca frita (translation: fried cow), a devil (never deviled) crab, black beans and yellow rice, and something made with guava. Some restaurants, such as the lunch counter at La Teresita (formerly known as CapdeVila's at La Teresita), are open 24 hours a day.

Elisabeth Parker, Justin George and Shelley Rossetter, Times staff writers