Until recently, my only trip to Florida was several years ago in August.

That trip was to Orlando, which is not the place for a fresh-from-arid-Montana person to go during the humidity and heat of summer. But there it was—a friend and I were attending a writer’s conference with our husband’s in tow. We had classes inside the cool air conditioning while they managed to lounge poolside so coping with the heat wasn’t too difficult. Other than a glimpse at the expanse of DisneyWorld, a day at Epcot, and a brief afternoon at Cocoa Beach, I didn’t experience much more of the State of Florida.

Know that I am travel-spoiled. My husband’s sales territory covers the southeast USA and when it’s possible, he carts me along on a trip. We writers are fortunate to be able to write anywhere, so Mac in tow, off I go. It’s quite the treat to discover a part of the country that this western Pennsylvanian, transplanted to Southern California and then to Montana and back home again never had much opportunity to explore. 

I count myself fortunate to have spent time in Savannah, Georgia (gorgeous even pre-spring), Charleston and Greenville, South Carolina (plantation tours), New Orleans (love the history) and a few places around Florida—Myrtle Beach (great for families and beach sitting), Orlando (theme parks!), and most recently, Tampa.

Henry B. Plant Museum

There are times I pre-plan a trip, searching out activities. Other times, particularly when the hotel is in the midst of the city, I wait to walk around and see what local signage attracts my attention. For Tampa, I chose the latter and was intrigued by the brown sign pointing to the Henry B. Plant Museum. Was that simply his name? Was he a botanist? The first person to start a greenhouse in the area? I had to find out. But drat, the museum is closed on Mondays.

With the hotel a mere two blocks from the Hillsborough River and the Tampa Riverwalk, I took a leisurely stroll. This gave me a chance to get a look at the sprawling building across the river. How intriguing! The towering ornate minarets were topped with silver quarter moons shining in the sun.

Along the concrete river side path are bronze statues commemorating a number of locals for their community contributions. Here is a link to the list of folks lining both sides of the stroll. I did not snap pictures of all of them, but Henry B. Plant and the sign educating me about this lovely building made it to the iPhone. 

A quick perspective is that in 1880, Tampa’s population was a mere 720. Four years later, Plant brought his railroad to the city. In 1890, Tampa boasted 5,532 folks.

Opening in 1891, Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel was a showcase among his eight guest properties situated along his railroad lines. From across the river, the 1/4 mile length of the hotel, as well as those several minarets, create a striking skyline. It’s difficult to convey the expanse of the structure, but perhaps if you can imagine that the casino seated 2,000 people and that it was comprised of 511 rooms, you’ll get the idea. Can you imagine how visitors reacted to this opulent gem in the relatively unknown city of Tampa? 

 

The museum features one preserved three-room suite that would be rich by today’s standards, let alone over a century ago. Rooms were five dollars a night by space, so the suite was $15—a hefty amount in those days. Every room boasted private baths and electricity, while the turret rooms have 11’ double hung—curved—windows. What artistry.

Today, the bulk of the hotel is home to The University of Tampa, so the museum occupies less than half of the first floor. What the museum lost in space they made up for in furnishings—each room and the hallways are crowded with artwork of every sort. It’s overwhelming to the visitor, but not in an oppressive way. The splendor provides a sense of Plant’s wealth: if this is what is left of their belongings, what did they have in the hotel during its heyday? 

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Tampa Bay Hotel skyline

Striking Tampa Bay Hotel skyline

The website states that Henry began his work life as a captain’s boy on a steamboat, and that he made his way up to working in a New York office for an express company, eventually relocating to the south and taking over the division there. Henry married Ellen Elizabeth Blackstone in 1842, who passed away in 1861. In 1873, he married Margaret Josephine Loughman, but sadly the only evidence of her in the museum consists of a bust and a painting in one room. I’m always intrigued by the wives of these tycoons of industry, but neither woman received mention in anything that I read. 

A few years after his southern relocation, Plant started buying railroads, but again there’s no clear understanding of how he got the money to make these purchases. The mystique of his accomplishments matches the fact that he spent $2,500,000 of his own money to build the hotel and an additional $500,000 to furnish it. Those amounts are staggering by today’s standards let alone in the 1880s.

The final Plant mystery for me? What made a 19th century man choose to build a hotel in such a dramatic style with the Moorish and Turkish architecture?

More things to do in Tampa when you only have a few days

Tampa, Florida

Tampa’s city profile

Sometimes finding fun places to investigate are discovered by random conversations with strangers. In this case, I was boarding the plane in Pittsburgh and got to chatting with a couple on their way home. The woman was enthusiastic about Tampa, telling me a number of tidbits—a main one was to make sure we explored Armature Works. With over 70,000 square feet of space filled with restaurants, bars, and an event area, you’re sure to find a great place to dine while gazing out over the Hillsborough River. We enjoyed delectable Cuban-fusion food at Hemingways and scrumptious ice cream at Astro Craft.

A mere block away sits Ulele Restaurant*, a must-dine-at according to my temporary friend. With an onsite brewery and beer garden as well as a massive restaurant space, you’re sure to enjoy dining here from a rather eclectic variety of menu options. 

Our other dining experience was in Ybor City, a vibrant neighborhood bearing the status as a National Historic Landmark District. Having enjoyed lunch at the Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine earlier in the year, dinner at the original location was a must. The food is delicious and the decor scrumptious. Don’t miss it.

One more fun note … with many coffee shop options, we stumbled onto one that was particularly delightful—The Portico at 1001 N. Florida Avenue. With the tagline, “Impacting Homelessness Together,” the location is spacious and the staff incredibly nice. Don’t just indulge in a delicious espresso drink, but have breakfast, too. You won’t be disappointed and you’re supporting a good cause.

The Portico Cafe in Tampa

The Portico Cafe

Further exploration of Tampa

More time in Ybor City is planned. The restaurants and cultural aspects could consume a day.

Back in the midst of Tampa is the Museum of Art and Glazer Children’s Museum.

On the walk to the Armature Works is the sprawling Straz Center—a huge facility with multiple shows on the schedule. There are three restaurants on site, with charming seating overlooking the Hillsborough River.

For you thrill seekers, Busch Gardens is nearby.

There’s the Florida Aquarium and ZooTampa for animal lovers.

The Tampa Bay History Center is top of my list for next time. Maybe I can discover even more about Henry B. Plant and why he built that Moorish-influenced hotel.

**

When you go:

The Henry B. Plant Museum is closed on Mondays, only $10 admission for adults, which includes an audio guide—punch in a number posted on an object and listen to background about it.

*Reservations are recommended for Ulele any night of the week. We were there on a Sunday and the place was packed.