Cavorting hippos are a highlight

Tampa-St.Pete Beach, Fla. by Cindy Richards

There's nothing like watching cavorting hippos to make you smile (not to mention, make you feel thin, an important point when you're a pasty Chicagoan walking among the tanned and lithe Floridians).

The happy hippo family-Mom, Cleo; Dad, Boko, and baby Moxie-are the main attraction of a 191,000-gallon tank filled with tons of fish and, at times, tons of hippos, at the famed Busch Gardens.

Just like most human families at play, baby Moxie took the lead. She would lumber around on land, Mom and Dad hovering protectively nearby. Just as Mom and Dad would begin to relax, she would bolt back in the water, Mom and Dad in hot pursuit. It was comforting to know that it isn't only human parents who can't get a break to bask in the sun.

The Busch Gardens visit, which included a chance to hand-feed the giraffes, was part of a whirlwind tour of Tampa, courtesy of the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. My 9-year-old son, Evan, and I packed a week's worth of adventure into a long weekend, so there wasn't much beach time. But there was time for jet skiing, dolphin watching, parasailing (OK, we just watched in awe as other people did that) and even a cooking class with Chef Jeff.

The resort sits on a lovely spot of white sand beach. Our one-bedroom suite at the TradeWinds Island Grand Beach Resort had a breathtaking view of the majestic Florida sunset. The resort has been recently renovated and redecorated, with airy tropical prints, a comfortable sitting room and a functional kitchenette stocked with everything but the food you might want to cook. Unfortunately, the renovation seemed to have more to do with aesthetics than functionality. The toilet overflowed on first flush and the balcony door refused to budge until a maintenance guy pried it open-after which it refused to close and lock properly.

That was the only negative in what is otherwise a lovely hotel, and should be at the price. Although we were guests of the hotel, our room is currently renting for between $319 and $449 a night. There are Internet specials available, as well as smaller rooms that start at $219 a night. In addition, there are two neighboring TradeWinds properties with less elegant accommodations and a less burdensome price. A one-bedroom suite at the Sandpiper Hotel & Suites starts at $259 a night, while the same room at the Sirata Beach Resort starts at $279.

Marketing itself to families, the TradeWinds requires patrons to buy an Explorer Value Pass (an additional $12 per day per room) that entitles them to a wealth of family togetherness activities (beach cabanas, water trykes, paddleboats, five swimming pools and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico). But the resort operators know parents need a break once in a while. So they offer the KONK Club (Kids Only No Kidding), a supervised place to park the kids while you sneak off to a romantic dinner. The club says it will take kids ages 4-11, but it was much more fun for the little ones who colored, painted and played their way through the evening. My 9-year-old was happy to be there eating grilled cheese and French fries around the pool while watching a movie on the huge screen television set up for the "dive-in movie" feature, but he thought many of the other options were "for little kids."

But it was the "Kids in the Kitchen" that really wowed our group. They got up at 8:30 on a Saturday morning to spend two hours with Chef Jeff Frederickson, executive chef at the resort. While the madness of a Saturday morning swirled around them in the huge, commercial kitchen, Chef Jeff helped the kids roll pastries ("It was ooey and gooey," according to Evan) and arrange cut fruit on skewers. The result was a "fruit peacock" they proudly displayed for their parents at breakfast. They also created an amazing array of pastries that became our snack during an afternoon sail aboard the FantaSea, courtesy of Tradewinds. We saw a few dolphins, which always elicited a shout from the adults, but was frustrating for the younger kids who spent all their time saying "Where? Where?" ($25, adults, $15, children)

I loved the quiet sail, but Evan was feeling the need for speed, so Tradewinds took us over to Capt. Dave's Watersports where we climbed on board a waverunner. Evan was disappointed to learn that he couldn't drive until he turns 22 (an effort to limit the damage done by drunk college students on spring break), but he settled for climbing on the back and whizzing up, down and all around. Despite my initial reticence to open the throttle, I soon learned that it is easier to control the jet ski full-out as it skimmed the waves. And, I must grudgingly admit, it was much more fun that way, too. ($85 for one hour, $50 for half-hour)

The real highlight of the weekend was the trip to Busch Gardens ($51.95, adults; $42.95, children ages 3-9). It was chilly by Florida standards, 65 degrees, and rainy, which kept down the crowds but did little to dampen our spirits as we climbed aboard the Serengeti Safari truck to get up close and personal with the animals. The 30-minute tour, which includes a chance to feed some very hungry giraffes, costs a fairly steep $30 per person. The animals also can be seen, albeit from further away, via walkways, the skyride and railway without paying the additional fare. Children must be 5 years old to join the tour.

We found plenty to wow us in the animal park, but for those who need more adventure, (and are over 48 inches tall), there are five roller coasters, including two with loops that leave you feeling weightless, and a host of other rides, including many that don't have a height requirement.

Cindy Richards is associate editor of Chicago Parent.

Just the facts Tampa, St. Pete Beach Busch Gardens (888) 800-5447

TradeWinds Island Resort (727) 367-6461

FantaSea sailing charters (727) 367-4488

Capt. Dave's Watersports (727) 423-4247


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