On a recent night, it became obvious: My husband and I needed a weekend getaway—a break from our growing to-do list, preferably someplace warm and sunny. So we packed our bags to conquer Tampa Bay!

Our Tampa takeover started late Friday afternoon at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, where the chic décor and the rooftop pool instantly set a vacation mood. We lounged by our pool, watching the sky turn orange, then pink and then a deep indigo. The sunset was beautiful, but we were hungry, so we moved on to Tampa’s iconic Bern’s Steak House—just two miles away in Tampa’s romantic SoHo district.

We sipped on cocktails inside the crimson candlelit walls of Bern’s bar and lounge. For dinner, we enjoyed perfectly cooked aged steaks, fresh vegetables, and vintage wines. Bern’s has one of the most extensive wine lists in the country, and we enjoyed the selections our knowledgeable waiter helped us make. Our waiter also made sure we got a tour of the kitchen and wine cellar, which were fascinating—and he told us to save room for dessert.

We learned that upstairs, Bern’s has private dessert rooms designed like wine casks. Diners can select their own music to be piped in through individual speakers. One of the options was beautiful live piano music. And our waiter was right: dessert was a highlight. After mulling over a thick menu of options, I decided on a specialty coffee and the house-made macadamia nut ice cream. My husband got an after-dinner cordial and an out-of-this-world slice of carrot cake with hot chocolate fudge. I especially loved the private setting the individual dessert rooms offered—it felt like we were in our own world. My husband and I found ourselves lingering with some coffees, unrushed and enjoying the romantic atmosphere.

Inspiration awaits
On Saturday, we woke up to a huge art show just blocks away from our Hilton hotel. The Gasparilla Festival of the Arts draws artists and all sorts of media from across the United States. We found ourselves walking hand-in-hand past some museum-worthy pieces. I was especially drawn to the intricate ceramics. My husband lingered over the photography, a passion of his that had been set aside over the years. I forgot how much he had loved it. The rest of the day, I found him pulling out his camera. He captured some beautiful photographs of the striking Moorish minarets at the University of Tampa across the river from the art show.

With a few art treasures in hand, we headed back to SoHo and the new Epicurean Culinary Theater for a kitchen takeover. We had been looking forward to this since planning our trip: a cooking class with delicious rewards in a kitchen where we wouldn’t have to do the clean up! The theater, outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment, is part of the Epicurean Hotel, which includes hotel rooms, a restaurant called Élevage, a pastry restaurant called Chocolate Pi, and a spa. It’s the ultimate place to indulge.

In the theater, the staff was truly expert on food and wine. We were fed, educated, and entertained all at once. Soon, my husband and I felt totally inspired. Our new passion for food and interest in cooking together is something we would bring home. Now we have a few new recipes up our sleeves!

Wild encounters
We also carved out time to take on the zoo. Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo features animals from around the world, including African and Australian species. My favorite was the Asian Gardens section and the majestic Malayan tiger.

The Chinese Lantern Festival of Lights will be among the largest in the country. The zoo is bringing in 60 highly skilled Chinese craftsmen to build giant, illuminated structures out of silk and satin in order to transport visitors from Florida to China.

My husband can’t wait to see the replica of the Beijing Temple of Heaven. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the animal structures.

Aquatic adventures
On Sunday, we decided to check out The Florida Aquarium to experience the aquatic beauty around us in Tampa Bay. It was much larger than we expected inside the aquarium, in Tampa’s downtown Channel District. I loved the playful otters and bright pink roseate spoonbill. The waddling penguins brought out the child in us— they were just so fun. And I couldn’t believe how big a grouper is!

We also enjoyed seeing sharks, all the colorful tropical fish and delicate little seahorses.

After safely viewing creatures from behind glass, we got bold and ventured onto the open waters to seek out wild bottlenose dolphins. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The captain of the dolphin cruise said they spot dolphins on most trips and sure enough, we saw a pod swim by! We also spotted a turtle and some pelicans, and just enjoyed the beautiful weather and gulf breeze—a perfect way to wrap up our weekend.

We left relaxed, recharged and inspired, bringing a little bit of this tropical paradise back home with us.

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