TAMPA, Fla. – You could almost see the cartoon steam come out of the ears of St. Petersburg residents last fall when ESPN analysts repeatedly referred to their city's American League champion baseball team as the "Tampa" Rays.
Forgetting the "Bay" part of the name of the Tampa Bay Rays was a major slight to St. Petersburg, the smaller, less cosmopolitan — but considerably more charming — city that historically has played second fiddle to Tampa across the bay.
Municipal rivalries aside, the Tampa area is what it is — cool and diverse enough to be hosting its fourth Super Bowl — because of both cities and the surrounding area. And people coming in for the big game Feb. 1 will be cheating themselves if they don't get away from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to see what else is out there, including, of course, St. Petersburg.
"There are a lot of unique pockets in the Tampa Bay area that offer a little bit of something for everybody," said Reid Sigmon, executive director of the Super Bowl Host Committee. "And the weather in January is typically in the 70s and sunshine, which isn't the case in most of the rest of the country."
Now Tampa is the big boy here, for sure. It's got the skyline, port, big-city museums, world-class aquarium and Busch Gardens theme park, plus a hockey arena and outdoor amphitheater that draw the concert calendar's biggest acts. Some of the glitziest game week parties will happen in the clubs and restaurants of Ybor City, the former Latin quarter downtown that was redeveloped as an entertainment district before the city's last Super Bowl in 2001.
New in Tampa since the last Super Bowl is the gleaming Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which is not only full of flickering slot machines and black jack tables, but also some top-notch eateries. NFL legend Mike Ditka plans to make the hotel his home base for star-studded events put on by his Gridiron Greats charity.
Just a half hour's drive across the bay, St. Petersburg's Central Avenue has a neon-lighted string of restaurants and bars that are a little more laid back but every bit as cool as those in Ybor City, belying St. Pete's unfair reputation as God's waiting room.
The clean, pedestrian-friendly downtown also has striking views of the bay and a pier that's anchored by a quirky-looking upside-down pyramid with shops and restaurants inside.
A short drive from downtown over to the Gulf of Mexico lie some of the best white-sand beaches anywhere, including two — Fort DeSoto Park and Caladesi Island — that have topped the list from Stephen P. Leatherman, a Florida International University professor dubbed "Dr. Beach" for his annual rankings of the nation's best coastlines.
Just up the coast is Clearwater Beach, which is sort of St. Petersburg's younger, wilder cousin. Check out the sunset celebration at the public pier, modeled after the traditional nightly party on Key West's waterfront.
Just north of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, a small town established by Greek immigrant sponge divers in the early 20th century whose descendants have worked hard to maintain the distinct Mediterranean flavor. The sponge docks now cater to tourists with a string of wonderful Greek restaurants, bakeries and gift shops.
Around 150,000 people are coming to the Tampa Bay area for Super Bowl XLIII. Here's a little more about what they can expect:
FOOTBALL: For the 18th year, an interactive theme park will be part of the event. The NFL Experience will be open the weekend before the game, Jan. 24-25, then Jan. 29-Feb. 1, http://www.nfl.com/superbowl/43/events/nfl-experience. (Only Super Bowl ticket-holders will be admitted Feb. 1.) Fans can get autographs from NFL players, learn football skills and shop for football cards and other souvenirs. A nighttime party for adults, NFL Experience After Dark, will take place Jan. 29.
A Tampa high school stadium will be the site of the Jan. 31 Snoop Bowl VII, a youth football game between the L.A. All-Stars coached by rapper Snoop Dogg and a local team coached by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Mike Alstott.
Disabled former NFL players and families of fallen U.S. soldiers will benefit from a Jan. 30 autograph and memorabilia show featuring more than 100 former pro football players who participate in Mike Ditka's Gridiron Greats charity. Ditka also hosts a benefit VIP dinner and reception on Jan. 28.
MUSIC: Something for everyone. Celine Dion (Feb. 28), The Eagles (Jan. 29), Rihana, Fall Out Boy and Lifehouse (Jan. 29), and the Latin-flavored Pepsi Musica concert (Jan. 30) are among the shows on tap. Comedian Dane Cook also performs (Jan. 31). The annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration is Jan. 30, and jazz greats play at the SuperLX Live! daytime concert in Ybor City Jan. 31.
PARTIES, PARTIES, PARTIES: Although the economy put a minor dent in Super Bowl partying this year, celebrities ranging from rappers to "it" girls are still putting on their see-and-be-seen events. The names include Diddy, T-Pain, Nelly, Antonio Traver, Jenny McCarthy, Carmen Electra, Kim Kardashian and more. Big-time agent Leigh Steinberg is holding his exclusive Super Bowl party at the city zoo!
FOOD: The Taste of the NFL features 32 top chefs from each NFL city, paired with a current or former NFL player for an event Jan. 31 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Guests can sample great food and wine, and meet the players.