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Florida: Tampa – Hillsborough River State Park

We travelled down from Georgia to Hillsborough River State Park, which is situated about 20 miles north of Tampa, near the town of Zephyr Hills (famous for its bottled water). The journey itself was long and uneventful apart from negotiating some thunderstorms – which fortunately had passed by the time we arrived at the campsite. It was getting towards sunset as we set up camp among the longleaf pine trees. The State Park is beautifully positioned and a very peaceful location, and with so few people staying there it felt almost as if we were out in the woods alone. This was the first time we had put up our new tent, and the concern was would we get this done before darkness set in. Fortunately, it was easy to set up and we were done well before the night skies were upon us. So, tired from a day of travel, we settled in for the night only to be rudely awakened by crashing noises from the undergrowth outside and sounds like a person walking right outside our tent. Suspecting either raccoons, deer or a local inebriate we went outside armed with our Maglite flashlight. What we found was an armadillo, who seemed totally impervious to us approaching him or shining lights into his eyes. We later learned that these prehistoric-looking creatures are more or less blind, deaf and somewhat dumb. Having said that they are cute and Emily thought they looked a bit like Shrek with a goaty beard and cute little ears. So, we went back to bed safe in the knowledge our lives were not under threat and settled down for the night.

FORT FOSTER

After a lot of travelling we decided to make our first full day a quiet and relaxed one; the only thing we had scheduled to do was do a Ranger guided tour of Fort Foster, a replica of an 1837 fort from the Second Seminole War. This is a part of Hillsborough State Park so we were able to walk there from our campsite. It is not open all year round so you need to check the schedule.

The Seminoles were the local native American Indians who were resident when Florida was ceded to the United States from the Spanish. The Seminoles were not overly happy with giving up their lands to the settlers so they attacked them, and to protect the settlers, soldiers were provided by the US Government. Three forts were built on the road from Tampa to Ocala, one of which was Fort Foster (the original of which was burnt down). There were six of us on the tour with the Ranger, a lovely lady called Kate, who on the route to the Fort gave us the background on the ecology of the area. The Fort itself had been beautifully reconstructed and had been set up to show how the resident soldiers had lived during those times.

CANOEING ON THE HILLSBOROUGH RIVER & FISHING

The State Park has a number of Ranger-led activities, one of which was a canoe tour down the Hillsborough River. We jumped at the opportunity. The river itself is quite narrow in places, with trees, non-indigenous plants and rocks causing it to become narrower still in places. This all made an extra challenge for us non-experienced canoers. Jack, partnered with Karen, managed to hit the banks several times. I fared worst as the canoe I shared with Emily got trapped on some rocks. We garnered the interest of several large alligators on the banks of the river as we splashed and frantically wriggled our canoe to freedom. There was plenty to see on this hour-long trip; including white ibis, turkey vultures and alligators basking on the river bank.

We also had the chance to go fishing with a new rod that we bought in Bass Pro. Rather than having to cast the line out this rod fired the line out, by some catapult mechanism, and the hook is held in a pod and is only released when it hits the water. Needless to say, we did not catch anything.

An alligator shows some interest as we pass by in our canoe
The encroaching vegetation on the banks of the river

HERMOSASSA SPRINGS

For our last day in Hillsborough State Park, we had a special treat planned; a snorkel trip down the Homosassa River to swim with the manatees. The only problem for us was that the boat left at 6.00 am from Homosassa Springs and we were 65 miles away! So, our alarms were set for 3:30 am and by 4:00 am we were on the road ( I would be lying if I said we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed). It was still dark when we arrived at the shop where the tours are run from at 5:30 am, with the promise of coffee and doughnuts. This turned out to be disappointing as they only had caffeinated coffee (which on this occasion might have been helpful) and about a dozen doughnut balls. At least this made putting on our wet suits somewhat easier (I think not!)

At 6:00 am we set out and as well as being still dark there was thick fog hanging over the river. After an hour we reached the spring of the Homosassa River, where the waters are 72 degrees all year round. This sounds warm, but is still on the chilly side when you’re planning to be in the water for an hour or so; the wet suits are most welcome if not entirely flattering. This is apparently the best season for seeing Manatees as they don’t like cold water and as the Gulf of Mexico cools they swim upstream of these rivers where the water is that constant 72 degrees plus all year. Unfortunately, for us, it was un-seasonally warm in the Gulf so not as many manatees were there as usual. After slowly moving the boat around we spotted a manatee. Emily is the first in but panicked a bit, and splashed around, which frightened off the manatee. You could see some of our fellow guests were not overly impressed! So, we all got back out of the water and went in search of more manatees. Fortunately, a couple of minutes later we found one and, carefully this time, we got back into the water. These animals are very gentle and are quite happy having people around as long as you move slowly and don’t splash. We got within a few feet of the manatee but it was a bit sleepy and didn’t really want to play. Still, it was great to get this close to these wonderful animals. After an hour we got out of the water and started to feel the cold. One at a time we squeezed into the minute toilet to change clothes and get into something warmer.

By the time we got back to our starting point it was breakfast time so we found a local café which was used by the locals. We got chatting to a couple of local fisherman. In fact these were about the last two fishermen based out of Homosassa Springs as commercial fishing is very much a dying industry in the area. Fortified, we set out for Homosassa Springs State Park. This used to be a private zoo but has been taken over by Florida State Parks and is used to exhibit indigenous species (with one exception a hippopotamus called Lu). We sat and watched a couple of the Ranger talks; our favourite being the manatee one where the six captive rescued manatees swim right up to be fed by the rangers. Another chance to get close to these wonderful creatures! As well as manatees (and a hippopotamus) the zoo has some really large gators, plenty of birdlife and other creatures like bears, mountain lions and bobcats. The zoo grounds are extremely beautiful and it is a great day out.

Manatee feeding time
Lu the hippopotamus

Best time to visit Tampa

The best time to visit Tampa is from September to December. For those key four months of the year, the vacant hotels offer fire-sale prices to lure you in. The months from May to August are the busiest at the area attractions, plus the weather can be uncomfortably muggy. The months between January and April, though cooler, is a more expensive time to plan a trip.

Where to stay near Hillsborough River State Park

1. CAMPING

Just minutes from downtown Tampa, this diverse park offers a refuge from city life with seven miles of nature trails and wonderful wildlife viewing.

Come visit a breathtaking oasis of natural and historical significance. Stroll along the river rapids, enjoy camping, explore historic structures, share a picnic or view scenic landscapes.

Hillsborough River State Park provides many opportunities for outdoor recreation. From fishing in the Hillsborough River to hiking or biking on the trails or picnicking under pavilions built in the 1930s, there is something for everyone here.

Besides enjoying a living history lesson, visitors can kayak or canoe class II river rapids, which are rare in Florida.

Camping is another popular activity at Hillsborough River State Park, just a short distance from the bustling city of Tampa.

2. RIVERBEND RETREAT

Featuring a bar, Beach More Worry Less offers accommodations in Tampa, 9 miles from Raymond James Stadium and 10 miles from the University of South Florida. Located 6 miles from Grand Prix Tampa, the property provides an outdoor swimming pool and free private parking.

The air-conditioned bed and breakfast also has a flat-screen TV, a seating area, and a bathroom with a shower and a bath.

The bed and breakfast offers an American or vegetarian breakfast.

A sun terrace is available for guests at Beach More Worry Less to use.

3. EPICUREAN HOTEL 

This boutique Tampa hotel features 2 on-site restaurants, an appointment-only full-service spa, and an outdoor pool. The restaurants and shops of Channelside Bay Plaza are 2.6 mi away.

Free WiFi, a 42-inch flat-screen cable TV, and minibar are featured in all rooms at this Tampa Autograph Collection Epicurean Hotel. A balcony and microwave are included in select suites.

Chefs demonstrate mixology, cooking techniques, and wine pairing in the Epicurian Theater for a fee. A fitness centre, business centre, and concierge services are offered by Epicurean Hotel Autograph Collection as well.

Tapas and speciality cocktails are served at Edge, and Chocolate Pi Pâtisserie coffee house is on-site. Guests can experience Continental cuisine at Élevage for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

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