The last time I’d been paddleboarding, in the UK, in the summer, I’d capsized in the Bridgewater Canal in Cheshire in front of my friends and horrified dog walkers.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked stand-up paddleboarding in the murky waters of Tampa Bay’s river as an option during Virgin Atlantic’s inaugural trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Alligators were at the forefront of my mind – I envisioned them circling as we paddled along the busy river that runs through the city.
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I need not have feared, as it was more River Thames than swampy mangroves. In truth, if there are any in this sun-drenched corner of Florida, they need to be more wary of me, given my beginner’s thrashing of the water with the paddle and high risk of falling on top of them.
But I was so focused on not capsizing that I set off in the wrong direction to the main group of kayakers and paddleboarders.
Furiously back-paddling, I was soon doing a 360-degree turn and back on track with my dignity temporarily restored.
There was a large splash. Behind me, one of the novice boarders had fallen into the river. But he was OK.
In the 27C heat of Florida it was a relief to feel the cooling water during the exertions of this exhilarating sport. Paddleboarding is hard work – a lot of effort for little reward. Two bottles of water’s worth in the humidity and heat. And I had to eat a pack of sugary sweets as I was so exhausted.
But it felt like a good workout as passers-by waved and two floating tiki bars passed. And there were no gators anywhere (1hr hire around £29, urbankai.com ).
On the previous day, during the inaugural Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330neo flight from Heathrow to Tampa, I’d chatted to one of the crew, resplendent in red trousers and crisp white shirt – the new gender-neutral uniform.
She was thrilled to be wearing trousers, which she said were much more comfortable than the skirts of old. It’s a sign of progression in an airline that lives its values for LGBT+ friendliness.
Virgin Atlantic launched the new route with its more eco-friendly neo planes due to the warm climate, beaches, nightlife and attractions.
It was a short bus ride to Tampa Bay, to the five-star Edition hotel by the ice hockey stadium where the Bolts play.
The lobby had white sofas, pot plants and a statement staircase – very Insta-friendly – with an overpowering spa smell.
To keep awake, I strolled along the river, following a route that took in bronzes including one of the city’s founders, Vicente Martinez Ybor.
Yellow streetcars scooted past, as joggers and dog walkers strolled along the water’s edge. Revellers on floating fringed tiki bars waved merrily.
Ybor City, designated a National Historic Landmark District, is the area around 7th Avenue where we went on the first night, enjoying pasta and cocktails at Casa Santo Stefano restaurant ( casasantostefano.com ).
The following day, we drove for 30minutes to the Sandpearl Resort at Clearwater Beach for a barbecue and swim.
The sand was bleached so white and had grains so fine that the beach looked like a film set – but it was nature’s creation.
The sea lived up to its name and you could see tiny fish swimming at the shoreline. We gorged on hearty plates of steak, fresh fish, chicken and vegetables ( opalcollection.com/sandpearl ).
Messing about on an inflatable, I capsized into the warm water and ingested a bit of the sea (fish free, thankfully!). We returned, sandy bottomed, to the hotel, where I went for a dip in the rooftop pool after persuading the overenthusiastic guard that I had not casually walked in off the street.
I had the pool to myself and it was refreshingly cool and offered a fabulous vista of the orange setting sun.
The next morning, breakfast – coffee, fruit, yogurt, potato rosti and chicken and apple sausages – on the balcony while watching the sun rise was the perfect start, ahead of a trip to St Petersburg, known as St Pete, to check out The Dali museum.
Across another bridge from Tampa Bay and about 30 minutes away, St Pete has a completely different atmosphere, with its marina and park which are owned by Manchester United proprietors, the Glazers.
A mesh public artwork above the park reminded me of Stranger Things.
This is the place where the first seaplane successfully took off – and a large metal statue and plaque celebrates the event.
White ibis birds roosted nearby and it had a creative, independent feel with market stalls selling artwork. A 10-minute walk away was The Dali, packed with visitors drawn to its impressive collection.
The structure’s glass panels are Category 3 hurricane proof and the concrete is Category 5.
This seemed important, as a Wish Tree in the grounds had been damaged in the recent Hurricane Ian. But St Pete seemed to be otherwise unscathed.
Highlights were Dali’s white lobster phone and a huge mural of Abraham Lincoln, whose face appeared if you stood at a particular angle and kept one eye shut. There was also an interesting and comprehensive collection of Dali’s earlier work (around £25, thedali.org).
Heading back to the hotel for check-out before the flight home, there was time for a three-hour Yacht Starship boat trip along the river.
There were diving pelicans, live music and a decent chicken and veg buffet with desserts.
We went past large container ships and pretty waterfront houses with moorings and contemporary architecture. It was a perfect end to this whistlestop trip ( yachtstarship.com ).
Having never really flipped to Florida time, I slept so well on the flight back that even the turbulence hardly shook me out of my slumber.
I arrived home refreshed and exhilarated after this brief hop to the Sunshine State. I’ll cheer up gloomy winter days here thinking of Tampa’s welcome and warmth… and those imaginary gators!
Virgin’s greener Billie Holiday
Virgin Atlantic’s new state-of-the-art Airbus A330neo, named Billie Holiday, is made from aluminium and carbon fibre composite and its lighter weight and the latest next-generation Rolls-Royce engines means it uses 11% less fuel than its previous version.
Post-pandemic, Virgin now flies 37 planes to 29 destinations in 15 countries with routes in the US, Caribbean and Asia. The US accounts for the majority of its business.
A recent recruitment drive has seen 800 cabin crew and 150 pilots join Virgin.
Get there: Virgin Atlantic flies its new Airbus A330neo daily from Heathrow to Tampa, Florida, starting at £440 return. Find out more at virginatlantic.com
Stay there: Rooms at the Edition hotel in Tampa start at around £436 a night Find out more at marriott.co.uk.
Get more information: Head to visittampabay.com.
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