A Super Bowl Site That's Well, Super

Come Jan. 27, the in crowd will be in Tampa for Super Bowl XXV. But football won't be the only game in town. America's other Bay Area--the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater triad--is enlivened by a diverse ethnic history.

Tampa's Latin Quarter cum Greenwich Village is Ybor City, where the newspaper La Gaceta has published one edition weekly in English, Spanish, and Italian for nearly 70 years. In recent years, visitors have been lured back by Ybor's turn-of-the-century ambience, specialty shops, and hearty Cuban sandwiches filled with baked ham, pork, salami, and Swiss cheese.

On East Seventh Avenue, Ybor's main drag, the browsing is brisk. Check out the Three Birds Bookstore ("Would it kill you to read a book?" its sign asks), La France for vintage clothing, and Dog Eat Dog Art Wear for hand-painted apparel. Farther along is the Columbia Restaurant (813 248-4961), a Spanish jewel with hand-painted ceramic tiles, carved wooden archways, and a proud paella, or baked seafood, pork, and chicken over yellow rice.

LIVE JAZZ. Arts and entertainment are the lifeblood of the new Ybor City. Ybor Square, a cluster of buildings that once housed a cigar factory, is now home to an eclectic collectibles market. Across the street, Cafe Creole serves zesty Cajun dishes. In El Pasaje Plaza, behind the restaurant, New Orleans-style jazz is featured under the stars.

Tarpon Springs, across Tampa Bay, claims to be the sponge-diving capital of the world. Sidewalks are piled high with freshly harvested sponges and spiral-shaped conch shells. The district's two dozen Greek restaurants offer such dishes as pastitsio (pasta and meat) and baklava (a nutty pastry).

Downtown Tarpon has a thriving antiques trade, too. A stroll around shady Spring Bayou, with its restored mansions, is an excellent stress reliever, particularly at sunset when the sky explodes in red, orange, and purple.

SHIP AHOY. Should the ocean call, take a ride on Captain Memo's bright-red Sea Hogge off Clearwater Beach. During Memo's two-hour chartered pirate cruises in the Gulf of Mexico ($25 per adult; $12 per child; 813 446-2587), you can watch dolphins swim in the ship's wake as you sip the captain's special pirate grog. You may even see the captain climb up the ship's mast and cry out at passing yachts: "We're having more fun than you are."

Kids have it good in the Tampa Bay area, with the Children's Museum of Tampa, the hurricane simulator at the Museum of Science & Industry, and the lush new natural settings at the Lowry Park Zoo. Across the bay, in St. Petersburg, Great Explorations The Hands On Museum is packed full of sight, sound, and touch sensations, including a pitch-black tunnel that you must feel your way through. Just a few blocks away, the Salvador Dali Museum houses the world's largest collection of art by the Spanish surrealist.

Of course, much of the action in Tampa in January will center around Super Bowl XXV. Tickets, alas, will be hard to come by. But a proliferation of sports bars means no one need watch the big game in a hotel room. More than a dozen pubs offer large-screen TVs, multiple sets, and tickers that flash scores. The best include Diamonds Restaurant in Clearwater, Cheerleaders Cafe in Palm Harbor, and the Press Box, Champions, and (New York Mets first baseman Dave) Magadan's Sports Cafe in Tampa.

The nightlife and club action is spread out across Tampa Bay. Try Biarritz, Equator, Trends, and the Yucatan Liquor Stand for dancing; Brothers for live jazz; and the Ringside Cafe and Skipper's Smokehouse for live blues. For laughs, there's radio personality Ron Bennington's Comedy Scene in Clearwater ($7 weekend cover; 813 791-4477). For more information on activities in the area, call 800 44-TAMPA, or 800 678-4635.