With its amusement parks, golf courses, pro sports and energetic street parties, the Tampa Bay area is one of Florida’s most attractive tourist destinations. But this is a surprisingly nature-conscious metropolis for those who can look beyond the well-known mainstream attractions.

The metro’s namesake bay can be explored by paddle power, and natural land areas are easily reached from the city. Several conservation-themed attractions are also in and around Tampa. Marine and mammal conservation groups run sites featuring educational programs that seek to promote environmental awareness and stewardship of the natural world. Add one of the country’s best zoos, plenty of parks and a growing green conscience, and Tampa Bay seems like a surprisingly good place to enjoy a warm-weather, nature-focused vacation.

Go green

For those who want to explore the Tampa/St. Petersburg area in depth, a car is all but necessary. That said, there is a comprehensive public transit system in Tampa. Few locals rely on the bus, known as the HART (Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit), but fares are reasonable ($1.75 to $2.75) and a sister system — the PSTA — covers Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Tampa is one of the few cities to retain a streetcar. The single, 10-stop line is not useful for most commuters, but the route between downtown and popular tourist attractions in historic Ybor City makes it a useful means of transport for tourists. Trolleys, which are actually buses made to look like the iconic street cars, also ply downtown streets.

Sleep green

Tampa does not have many cutting-edge, environmentally friendly boutique hotels. Chains rule the city’s hospitality game. Since some of the biggest hotel names have been getting greener recently, there is no shortage of reasonably Earth-friendly sleeping spots. Embassy Suites and Marriot top the list of eco-friendly inns .

The Tampa Wingate Hotel (one of Wyndham’s franchises) stands out as one of the greenest of the green. The combination of the usual eco-friendly practices (high efficiency lights and appliances, organic cleaning products) with an impressive recycling program earned this hotel a place on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s green lodging list .

See green

The Lowry Park Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country. Parents with younger children will appreciate its educational approach. However, it is the behind-the-scenes conservation effort that truly makes Lowry Park stand out. Endangered species are housed inside the zoo, and the zoo leads, or at least has a part in, a dozen or so regional projects including conservation efforts focused on Florida’s panther and manatee populations. An organization associated with Lowry runs a program that recycles everything from plastic bottles and cans to ink cartridges and cellphones.

Another conservation-minded attraction is Big Cat Rescue . It is a preserve where endangered felines from Africa live. Though it is laid out with the cats, not visitors, in mind, guided safari-like tours through the grounds are available.

Eat green

The Tampa Bay Farmers Market is not a traditional farmer’s market, per se. It is more of a grocery store that features produce from local farmers. During the summer months, there are numerous markets in the Tampa/St. Pete’s area, including ones in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor. Despite the near-monopoly of chain restaurants and stores, there is a healthy organic/natural foods scene in Tampa. Nature’s Food Patch, in Clearwater, features organic foods as well as in-store demonstrations and a full menu of cooking classes. Chuck’s Natural Food Marketplace in Tampa has organic staples as well as unexpected extras like organically made household goods and furnishings.

City green

Tampa and St. Petersburg both have green spaces that are easily accessible from the main districts. Lettuce Lake Park sits just outside of Tampa’s city limits. It features boardwalks that wind through some of western Florida’s most notable eco-systems. The most attractive feature is the centuries-old cypress trees, a trademark of this part of Florida. There are also hardwood forests and wetlands.

Fort De Soto , outside of St. Petersburg, is a historic military base that was once of great importance to the area’s security. The park surrounding the fort features seven miles of seafront (including three miles of white sand). This site can give visitors a complete nature vacation experience because it boasts over 200 campsites, several canoe routes, and several nature trails (including one of the country’s best handicapped accessible trails).

St. Petersburg’s Sunken Garden is one of the oldest gardens in the Southeast. It is located in the center of the city and features some of the area’s best-known native tropical plant species. There are more than 50,000 plants, scattered around a well designed, but not unnatural, landscape. The garden occasionally runs educational programs and offers guided informational tours.

The 2,000-plus acre Upper Tampa Bay Park is a premiere place for kayak or canoe trips. Mangroves, sand bars and brackish water wildlife are all features of this easily accessible paddlers’ playground. Companies, like Canoe Escape , offer guided or unguided tours of some of Hillsborough County’s most natural stretches of water.

Even though it is not Florida’s top urban destination, Tampa’s green scene makes it a reasonable alternative to the state’s other theme-park cities. There is enough to do in the Tampa metro area that eco-tourists won’t even have to come within eyeshot of the massive theme park.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Destination of the week: Tampa Bay
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