I’ve lived under the mistaken impression for most of my adult life that New Orleans during Mardi Gras is the only time that otherwise mature, respectable adults dress up in ridiculous costumes, drink in excess and behave ludicrously in order to receive a few beaded necklaces.

But then I went to Tampa, Florida during Gasparilla. Step back NOLA – You may have met your match when it comes to debauchery. The celebration is called Gasparilla Pirate Fest, a multi-day event each January for more than 100 years that honors Jose Gaspar, a Spanish naval officer-turned-pirate who pillaged and plundered the Florida coast from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. He and his crew of buccaneers may or may not have actually invaded the city of Tampa or hidden fortunes in stolen treasures throughout the region, but much of that doesn’t really matter to today’s scallywag wannabes.

They’ve been celebrating his legacy in Tampa since 1904 and in more ways than with the January festival. Parks, playgrounds, art fairs, restaurants, bars and other businesses incorporate the pirate theme in their day-to-day operation.

It’s not an unusual thing to be sitting at a red light and see a pirate driving the car next to you, no matter the time of year.

I found the best place to buy a pirate or wench costume or any necessary accoutrements was at a place named “La France” in the Ybor City region of Tampa, Florida. A fine selection of hooks, parrots and peg legs along with gold earrings and three-cornered hats fill the shelves, along with some pretty cool make-up to create ungodly-looking facial scars – necessary for any respectable pirate.

The pirate culture includes the pro-football Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so named in a community-wide contest in 1976. Too bad that when professional baseball arrived in 1998, the team in Pittsburgh had already laid claim to the “pirates” moniker.

Whether or not you attend Gasparilla Fest, a great hotel is the Westin Harbour Island, located right on Hillsborough Bay and the parade route. But it’s also a great location for sunsets or to catch a brunch, lunch or dinner cruise on one of more than a dozen small boats. Three companies and six vessels provide a romantic and memorable opportunity to see Tampa Bay as the first visitors to the city did – from the sea. 

Tampa is about so much more than the ocean, however. A huge Cuban-American population has called this city home since the 1880s. They were recruited to the region to help build the city’s cigar industry. I was blown away to learn that at one point, more than one million cigars a day were rolled in this city. The neighborhood is called Ybor City and today, you can still walk down the street and watch as cigars are expertly rolled by master craftspeople.

While exploring Ybor City, and after visiting the Ybor City Museum, have lunch or dinner or just drinks at a place called Columbia. This authentic Spanish restaurant has been operated by the same since 1905 and is renowned for its collection of wines from Spain, and nightly flamenco shows.

Another great place for dinner and wine is Bern’s Steakhouse. A legend in Tampa since 1956, Bern’s is famous for its 200 page wine menu, comprehensive selection of steaks, and superior wait staff.  If your waiter wears a silver tie, he or she has been there at least 20 years.  After dinner, we were offered a tour of the restaurant – lots of people are interested because of the restaurant’s history. We also had dessert upstairs in the “dessert room.” Not just a place to eat some tiramisu, this is a compartment like space where you a provided with your own attendant and selection of music and cigars.  Plan at least an hour for dessert.  Maybe longer.

If you’re still hungry for steak, another must is Don Shula’s Steakhouse inside the Intercontinental Hotel on the West Shore, about 10 minutes from the airport. The former coach of the Miami Dolphins has been in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, but football fans still ogle at the autographed footballs that adorn the tables and the mural-size image of great football plays on the walls.  Eat a 48 ounce porterhouse steak to become a member of Shula’s 48oz club. I didn’t but lots of people give it a try.

If you’re traveling to Tampa with family, or not, you really out to check out the Florida Aquarium. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top ten aquariums in the US because of the coral reef and swim with the fishes program. Set the clocks on your phones for 10 a.m., 1:30 or 3 p.m. That’s when two African Black-footed penguins take a stroll through the lobby and pose for photos. Guests are encouraged to sit quietly and allow the little guys to approach them, but hey, that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Another draw to Tampa is Busch Gardens. Even if you’ve done it before, do it again because each day is a little different. I took the wildlife tour and got to feed a baby giraffe from my hands. They are so soft and adorable, but yuck, their tongues are gross and slimy.

Cheetahs, elephants and orangutans are some of the other wild creatures in the park. Kids love the Sesame Street attractions along with rides, shows and all of the family wholesomeness that balances out the debauchery that takes place during the one week in January