TAMPA, Fla. - You could almost see the cartoon steam come out of the ears of St. Petersburg residents in the fall when ESPN analysts repeatedly referred to their city's American League champion baseball team as the "Tampa" Rays.
Forgetting the "Bay" part of the name of the Tampa Bay Rays was a major slight to St. Petersburg, the smaller, less cosmopolitan - but considerably more charming - city that historically has played second fiddle to Tampa across the bay.
Municipal rivalries aside, the Tampa area is what it is - cool and diverse enough to be hosting its fourth Super Bowl - because of both cities and the surrounding area. And people coming in for the big game next Sunday will be cheating themselves if they don't get away from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to see what else is out there, including, of course, St. Petersburg.
"There are a lot of unique pockets in the Tampa Bay area that offer a little bit of something for everybody," says Reid Sigmon, executive director of the Super Bowl Host Committee. "And the weather in January is typically in the 70s and sunshine, which isn't the case in most of the rest of the country."
Tampa is the big boy here, for sure. It's got the skyline, port, big-city museums, world-class aquarium, and Busch Gardens theme park, plus a hockey arena and an outdoor amphitheater that draw the concert calendar's biggest acts. Some of the glitziest game-week parties will happen in the clubs and restaurants of Ybor (EE-bor) City, the former Latin quarter downtown that was redeveloped as an entertainment district before the city's Super Bowl in 2001.
New since then is the gleaming Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which is full of not only flickering slot machines and blackjack tables, but also some top-notch eateries. NFL legend Mike Ditka plans to make the hotel his home base for star-studded events put on by his Gridiron Greats charity.
A half hour's drive across the bay, St. Petersburg's Central Avenue has a neon-lighted string of restaurants and bars that are a little more laid back but every bit as cool as those in Ybor City, belying St. Pete's unfair reputation as God's waiting room.
The clean, pedestrian-friendly downtown also has striking views of the bay and a pier that's anchored by a quirky-looking upside-down pyramid with shops and restaurants inside.
A short drive from downtown to the Gulf of Mexico are some of the best white-sand beaches anywhere, including two - Fort De Soto Park and Caladesi Island - that have topped the national Top 10 list posted annually by "Dr. Beach" - Stephen P. Leatherman, a Florida International University professor.
Just up the coast is Clearwater Beach, which is sort of St. Petersburg's younger, wilder cousin. Check out the sunset celebration at the public pier, modeled after the traditional nightly party on Key West's waterfront.
Just north of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, a small town established by Greek immigrant sponge divers in the early 20th century whose descendants have worked hard to maintain the Mediterranean flavor. The sponge docks now cater to tourists with a string of wonderful Greek restaurants, bakeries and gift shops.
About 150,000 people are coming to this area for Super Bowl XLIII. Here's a little more about what they can expect:
Football. For the 18th year, an interactive theme park will be part of the event. The NFL Experience (www.nfl.com/superbowl/43/events/nfl-experience) will be open today and Thursday through next Sunday. (Only Super Bowl ticket-holders will be admitted next Sunday.) Fans can get autographs from NFL players, learn football skills, and shop for football cards and other souvenirs. Thursday, there will be NFL Experience After Dark, a nighttime party for adults.
Friday, disabled former NFL players and families of fallen U.S. soldiers will benefit from an autograph and memorabilia show featuring more than 100 former pro football players who participate in Mike Ditka's Gridiron Greats charity. Ditka will also host a benefit VIP dinner and reception on Wednesday.
Saturday, a Tampa high school stadium will host Snoop Bowl VII, a youth football game between the L.A. All-Stars coached by rapper Snoop Dogg and a local team coached by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers great Mike Alstott.
Music. Something for everyone: Celine Dion (Wednesday), the Eagles, Rihanna, Fall Out Boy, and Lifehouse (Thursday), and the Latin-flavored Pepsi Musica concert (Friday) are among the shows on tap. Also, comedian Dane Cook will perform Saturday. The annual Super Bowl Gospel Celebration is Friday, and jazz greats play at the SuperLX Live! daytime concert in Ybor City on Saturday.
Food. The Taste of the NFL will feature 32 chefs from each NFL city, paired with a current or former NFL player for an event Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Guests can sample great food and wine, and meet the players.