I guess you can call me "wishy-washy". First, I asked for recommendations for Atlantis. Then I asked for recommendations for Key West. Now I am asking for recommendations for the Tampa area. We are thinking about spending a few days in the area searching for manatees. I'd be interested in hearing about lodging, dining, activities, etc. If you have suggestions on the Clearwater Beach/Treasure Island area, please include those.
razorbackfan, you and I are in the same boat. We were thinking of all 3 of those locations but ended up at Tampa/Clearwater and never made it to Atlantis or Key West. We/I go to the Tampa area a lot and have stayed at several of the Marriott properties.
Here are my thoughts on Tampa:
1. Tampa Marriott Waterside in downtown Tampa is an excellent hotel if you want to be downtown. I stayed there by myself when I took the Florida bar exam which was held right across the street at the Conference Center. They treated me like royalty. I got upgraded to a water-view room with a super private balcony overlooking the water. It was wonderful. The CL is great. They offered me a special menu just for the bar exam where I could order lunch to be delivered to my room during our lunch break. It worked perfectly. They also let me have a very late checkout so I could finish the exam without worrying about my luggage. I can't say enough good things about this hotel. It's downtown and close to the waterside shops and entertainment, the business district, the Florida Aquarium, the Victory Ship museum, etc. It can be rather expensive, though. Valet parking only which can be a bit of a pain, but expected in the downtown area of a big city.
2. There is also a Residence Inn in downtown Tampa, but the reviews are not good and I have not stayed there.
3. The Epicurean is supposed to be great but I haven't stayed. It's across the street from the Bern Steakhouse which has a great reputation.
3. Marriott doesn't have the best beach offerings in Clearwater/St. Pete. I haven't stayed at the Residence Inn Treasure Island but that one does appear to be on or very close to the beach. When I checked rates, it was very, very expensive.
4. Instead, we stayed at the Marriott Suites at Sand Key. This hotel can be expensive too, but we got a good rate by booking well in advance - $199/night. This hotel is on the inter-coastal waterway and the rooms have nice water views. However, Sand Key State Park is across the street so you either have to walk to the beach (it's a short, easy walk) or there is a shuttle that takes people back and forth all day. We walked and took the shuttle. The shuttle drivers are great and have beach toys and amenities you can use. If you have kids, they will play a little game with the kids to point out wildlife, and if the kids see anything they'll give you coupons for a free ice cream. Sand Key is a state park, and there is no admission fee. But it is more natural than the beaches by the Hyatt down the street where there is a string of hotels right on the beach. This is either a pro or con, depending on your style. The park is nice and has walking trails, birdwatching, etc., which are things you don't get on the strip down by the Hyatt. The front desk is also wonderful. Even though this place is a resort, there was not a separate resort fee, and we were given 4 breakfast certificates for our family of 4, instead of the usual 2, and the breakfast was excellent. We also got certificates for a free drink at the bar or a free dessert with dinner. Mikel was the guy who helped us, so if you see him make sure you check in with him. There is a parrot in the lobby which the kids enjoyed. There is also a nice pool and a kids club where the kids can do activities either for free or for a nominal fee. The kids club gave our kids a welcome gift as well. There is a fee for parking - $12 I think. The onsite restaurant, Watercolours, is great. We ate breakfast there and had a dinner which was excellent - nice views of the ICW from the restaurant, too. There is a good kids menu, and the kids got sand toys with their meal. A branch of The Columbia restaurant is right next door, and I'd highly recommend that as well. There is a trolley that goes up and down the strip so you can take that to Pier 60 or to the Clearwater Aquarium which we enjoyed. The only downside to this hotel is that it's not right on the strip with the prime beach access, and the rooms could use an update/refresh although they are not bad and are the usual Marriott style. All rooms are suites with a separate bedroom and living room, so that is a plus as well.
5. I've got a conference at the Tampa Airport Marriott next week and believe it's right on site at the airport. Haven't stayed before.
6. Fairfield Inn near PIE airport is fine and has a nice pool area. Inexpensive and convenient to PIE. They open the breakfast buffet early (like 5:30am early!) as they realize that PIE has some very early flights, so we appreciated that. Very good service here. Beach is about 12 miles away.
7. TownePlace Suites near PIE airport are a great bargain for a family wanting an apartment-style hotel in the St. Pete area. Beach is not close, but if you have a car it's not a bad drive. Good option if you want to cook meals in your hotel to save a few bucks. Also good service here.
8. Clearwater Marriott near PIE airport is a full-service Marriott with a nice pool area and all amenities including a full-service restaurant. Not close to the beach but a good choice if you want a FS Marriott that won't break the bank. Service there has been very good when I've stayed. Restaurant was good, too. Great happy hour specials at the bar, and pool is right off the restaurant so you can lounge at the pool with a drink which is nice.