Tucked into the northwest corner of Old Tampa Bay, Safety Harbor has been one of Florida’s best-kept secrets for nearly 500 years.
Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez was the first European to discover the locale in 1528. A decade later, Hernando de Soto explored in search of youthful waters – the mystical fountain of youth. By the 18th Century, pirates had turned Safety Harbor into a refuge from their escapades on the high seas. And by 1823, French nobleman Count Odet Philippe arrived to introduce the grapefruit to the region.
But ask anyone where to go first when you find this town tucked in between Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, and the answer is always the same.
“You’ve got to see the Bowling Ball House.”
Located in an idyllic neighborhood, the house known for painted bowling balls is the home of local artists Todd and Kiaralinda Ramquist. They first bought the house in the mid-1980s, using a credit card to purchase the property. Ever since, they’ve labored with love to turn the cottage and the surroundings into Whimzeyland.
“Me and my girl have been together for 43 years,” Todd said casually. “We were next-door neighbors and took art class together at Safety Harbor Elementary.” They’ve been inseparable ever since. While they spend their summers in Colorado and travel the world with their art, Safety Harbor remains home.
“I can’t think of a better place anywhere,” said Todd. “It’s still a small town in the middle of a giant metropolis. You’ve got 3 million people here, and you’d never know it. For the last 40 years, we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs. But right now, this is the peak.”
Locals love to take the Saturday tour of Whimzeyland, which features everything from plexiglass sculptures to recycled materials for the exterior to bright, almost fluorescent colors that blend in with the native fauna and palm trees, creating an instant escape from the everyday world.
The artistic experiment created a movement in the neighborhood, with other homes taking a similar approach, enticing other artists and musicians to move in.
In the gazebo, hidden away among lush greenery, actor Jeff Daniels once sang for charity. Across the street, the movie “Chu and Blossom” was filmed with a cast including Charles Chu, Alan Cumming, Annie Potts and Mercedes Ruehl.
Sitting outside the house is the iconic Y2K Bug, a Volkswagen Beetle art car covered with computer parts that’s been a fixture since 1999. And inside the home where Todd and Kiaralinda live, artists from across the globe have contributed to the unique vibe by painting and sending bowling balls to the couple for display. Included is the work of Mose T. (Tolliver), the late Alabama folk art legend.
The only problem with spending an hour or two in Whimzeyland is that it’s so serene and peaceful you’ll never want to leave. But a tour is just a mouse click away as long a “funcilitator” is available.
An Oak Like No Other
Downtown Safety Harbor is walkable and accessible, filled with inviting shops. We started the day with a leisurely lunch at Whistle Stop Bar and Grill, which features craft beers and live music on the weekend, then began working our way toward the bay, where we discovered the town’s oldest and most famous resident: The Baranoff Oak.
Thought to be 300 years old, it’s part tree and part Mother Nature-art protected by a fence that allows visitors to get an up-close view without threatening the 20-foot base. A park at the Baranoff Oak was established in 2005, adjacent to the town library, but it’s been recognized as the area’s oldest existing tree for generations.
You can get anywhere by automobile, but pedestrian traffic is our preference. Down at a local public recreational area, Marlon Contreras has found an even faster mode of transportation.
A native of North Carolina, he’s been coming to the Ian Tillman Skate Park, which is freshly painted thanks to a grant and art work from the Safety Harbor Arts and Music Center, since his family moved here a few years ago.
“I’m here skateboarding three times a week, and the people here are very supportive,” said Contreras between runs on the course. “My goal is to go back to North Carolina someday and help build a skate park there.”
His only complaint: the cement course bakes in the sun, making summer excursions somewhat uncomfortable. “We need an awning or carpet,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s perfect.”
That shouldn’t be hard to accomplish. Safety Harbor is covered with shady trees.
And surrounded by water. The town’s most popular public venue is Phillipe Park, where you can take in Old Tampa Bay from just about any area. Greenways take you along the shore, past eight covered pavilions with grills, past the Temple Mound (where the area’s original residents, the Tocabagans, were laid to rest), to great spots where you can do some impromptu saltwater fishing.
But if you want to spend time in more luxurious surroundings, just follow the harbor south to where the celebrities go.
Healing Waters and Celebrity Sightings
For centuries, the rumors of a Fountain of Youth drew explorers to Tampa Bay, including de Soto and Ponce de Leon, who, according to at least one local historian, was killed by a poison arrow in Safety Harbor.
Three centuries later, Col. William J. Bailey purchased the land surrounding what locals named Green Springs and named it “Bailey by the Sea,” luring visitors inspired by the healthy water. He learned of the potential of the springs while fighting in the Seminole War, when a captured prisoner traded freedom for the secret powers of the H2O. By the 1920s, Safety Harbor was known internationally for its health springs.
At the end of Main Street, Safety Harbor Resort and Spa has provided an upscale retreat for visitors looking to relax and restore their health since 1924.
Jean Barraclough has worked here for better than 30 years. She knows the ins, outs and the history, which she shares on a casual tour of the sprawling facility.
“Safety Harbor Resort and Spa was built over natural mineral springs discovered by Hernando de Soto in the 16th century,” Barraclough said. “He found mineral water. And the legend is true. I’m 150 years old.”
Visitors believe the spring water regenerates youthful skin and restores kidney and liver function. The best evidence was the original Tocobaga people European visitors first found here. “They were the tallest and healthiest indigenous people they’d ever seen,” Barraclough added.
The resort is full of glorious murals, a history hall and, of course, The Spa. The 50,000-square foot Spa facility is the true heart of the resort with a full-service salon, fitness and wellness center, a full range of renowned body treatments with professional therapists offering massages, facials, Vichy showers and spa packages for adults and teens. Also included: wellness packages, workout equipment, fitness classes for all levels — all in a tranquil sanctuary where pampering and revitalization join with the natural spring water to help unite the mind, body and spirit. The resort is packed year-round by wedding guests, conventioneers and people just looking to get away. The central location makes it the perfect home base for visitors to the area, with quick access to Clearwater Beach, Busch Gardens, the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and Ruth Eckerd Hall Performing Arts Center. And every spring, it’s the ideal location for baseball fans coming down for spring training games. The Phillies, Yankees and Blue Jays all spend February and March here, hosting annual Grapefruit League games that draw hundreds of thousands of spectators.
With five wings and 172 rooms, the hotel covers a vast expanse of land and plenty of culinary options, including the Fountain Grille, Santorini Lobby Lounge and Parthenon Tiki Bar & Grill. And if you need to work the meal off, there are three pools and the adjacent Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, which includes outdoor play areas and a can’t-miss boardwalk through the natural bayfront landscape.
“Celebrities love it here,” Barraclough said. “They can come here on tour, or while filming a movie, and no one bothers them.”
Out on the public pier, Bob Loretto fishes leisurely, as he’s done for a long time.
“I’ve been coming here 50 years,” said Loretto, who grew up here but spent much of his working life in Buffalo, New York. Now retired, he’s back to be closer to family. “It’s a totally different feel now, with coffee shops and everything going on Main Street. I just hope it doesn’t change too much.”
‘You Feel You Live Away From Everything’
Back downtown, the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center (SHAMc) looks like an old country store, except for the green, orange and purple paint – and the multi-colored trumpeting elephant out front. Inside, there’s more magic from Todd and Kiaralinda Ramquist.
A souvenir shop leads outside to a gorgeous patio and a concert hall where 200 music-goers can rock out. Safety Harbor resident Robin Zander of Cheap Trick has performed an impromptu Christmas concert here with his family. When the band NRBQ played here, lead singer Terry Adams was so impressed by the intimacy of the venue that he bought a stage jacket adorned with the Art and Music Center logo to commemorate the moment. The legendary singer Melanie once played at Woodstock. She’s also performed her signature hit, “I’ve Got a Brand-New Pair of Roller Skates” here.
One of the occasional performers has ties to the main bank in town.
“The artsy vibe isn’t just limited to the bowling ball house,” said Tina Gilmore, Regions’ Retail Banking Manager in West Florida. “In fact, it extends to Regions Bank, where you will find Kelly Picot, who is well-known in Safety Harbor as the singing branch manager. Kelly has been at the Safety Harbor office for 22 years and performed at many local events around the city.”
The music center is housed in a century-old home, where renovations continue to add a classroom and an Airbnb for visitors who want to stick around for a while.
While Todd shows new friends around, Joanne Weiland stops by to drop off some vinyl albums. A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, she moved to Safety Harbor 22 years ago because it provided the perfect getaway from a life of constant jet trips for work. Joanne is an industry inventor – she created Link to Expert, a collaborative cloud community that instantly connects executives.
“Oh, I traveled all the time and I needed to be near an airport,” she said. “By living here, I’ve got two international airports no more than 17 minutes away. I love Safety Harbor. You feel you live away from everything, yet you’re in the middle of all the action.”
Weiland sums up Safety Harbor best. It’s a unique – dare we say whimsical? – town that makes you feel far removed from the hustle and bustle of 21st century life. Yet everything you could want is a stone’s throw away.