Road Trip: Gasparilla Pirate Fest, Tampa Bay, Fla.

What Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, the similarly raucous Gasparilla Pirate Fest is to the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

Each winter a large flotilla, led by "pirates" on a fully-rigged replica ship firing blanks from its cannons, stages a mock invasion of Tampa. After the mayor gives up the key to the city the marauders take a victory parade, throwing beads, coins and other treats from parade floats as they make their way along Bayshore Boulevard and into the streets of downtown.

This celebration of the area's buccaneer past takes place in late January, making it a good time to escape from chilly Atlanta to the milder climate of central Florida in the dead of winter.

Gasparilla history

In Florida's treasure trove of pirate lore Jose Gaspar -- or Gasparilla, as he allegedly called himself -- is a legendary figure. Gaspar is said to have been a Spanish aristocrat and a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before becoming a mutineer, then a pirate who terrorized merchant ships off the coast of Florida in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Many tales are circulated about the dastardly deeds of Gasparilla and his crew, despite the lack of historical evidence that any of the stories are true. Nonetheless, in the early 20th century the city of Tampa embraced the legend of Gasparilla and began throwing an annual festival commemorating his supposed exploits, complete with a "surprise" invasion of the city.

Festival happenings

The mock invasion begins in Hillsborough Bay at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29. The flotilla will make its way up Seddon Channel between Davis Island and Harbour Island to the Tampa Convention Center, where the Jose Gasparilla pirate ship is scheduled to dock at 1 p.m. The mayor will then hand over the key to the city and the victory parade begins.

While watching the invasion you also can enjoy a dockside brunch at the convention center (reserved ticket required for the brunch). The parade will feature marching bands, pirate-themed floats and is free to attend. Reserved bleacher seats are available for a price at prime vantage points along the route.

After the parade, head to the Pirate Fest Street Festival on Ashley Drive downtown. The street fest will feature plenty of food vendors and live entertainment on multiple stages and admission is also free. Visit gasparillapiratefest.com for a complete schedule of events (including the Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza) and other information about the festival.

Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza

On Jan. 22, a week before the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, the Children's Gasparilla Extravaganza takes place. This alcohol-free event offers an environment more conducive for families with young children to enjoy the pirate-themed festivities.

The Preschooler's Stroll in the afternoon is for kids 5 and under, followed by the Air Invasion, featuring a precision parachute jump, then the Children's Parade. At 7 p.m. a fireworks display over Hillsborough Bay begins. Called "Piratechnics," the fireworks are supposed to look like the fictitious battle between the city of Tampa and Gasparilla's crew.

Other Tampa attractions

Busch Gardens in Tampa opened in 1959 as a hospitality house for the Anheuser-Busch brewery and has grown steadily since then. It is now a zoo and thrill-ride amusement park with an African theme, including an 80-acre re-creation of the Serengeti. The Museum of Science and Industry claims to be the largest science center in the Southeast and features many interactive exhibits such as a wind generator room that allows visitors to experience what hurricane-force winds feel like. The historic Ybor City district northeast of downtown was once a center of cigar manufacturing. Today it is a shopping, dining and entertainment hot spot that still contains many of its historic buildings, some of which used to be cigar factories. The Florida Aquarium is designed so its self-guided tour traces one drop of spring water from its origination point through Florida's wetlands all the way to the sea, exploring the multi-faceted ecosystem with plenty of marine life exhibits along the way.

Getting there

Tampa is a seven-and-a-half-hour drive south of Atlanta on I-75.

Where to stay

Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn. A 16-room boutique inn in Ybor City. Rates start at $119. 1915 Republica de Cuba, Tampa. 813-241-4545, donvicenteinn.com.

Sailport. Waterfront suites at a bayside resort near the airport and downtown Tampa. Rates start at $95. 2506 N. Rocky Point Drive, Tampa. 813-281-9599, www.sailport.com.

Where to eat

Columbia Restaurant. Open since 1905 and located in a building that takes up an entire city block in Ybor City, this Tampa institution serves Spanish-Cuban cuisine and features flamenco dancing shows most nights. Dinner entrees start at $15. 2117 East 7th Ave., Tampa. 813-248-4961, www.columbiarestaurant.com.

Mel's Hot Dogs. If you've got a family to feed and you're on a budget, try this hot dog joint near Busch Gardens, a longtime favorite with locals and tourists. Kids meals include a soft drink and cost $4.50. 4136 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa. 813-985-8000, www.melshotdogs.com.

Visitor information

Tampa Bay Visitor Information Center. 615 Channelside Drive, Suite 108-A, Tampa, FL 33602. 813-223-2752, www.visittampabay.com.