Hit the jackpot in Tampa at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
Friday 21st February 2020
Find a slice of Vegas in Florida
Music pumping through the speakers provides the call of the Hard Rock, while the blinking, ringing slot machines and enthusiastic activity at the blackjack, baccarat and poker tables further set the scene.
Close your eyes and it's easy to feel you've been transported from Florida's Gulf Coast to the Nevada desert and the madness of the Las Vegas Strip. Merely stepping through the doors of the expanded Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa creates that vibe.
Billed as "one of the largest and most successful casinos in the world," Hard Rock recently invested US$700 million into a massive expansion of the Tampa property where big-time gambling meets the sunny Florida joie de vivre.
The new 14-storey hotel spotlights a renowned musical artist on each floor. When I stepped off the elevator on the eighth, I was greeted by Alicia Keys. Well, by her jacket and photos, anyway. Other artists enshrined on the floors include Motley Crue, Black Keys and Frank Sinatra.
If Lady Luck's been on your side -- as she was for me after a personal blackjack lesson -- you can spend your winnings right away at some of the onsite new shops selling men's and ladies' wear, jewelry, wine, cigars, and more.
However, if you need to unwind (and forget) after a gambling session, there's the new 26,000-square-foot Rock Spa and Salon, which offers a multitude of treatment options like Swedish massage, a salt sauna, and a co-ed aqua lounge, plus a barbershop and nail/hair salon to get yourself dolled up for a night on the casino floor.
Speaking of gambling, the expansion brings the 24-hour casino's number of slot machines to nearly 5,000, plus 179 table games and a 46-table poker room. There's also a swanky private gaming parlour accessed by private elevators and a $1,000 minimum buy-in.
There's also a new 1,500-seat Hard Rock Event Center that hosts concerts (Alicia Keys performs there in September. Maybe she'll check out her photos on the 8th floor) and a 17,000-square-foot grand ballroom for conventions, concerts, trade shows, poker tournaments and more.
And of course there's memorabilia galore, as you have come to expect from Hard Rock. In fact, there are more than 500 collectibles sprinkled around the resort to discover (don't overlook wandering the hallways connecting to the parking garages!). Some of the gems I enjoyed stumbling upon include Dean Martin's custom-tailored 1974 tuxedo he wore to host celebrity roasts, Janis Joplin's tasseled silk shawl and a leather jacket signed by Duran Duran.
However, the piece de resistance of the Tampa property's collection is Elvis Presley's 24-karat gold leaf grand piano, which sits proudly in the grand entranceway of the expansion space. A line from the late singer's song Good Luck Charm -- "I just can't miss with a good luck charm like you" -- looms overhead.
The piano was bought by Presley for his mom in 1955, and 10 years after her death, Priscilla Presley had it adorned with the gold-leaf finish to commemorate the couple's first wedding anniversary. It marked the 80,000th piece of Hard Rock memorabilia worldwide, and sits dramatically beneath an exquisite huge chandelier and skylight and between two curved escalators that service the smoke-free mezzanine level casino.
But this is Florida, after all, and you'll need some vitamin D. The hotel now has three pools (adult-only, family and private) on the new 60,000-square-foot outdoor deck where you can soak in some sun. Private cabanas are available for rent, there's a full-service bar and grill and DJ booths are ready to host special bashes.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD
There are 14 restaurants and bars to satisfy your cravings at SHRHC -- but there's only one executive butcher.
Walter Apfelbaum greets us upon arrival at Council Oak Steaks and Seafood, standing behind a row of meat cuts. He answers questions and helps guide guests through their meat choices.
Every single steak is meant for a certain temperature, he says, and he's not going to tell you which is best.
"If someone wants a well-done steak, you come to me, you're gonna have the best God damned well-done steak you've ever had in your life," the New Jersey native proclaims -- and we believe him.
Apfelbaum grew up in butcher shops in New Jersey. He churns out house-made sausages for the casino's restaurants and advises the chefs which meats to buy and the cuts to make.
His Instagram account (@wmapple75) has nearly 80,000 followers -- more than twice the hotel itself -- where he shows off the USDA prime meats available at Council Oak.
The meat is dry aged in a room lined with Himalayan rock salt (minimum 28 days for the beef and minimum 14 days for lamb) that he explains helps control the humidity and also acts as a bacteria scrubber. "It's like a big science project going on in that room," he says.
And he's firm there's no mould allowed in his process: "You're getting beef for what it's supposed to be."
Other impressive meals during my weekend stay were had at Cipresso Italian restaurant and Sugar Factory, home to eye-popping cocktails and desserts.
HARD ROCK HISTORY
In 1971, Americans Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton were living in London, craving quintessential U.S. fare. The pair opened a restaurant steps from Buckingham Palace and called it the Hard Rock Cafe, a nod to their love of the rock 'n' roll scene. The landlord expected the worse and only gave them a six-month lease. Yet that original location still exists on Old Park Lane with the brand growing to 262 locations in 76 countries that include 31 owned/licensed or managed hotels, 10 casinos, Rock shops and cafes.
Why the 'Seminole' in the name Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa? In 2007, Hard Rock International was purchased for US$965 million by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the first North American tribe to buy a major international corporation. The word 'Seminole' developed in the 1600s and 1700s and is thought to come from the Spanish word "cimarrones," or runaways, because the native peoples fled Spanish missions rather than give up their own beliefs. All the current Seminole tribe members are descendants from about 200 Seminoles who fled into the Everglades during the 1835-1842 war sparked by government-forced relocation from Florida. The tribe pioneered native peoples gaming in the U.S. and now owns and operates six gaming facilities in Florida, including the Hard Rock in Tampa and its sister property in Hollywood, Fla.
Hard Rock is world famous for the memorabilia it displays at its properties. But how did the collection begin, you ask? Well, Tigrett and Morton's initial London eatery became a popular hangout for musicians and in 1979. So much so that Eric Clapton brought in a guitar and hung it over one of the booths, declaring it to be his table when he visited. Two weeks later, Pete Townsend one-upped his friend and rival by hanging his own guitar over a different booth, writing on it, "Mine's just as good as his." The rest, as they say, is music history. Hard Rock's collection has since grown to more than 83,000 pieces, and is considered the world's most valuable body of music memorabilia.
IF YOU GO
The resort is located off I-4 at North Orient Rd. and Hillsborough Ave., across from the Florida State Fairgrounds. It's about 10 minutes east of downtown Tampa and a 45-minute drive from TD Ballpark in Dunedin, the spring training home of the Blue Jays.
Find out more at seminolehardrocktampa.com.