A rooftop bar and the city’s best spa are among the highlights of the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street.

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Dining at JW Marriott Water Street
Credit: Courtesy of JW Marriott Water Street

I usually find it kind of disorienting to stay at a hotel in the same city where I live. No matter how indulgent the thread count, it can be hard to feel truly transported when the place I receive bills and tackle mountains of laundry is just a few nagging miles away.

But during my late-December stay at Tampa's first true five-star luxury hotel — the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street — it was easy enough to imagine I was someplace quite removed from the town where I spent much of 2020 confined to my neighborhood.

With the city hosting the Super Bowl this year (it's still scheduled to happen on Feb. 7), Tampa has seen a flurry of impressive late-2020 pandemic openings, including boutique Hotel Haya in Ybor City (which pays homage to mid-century Havana and the historic neighborhood's Cuban and Spanish roots) and the excellent new Sicilian restaurant Casa Santo Stefano

But the Dec. 21 soft opening of the 27-story JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, located in the core of downtown's $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa district (a multi-use project funded in part by Bill Gates), marked the arrival of the city's first true luxury hotel and cemented a more leisure-focused future for the burgeoning corridor brimming with luxury condominiums, wellness offerings, and surprising riverfront hangout Sparkman Wharf.

The opening of the JW Marriott here and Water Street Tampa's ongoing evolution (an EDITION hotel will eventually open in the district, too) "is part of the progression of Tampa as a destination and not just a place you go because there's an event of some type," said Christopher Adkins, the hotel's director of sales and marketing. And after my visit to the property, I agree. 

Together with its sister hotel, the Tampa Marriott Water Street across the street, the JW property is the official host hotel for the Super Bowl (interestingly enough, the JW has also been the temporary home of the Toronto Raptors this season — the NBA team turned the fourth-floor conference space into their practice courts, locker rooms, and offices). While the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is expected to host private events during the Super Bowl, the hotel amenities will generally be open to guests and the public as normal.

I've stayed across the street on the riverfront at the Tampa Marriott Water Street on several occasions. But what the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street lacks in direct on-the-water positioning it more than makes up for in jaw-dropping design details and airy views that greet you upon entering the lobby from the waterfall wall of the porte-cochère. 

The lobby's four-story glass atrium houses the grab-and-go JW Market and space for a pop-up boutique. But the highlight is Driftlight Lounge — the elegant marble lobby bar surrounded by mid-Century furnishings where you can sip a Sunshine Skyway cocktail (a citrus and honey riff on a mule) beneath an airy art installation that dances overhead and a suspended glass conference room called the Skybox. 

Check-in takes place before now-normal plexiglass barriers (Marriott's Covid-19 protocols are standard across the brand and in full effect here), and complementary surgical masks are offered if you've forgotten yours for wearing in public spaces. 

With the exception of the presidential suite, none of the JW Marriott's 519 rooms have balconies or windows that open, something I've gotten used to even if I don't love it in new downtown hotel towers across the country — the practice has become the norm, apparently, due to liability. 

That's palatable here thanks to large windows showcasing expansive views of the downtown waterfront and the crescent sweep of Bayshore Boulevard (Tampa's toniest waterfront real estate and the parade route during the annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival, postponed until April this year). Standard rooms pack a lot into their 400 square feet, with an aesthetic that subtly mixes business and pleasure with glass-walled showers and marble vanities, leather headboards, light wood furnishings, and paintings in muted colors that evoke the water life. At nearly 1,200 square feet, the JW Suites are far roomier. Only the presidential suite has a large private balcony that lets you step outside to the sounds of the city (most notably the rumbling free trolley that stops right outside the hotel and carries riders to downtown attractions like the Florida Aquarium, Sparkman Wharf, and Ybor City). 

The entire property was designed to appeal to hotel guests while beckoning the greater community in, too — and it works. The sixth-floor deck, with a sprawling heated pool edged with cabanas and a pool bar, has carefully designed outdoor spaces with tables and nooks for lounging or enjoying lunch from Six, a casual bistro offering burgers, sandwiches, and salads. Driftlight restaurant (in a separate space from the lobby bar on the JW's ground floor and currently open for breakfast only) feels like a French brasserie but serves Southern-inspired fare. 

 A skybridge on the third floor allows direct access to the Tampa Marriott Water Street, where it's worth venturing for riverfront views at the sceney open-air seafood restaurant Anchor & Brine, which fronts a marina and the 2.6-mile-long Tampa Riverwalk. 

Tampa will get its highest rooftop perch in early 2022, when a rooftop raw bar and tapas spot called Beacon opens on the JW's highest floor. 

I toured the hotel's superb Spa by JW, said to be opening by the end of January, and am convinced it will be the finest in the city, with saunas, steam rooms, and a co-ed rooftop lounge with an outdoor shower and warm mineral pool for soaking.. 

With amenities like the spa and the 27th-floor rooftop yet to open, and restaurants still in various phases of roll-out, the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street is guest-ready but still in soft-opening mode (the grand opening is scheduled for March 2021). I did overhear a guest who was checking-in being offered bonus Marriott Bonvoy points on learning the spa hadn't opened yet. 

But I found the rooms very comfortable and the experience of staying right in the heart of downtown Tampa while enjoying the heated pool and the relaxed (and very socially distanced) outdoor bar scene at Six to be my most transporting stay yet in the town I call home. 

The property is perfectly positioned to ditch your car and head off by foot or on the city's free trolley to explore. I'm convinced the JW Marriott Water Street Tampa will be an anchor downtown destination for visitors on vacation as well as locals looking to be transported for years to come.