Clearwater/ Clearwater Beach, Florida
by Janet Groene
A look at a Florida state map shows why the St. Petersburg-Tampa-Clearwater crescent is one of the state’s tourism darlings. There’s water everywhere, from sparkling Tampa Bay to the sportfishing hotspots of the Gulf of Mexico. There is open water, protected water, blue water and creamy, turquoise shallows for splashing, swimming and snorkeling.
Clearwater Beach is a stunning span of pearl-white sands. Just offshore are miles more of the same shining quartz beaches rimming Honeymoon and Caladesi islands. At the southern end of Clearwater Beach, a bridge crosses to Sand Key with its incredible beaches and parks.
Getting Your Bearings
Entering the island of Clearwater Beach on Memorial Causeway brings you to a traffic circle. Continue straight to Pier 60, heart of the island, where the tourism information booth is a good place to begin any visit. From the circle, turn south to the trendy Beach Walk area. A right turn on Mandalay Avenue takes you north to the historic and still regal Sandpearl Resort (sandpearl.com, 877-726-3111). Just around the corner from the resort, Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill is the place to have a grouper sandwich and hang with the beach crowd (frenchysonline.com, 727-446-3607)
Mandalay Avenue is lined with souvenir and sunglasses shops, restaurants, hotels, condos and a community swimming pool. It’s all tied together by the Jolley Trolley, which shuttles from Regatta Beach in the north to Sand Key’s Bay Park and east to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A Winter’s Tale
Even if you haven’t seen the Warner Brothers film Dolphin Tale , you’ll be smitten by the story of a valiant dolphin who lost its tail, learned to live again and now takes bows to an adoring public. Named Winter, it’s seen at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Clearwater Beach. (Seewinter.com, 727- 441-1790). A café is on site so you can spend all day at this non-profit rescue and rehabilitation facility.
See Winter plus other dolphins, sea turtles, otters, stingrays and sharks, depending on what creatures have currently been rescued. Visitors can interact with animals in programs such as wading with dolphins, photo sessions and stingray feeding. From CMA you can also embark on a kayak adventure or sea safari.
Complete your pilgrimage to Winter’s world In downtown Clearwater where you’ll see the rest of her story at the Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure (seewinter.com/adventure, 727-331-4912). Experience Hurricane Leroy as shown in the movie. This location was used in the filming and you’ll also see props from the movie. Admission is separately priced or is free with the purchase of a ticket to the Aquarium.
Every evening on Pier 60, a Key West-style Sunset festival features free music, family-friendly entertainments and vendors. Spectacular Gulf sunsets star in the nightly show and, on Friday and Saturday nights, free movies are shown at the pier. (Sunsetsatpier60.com, 727-449-1036).
The pier itself is the city’s gift to anglers, extending out to deep water where the big ones bite. The Pier 60 Bait House sells or rents tackle and also sells bait, tee shirts, souvenirs, beverages and snacks. Night-fishing for snook is one of the pier’s chief attractions. Lights attract bait fish, which in turn attract trophy game fish, especially snook. Other common catches include redfish, sheephead, snappers and flounder, depending on the season. Hours vary seasonally but the pier is usually open almost around the clock.
Wining and Dining
Five Frenchy’s locations make it impossible to miss a meal at the iconic restaurant brand that has defined Clearwater beach style since 1981. Relax, order a cold drink and try a burger plate or one of the mile-high grouper sandwiches.
For fine dining Caretta on the Gulf (CarettaOnTheGulf.com, 727-441-2425) in the Sandpearl Resort offers valet parking and an extensive sushi and raw bar. Choose from a lengthy sushi array and don’t miss the famous seviche, a triumph of tanginess. For comfort food have the Kobe beef short ribs. The veal Porterhouse is not seen often on menus and is a welcome find. Dine indoors or out with a wine from a comprehensive wine list.
Another of the island’s white tablecloth restaurants, Watercolour Steakhouse and Grille (watercolourgrille.com, 727-596-1100) is known for certified, aged Angus beef and fresh seafood. Order a steak done to perfection in the 1600-degree infra-red broiler or order grouper pulled fresh from the Gulf. Seafood can be cooked blackened, grilled or broiled. Don’t miss the optional toppings such as lump crab hollandaise or the mango cucumber relish.
Wind down your day with a bottle from an award-winning wine list at the Beachcomber (bobhellmans.com, 727-442-4144). The menu features U.S. Prime Beef and fresh seafood. The seafood platter is a standout and they’re also known for the jumbo lump Mayland crab cakes with Gulf remoulade sauce. From the butcher block come lamb chops, veal, steaks and a belt-busting cut of prime rib.
Shephard’s (shephards.com, 727-441-6875) is an intertainment center with tiki bar, crab legs and prime rib. The champagne Sunday brunch is absolutely regal; nightly buffets here are eye-popping. After dinner, dance cheek to cheek in the night club.
Shor in the lavishly remodeled Hyatt Regency (shorclearwater.com, 727-373-4780) serves American gourmet cuisine from its show kitchen. The dessert menu is hard to resist (strawberries for shortcake come from nearby Plant City) and there’s still room for one of the specialty coffees or cognacs.
More To See and Do
Along the Causeway is the colorful Clearwater Marina, bristling with masts and outriggers. It’s bracketed by Crabby Bill’s waterfront seafood restaurant (727-210-1313) and the dock for StarLite Dinner Cruises (starlitecruises.com, 727-462-2628). Other cruises of the bay, where pods of dolphin meet almost every boat, include Captain Memo’s Original Pirate Cruise (camptainmemo.com, 727-446-2587). Free beverages including beer and wine are on board, friendly pirates aargh cheerfully and there are music and games for all ages.
Clearwater is the winter training ground of the Philadelphia Phillies in February and March. In October its jazz festival is one of the South’s major jazz events. Your hotel concierge can book watersports from a long list from sea kayaking to shelling, sailing, sportfishing and parasailing.
It takes planning to visit Honeymoon and/or Caladesi State Parks, which are not to be missed for their snow-drift beaches and wildly beautiful nature trails. Honeymoon Island can be reached by road from Dunedin or by ferry or private boat. Caladesi is a three-mile walk from Clearwater Beach or is reached by a ferry out of Honeymoon Island State Park. Both islands can also be reached by private boat. (Floridastateparks.org, Call 727- 469-5918 for Caladesi, 727- 469-5942 for Honeymoon Island).