I’m a Floridian. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale and have traveled across the state. But until recently, I’d never visited Clearwater Beach, located on Florida’s Gulf Coast. And I discovered I’d been missing out!
Visiting Clearwater during the beach’s annual Sugar Sand Festival, I arrived at Tampa’s International Airport via a quick and direct Southwest Airlines flight from Philadelphia. Hopping into a shuttle for the 45-minute ride to the beach, we hit traffic and I groaned, envisioning a place as crowded as Miami Beach. But as we crossed the bridge over the Intracoastal Highway into Clearwater Beach, the traffic dissipated and all I could see were blue skies and white-sand beaches.
“Clearwater Beach is a hidden gem,” was the mantra I heard again and again during my three-day weekend getaway. Locals and visitors alike would repeat it to me whenever I exclaimed how beautiful the area was. Unlike me, the other visitors I encountered were rarely first-timers. People told me stories of returning year after year to enjoy the quiet beaches that boast sand as white as sugar and as soft as powder.
Sand, sunsets and festivals
Clearwater’s sand is so unique that if a storm blows through and sand leaves the beach, it’s recollected and cleaned at a processing center before being placed back on the beach. The city takes its sand very seriously and grooms it every morning before beachgoers arrive. During grooming, cabana and shaded chaise lounge rentals rest along the shores of the emerald green waters flanking Pier 60.
Pier 60 itself is a destination due to its nightly sunset festival, where food vendors and artisans sell their wares while visitors take in the amazing sunsets for which the Gulf Coast is known. Pier 60 is the main gathering point for anyone in Clearwater Beach, and also home to the 10-day Sugar Sand Festival, which takes place every April. Featuring sand sculptures that are works of art, sand artists from around the world vie for the opportunity to create masterpieces for the event. During my visit, the theme was “Sea America,” with iconic American sights recreated using the soft sand of Clearwater Beach. The Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline, as well as monuments like Abraham Lincoln in his chair, and American idols such as Marilyn Monroe and Mark Twain, were featured in the Sugar Sand Walk Exhibit.
Outside of the exhibit, live concerts livened up weekends, following the outrageously beautiful and unobstructed sunset views from the beach. VIP ticket-holders enjoyed a pop-up bar with fire pits, inflatable couches and finger foods, while all visitors could try local food and drink from numerous food trucks.
For a truly unique experience, guests could take part in a multi-course sunset dinner. With bench seating carved into sand, barefoot diners could watch the sun set as fresh seafood from the Gulf was served and more live music accompanied the good conversation taking place at the communal tables.
Dining in Clearwater outside of a ballpark gets even better, especially when you’re a seafood fan. Clearwater Beach is actually an island, and what else would you expect from an island than the freshest seafood around? Grouper is the local specialty, and you’ll find it any way you can imagine.
For a local favorite, head to Cooter’s, a bustling hotspot that is every bit the seafood bar and grill you’d expect to find in a beach town, or try Clear Sky Beachside Cafe, which touts itself as “upscale with a twist.” Pick its beach or downtown location and nosh on an award-winning menu of pizzas, tapas, paninis, seafood, and more. Locals will also point you to The Bait House for the best sandwiches around. Here at this small marina bait house (yes, they sell bait!), the lines go out the door to sit along the Intracoastal and sample the spicy tuna nachos, gator bites and drunken shrimp.
When it comes to fine dining or a celebration, head to the Beachcomber, which has been serving the community for 85 years. It will take 20 minutes for Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber cooks to create its famous fried chicken dinner for you, but it’s famous for a reason! While you wait, don’t miss the French onion soup, even on a hot summer day.
Hotel dining is at its finest when you pop into the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach and have a meal overlooking the ocean at SHOR, where the grouper bites can be addicting. Or, watch the sunset from a rocking chair with your toes in the sand as you enjoy a meal at Sandbar at Opal Sands.
While you won’t find any seafood at the Donut Experiment, you will find just about any savory topping imaginable at this breakfast spot. You might not expect to find another island gem tucked away in a strip mall, but here await fresh donuts made especially for you. Pick a frosting and a topping to create your own flavor, from a simple glaze topped with Fruity Pebbles cereal to chocolate frosting covered in Heath Bar crumbles. These cake donuts are the epitome of having your cake and eating it, too!
Phillies and Threshers
When in need of a break from the beach, or when night falls, many make their way to Spectrum Field, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training and their minor league team, the Threshers. The stadium features a 360-degree concourse with great views of ballgames from any location, including lawn seating overlooking the outfield and seats so close to the action that you can shake the hand of a player as he comes out of the dugout.
During Spring Training, Spectrum Field hosts major league games, with coveted special fan events that get baseball lovers close to their favorite players. During the regular baseball season, special events continue discounted ticket options like Dollar Tuesday, fireworks, and lots of fantastic dining around the concourse—plus a special clubhouse Sunday Brunch.
And don’t miss Winter in Clearwater
Perhaps the reason Clearwater is appearing on the vacation map more and more is its beloved Winter the dolphin, of Dolphin Tale fame. Having losing his tale, Winter received a first-of-its-kind prosthetic fin and now calls the Clearwater Aquarium home. However, the aquarium is not actually an aquarium but in fact an animal hospital and rehabilitation center, where rescued animals that can no longer make it on their own in the wild are cared for. The staff (and your contributions) work hard to save other dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, and even otters with the intent to return them to their natural habitat.
Visit the aquarium to see Winter (and Hope, from Dolphin Tale 2) get exercise, and then take to the waters on a boat tour around the bay during which the hospital team checks in on resident wild dolphins in the area. You can also rent kayaks and explore the Intracoastal on your own.
Until next time…
Three days in Clearwater was far too few for a visit. Now that I’ve discovered this gem, I look forward to going back and spending more days idling on the beach and the water, without the crowds so often found on my beaches back home.
For more on Clearwater Beach, Florida, visit visitclearwaterflorida.com.