Clearwater Beach: You want it, you'll find it | News
(USA TODAY) CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida -- The first night Carol and Nick Stroumtsos arrived on this barrier island resort, fleeing a sullen New Jersey winter, they couldn't avoid a comparison.
As they gazed toward the Gulf of Mexico across a shoreline that stretched a football field wide, "that sand was so white, it looked just like snow," Carol recalls.
A week later, the retirees are back in the land of slush and mittens. But they're still dreaming of Clearwater Beach, which beat out nine other nominees from Florida-based coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, aka "Dr. Beach," to win a USA TODAY online reader survey as "Florida's best beach town." Among the visitor bureau's get-out-the-vote tactics: Trailing a banner from a chartered plane on a sunny, 80-degree January afternoon.
As Dr. Beach is quick to point out, there are plenty of other cushiony soft, blindingly white strands along the Sunshine State's west coast.
And yes, Clearwater Beach's packed assortment of glitzy high-rises, T-shirt emporiums and mom-and-pop motels can seem more like a traffic-clogged tourist stop than a real community. This is especially true at this time of year, when springbreakers rub sunburned shoulders with young families and baseball "phanatics." (The Philadelphia Phillies train at Clearwater's Bright House Field, about a 20-minute drive east via the soaring Clearwater Memorial Causeway and Gulf to Bay Boulevard, home of the original Hooters restaurant.)
But last week, as they danced to Mustang Sally and boardwalk musician Owen Poteat serenaded another Technicolor sunset at the nightly Pier 60 celebration, the Stroumtsoses insisted they couldn't imagine a better Florida escape.
"You can find anything you'd want within a 10-mile radius," Carol says. "But you can also park your car once and never leave."
Clearwater resident Hulk Hogan opened a store on Mandalay Avenue in Clearwater Beach.
(Photo: Laura Bly, USA TODAY)
Kitsch and class coexist
Stretching roughly 3 miles long and three blocks wide, Clearwater Beach draws about 4 million visitors a year - making what the Tampa Bay Times dubbed "the Disney World of beaches" one of the top tourist destinations along the Gulf Coast.
Much of that popularity stems from its strategic location: five minutes from downtown Clearwater (the county seat and spiritual headquarters for the Church of Scientology), a half-hour from Tampa International Airport and only an hour and a half from Orlando. During July and August, it's a magnet for throngs of Floridian day-trippers eager to trade sticky heat for talcum-powder sand, salty margaritas and seafood restaurants with ambiences that go from flip-flop-friendly to Mad Men-esque.
You can still find plenty of kitsch in Clearwater Beach, from seashell jewelry and dolphin tattoos to a yo-ho-ho pirate cruise and Hogan's Beach Shop, which opened last fall and is owned by Clearwater Beach resident and semi-retired pro wrestler Terry Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan.
But thanks to a $30 million makeover completed in 2008, the beach is now flanked by a broad, palm-lined promenade called Beach Walk. New beachfront lodging options, meanwhile, include a Hyatt Regency and the locally owned Sandpearl Resort, where new arrivals are greeted by a tinkling Steinway player piano and a glass of bubbly.
Brooke and Emily Kearney get up close and personal with Hope, a resident dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
(Photo: Laura Bly, USA TODAY)
Winter is a star every season
"The Hulkster" may be Clearwater Beach's most famous human resident, but the top dog in town is a bottlenose dolphin named Winter.
After getting tangled in a crab pot in 2005, Winter was taken to the non-profit Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a onetime wastewater treatment plant that specializes in marine rescue, rehabilitation and release. The dolphin eventually lost her tail but was fitted with a silicone and plastic replacement - and Winter and her adopted home have been riding a wave of stardom ever since.
According to a recent study by University of South Florida-St. Petersburg's College of Business, the local economic impact of the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, which starred Winter and was filmed on location, will total more than a half-billion dollars this year and increase to $1.7 billion by 2016.
Aquarium attendance has roughly quadrupled since the movie's release, with more than 750,000 visitors last year. Like the Kearney clan of Fairfax, Va., who made a special one-day detour from Orlando earlier this month, most come specifically to see Winter. (A photo op with her or her cohorts, Panama and Hope, runs $40 per person; a dolphin "trainer for a day" session costs $295.)
The surge in movie-related interest has prompted the aquarium to open a second facility, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, in a former department store downtown.
Volleyball games and tournaments are staple attractions on three-mile-long Clearwater Beach.
(Photo: Laura Bly, USA TODAY)
All comes back to the beach
The downtown core is home to throngs of uniformed Scientologists scurrying about in crisp white shirts and dark pants - and to such landmarks as the Fort Harrison Hotel, where the Rolling Stones supposedly wrote (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. (Non-Scientologists won't get much satisfaction, either: Because the building serves as a church retreat, it's not open regularly to the public.)
For all her charms, however, Winter the dolphin still plays a supporting role to the beach itself. By day, it's a destination for pint-sized sandcastle builders and buff volleyball players.
And at sunset, the focal point is Pier 60, a city-owned fishing pier that also hosts street performers, artists and weekend movie screenings.
Juggler and fire breather Dallas Saupe stopped here 18 years ago on his way to Key West and never left.
Spring-breakers and beachside Tiki bars notwithstanding, Saupe says that while he enjoys Key West for "letting our hair down," you'll never mistake Clearwater Beach's Gulfview Boulevard for free-wheeling Duvall Street.
Which suits longtime Tampa Bay area resident and frequent visitor Sandi McKenna just fine. Clearwater Beach, she says, "has the four 'f's' - fun, family, food and friendly - down pat."
Adam Viens and his dog Chopper take in the passing scene at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach.
(Photo: Laura Bly, USA TODAY)
If you go ...
Getting there: Both Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (served by discount carrier Allegiant) are about a half hour's drive from Clearwater Beach.
Where to stay: Rates at the locally owned Sandpearl Resort (sandpearl.com or 877-726-3111) start at start at $244 per night for a bay view room with two queen beds; the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa (clearwaterbeach.hyatt.com or 800-233-1234) charges from $189 per night, double, for a condo-style unit including a full kitchen. The 15-unit, "retro boutique" Frenchy's Oasis Motel (frenchysoasismotel.com or 727-446-6835) overlooks Clearwater Harbor a few blocks from the beach; rooms start at $129 per night with a two-night minimum stay.
Where to eat: A Clearwater Beach landmark since 1948, Bob Heilman's Beachcomber (heilmansbeachcomber.com) serves steaks and seafood in a cozy, Mad Men atmosphere (including relish trays and a piano bar). Overlooking Clearwater Harbor near the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Island Way Grill (islandwaygrill.com) specializes in fresh-from-their-own-boat seafood, including gargantuan stone crabs. And while there are four Frenchy's branches in town, the original Frenchy's Cafe (frenchysonline.com) on Baymont Street wins kudos for its down-home ambience and signature favorites, including a grouper sandwich and smoked fish dip.
Getting around: Clearwater Beach traffic can be a nightmare, particularly on weekends, but the Jolley Trolley (clearwaterjolleytrolley.com) offers daily shuttle service in town ($2 per ride, $4.50 for a daily pass) plus weekend routes between Clearwater Beach and downtown Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs. Another option is FloridaFreeRides.com, which provides tip-only rides on open-air, electric vehicles.
Don't miss: In-town highlights include the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (seewinter.com) and the nightly street performances at Sunsets at Pier 60 (sunsetsatpier60.com). If you're looking for a quieter alternative, consider Sand Key Park, just south of Clearwater Beach, or Caladesi Island to the north, three miles of undeveloped beach reachable only by private boat or the Caladesi Island Ferry (caladesiferry.org). And flight aficionados should head to nearby Dunedin, where for $40 you can practice a takeoff and landing in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 simulator (simcentertampabay.com). No, it's not the full-fledged version used for pilot training - but it sure is fun.