In DC people always ask, “where are you from?” and I say, “I moved here from New York City.” To which they insist, “No, where are you from originally?” It’s very important for people here to know your residential history. Perhaps it’s a way they try to find common ground or maybe they are suspicious of non-locals. Either way, I’m originally from Palm Harbor, Florida. Most people don’t know where that is, so I usually name one of the closest bigger cities, Clearwater (and if they are still looking at me like a deer in headlights, I follow up with Tampa.)
Clearwater is best known for two things: the take over of Scientology and it's pristine white beaches and crystal clear blue water. Clearwater Beach was the first beach I ever set foot on. When I was a tiny baby, I did not appreciate the beautiful, white, powdery sand. If the sand touched me, I would sit there with my fingers and toes spread as far as they could with that “this is yucky” look on my face.
When I was a little girl, our family would take a trip every summer to the beach, even though we only lived 25 minutes away. We would go with our grandparents, aunt, cousin, my parents, and sister, and stay at what is now the Marriot on Sand Key. As a child, the attraction here was not the beach but the huge pool and freedom to explore it. My sister and I took our Barbies along so they could explore too. There was also a parrot in the lobby.
I have a spot where I go to sit. It’s at the far north side of the beach, where only locals go. In high school I would go there with my girlfriends we’d listen to loud music on a boom-box, read Cosmo and Glamour, and catch up on gossip. I didn’t notice then that the water changed colors as the sun and clouds moved across the sky. I didn’t notice that tiny crabs snuck out at low tide, I was too busy checking my tan lines. I kept a towel, bikini, sunscreen, and flip flops in the trunk of my Hyundai Sante Fe, just in case we wanted to cruise over after school.
I recommend Sand Key as a more secluded, romantic spot or if you have young children and are worried about a crowded beach. There is also a famously delicious Cuban restaurant on Sand Key called Columbia Restaurant. It would make for a great date night spot; just remember to wear real shoes and clothes, not your flip-flops and cover-up. Reservations recommended.
This one time, the day after my wedding, two of my bridesmaids and some of our guests headed over to the beach to get some R&R before jumping on the plane. They stopped at Publix to get subs (remember how delicious I told you these were?) and intended to picnic at the beach while trying to absorb a little vitamin D. One of them was not a native Floridian and made the mistake of not guarding her sandwich with her life. The seagulls sensed her vulnerability and started circling. They took turns diving at her to try to nab a bite or steal the whole sandwich. Terrified, she threw the sandwich into the air and took off running and screaming. Everyone else laughed so hard they couldn’t breathe.
This brings me to one of the most important bits of advice I can give: when at the beach never EVER feed the seagulls. They are aggressive terrors who get bolder by the tourist. They will snatch your food, and anything that looks like food. If you bring food to the beach, be sure to throw everything away properly on your way out. In case of emergency, if the birds are swarming, hide your food with your body or under a bag/towel, etc. If they are still bothering you, do not give in and throw scraps. Try to ride it out, as they will eventually leave you for an easier target. Avoiding these creatures will make your visit much more enjoyable.
Some of my favorite spots for shopping and dining include... my favorite place to buy a bikini is the Mandalay Surf Company. Best places to grab a grouper sandwich or burger include any of the Frenchy's locations (Salt Water Cafe being the best) or Palm Pavilion (go here for live music and sunset views). For a fancy dinner Bob Heilman's Beachcomber is a must and if you're in the market for a place that serves everything try Clearsky Beachside Cafe. Its also where many of the colorful locals hangout.
And some things tourists do that locals don't (but are worth doing once): Captain Memo's pirate ship tour, dolphin watching tour, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium which is home to Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail made famous by the movie A Dolphin's Tale (I laugh inside every time I read this, sort of mean, "punny" title...).
If you have any boating experience, or can afford to charter a small boat, I recommend skipping all of the above and cruising around the inter-coastal waterway on your own. Not only will you see dolphins and other wildlife, but you will get to check out all of the fabulous homes over-looking the water. I just love peeking into the windows!
The best place to stay is the Sand Pearl - I'll give you a full review of it on Thursday!