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Florida’s Clearwater Beach Is A Natural High

By Karen Rubin

It is a mystery why Clearwater Beach’s sand is so white and powdery – it just sifts through your toes as soft as talcum powder.

But it is no mystery why Clearwater Beach and nearby Caladesi Island beach are consistently ranked among the best in the world.

And up until now, the beach and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium were the two key attractions – for excellent reasons. But Clearwater Beach has upgraded, matured, and organized itself as a center for ecotourism and nature-based attractions, giving families plenty to warrant an extended visit. Now, there is a long list of things families can explore and do together, making Clearwater Beach a uniquely appealing destination, as opposed to merely an immensely satisfying beach destination.

Clearwater Beach has literally undergone a massive facelift – with a $30 million, half-mile long Beachwalk reclaiming the priceless view and access to the beachfront with wide promenades and recreational facilities where parking lots used to be; the opening of The Sandpearl Resort, the first new luxury beachfront hotel in 25 years, and the refurbishment of Mandalay Avenue, its main shopping boulevard, plus a wonderful selection of classy, contemporary and cosmopolitan restaurants.

Clearwater Beach offers anything but a typical day at the beach, but that is a great place to start in order to appreciate how the beach is so much more than a place to plant your butt.

Our first morning at The Sandpearl Resort was spent in the company of resident naturalist, Marianne Klingel, who leads a 9 a.m. beach walk on Wednesday and Friday mornings.

Marianne picks up a moon snail collar that looks like a piece of yellowed plastic but is actually an egg case of sand and mucous holding thousands of tiny eggs (looking closely, I think I can see them); a sand dollar that I learn is an animal not a shell, as are sponges. She picks up something called parchment, which is actually a worm casing; a sea whip; a Sun Ray Venus. She finds a cat’s paw and explains how the animal inside manufactures calcium material as it grows to make the shell grow, also. She tries to open a pen shell, but the animal inside snaps it shut. She picks up a “shame-faced crab” – so called because it uses its claws to cover its face.

She talks about the sea turtles that nest here – how there may be 100 eggs in a single nest, and the turtles, who somehow follow nature’s cues, wait for all the siblings to hatch before they march, together, back to the sea. Many will be grabbed for food by birds and other predators without the protection of human volunteers. It will be another 10 years before the females who survive return to this very same beach to nest.

Clearwater Beach is one of the best public beaches anywhere because of its family-friendly atmosphere, services, amenities and of course, the exquisite quality of the sand and the glorious Gulf waters, and is the only beach in Pinellas County with year-round lifeguards - for which it has won “Blue Wave” recognition. The beach is enhanced by Pier 60, which has become an activity-center (as well as fishing pier), where there are nightly “sunset” entertainment events, and the Clearwater Beach Recreation Complex and Family Aquatic Center.

Winter’s Tail

Clearwater Beach’s most famous attraction (after the beach), the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, has become a world-class, world-famous facility.

This is largely because of its famous resident, Winter, a young bottlenose dolphin who, on Dec. 10, 2005, at the age of three months, was rescued from a crab trap near Cape Canaveral by CMA’s team. Not expected to live, she was given 24-hour ICU-type care. Within days, her tail fluke fell off due to loss of blood circulation. No dolphin has ever survived without a tail.

The miracle of Winter and why it has become the most famous dolphin since Flipper, is a prosthetic tail devised by a consortium of experts from prosthetic technology and marine mammal care including Kevin Carroll, a prosthetist with Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, which also produces devices used by many Iraq war veterans.

On the day that we visit Winter, she is being fitted for the first time with her third prosthetic (necessitated by her growth, and also continued innovations in the material used in the prosthetic device) to make it more flexible for her to swim, and to be more comfortable to attach and wear.

The innovations being devised for Winter are being applied to humans, as well. And Winter is proving an inspiration to children and veteran soldiers alike, who use prosthetics. Even seeing Winter without the prosthetic – when her tail is just a stump – is inspirational, because you don’t see Winter as handicapped but capable of doing things that other dolphins can’t, such as sitting on the stump on a perch, so she can be more eye-level with her visitors.

We watch as Abby Stone, the head dolphin trainer, uses such a careful, methodical process to introduce Winter to the prosthetic. Once the prosthetic is on, Winter understands that she has to follow cues in order to re-learn how to swim like a dolphin; when the prosthetic is off (she can’t wear it all the time), she is allowed to swim any way she can, and she has devised a side-to-side swimming motion more like an alligator. We see how Winter has been paired with a 30-year old dolphin, Panama, who is kind of a mentor.

A film presented in the Aquarium’s new “mini-Imax” theater (no doubt the extra pizzazz that David Yates, a former producer of the NBC “Ironman” program, brings as CMA’s Chief Executive Officer) features Winter’s story and asks the question, “Can a dolphin change a life?” The answer from one young child is,  “I will not just survive, I will succeed. Winter gives me hope.” (You can see video of Winter at CMA’s site, www.seeWinter.com).

There is a dolphin “show” – where you get to see behaviors and the physicality of the dolphins, and appreciate these incredible creatures as distant cousins of human kind (daily at 12, 2 and 4 p.m.).
                                                         
It doesn’t take you long to suspect that the name, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, simply does not do this institution justice. You might expect to see tanks of fish swimming, and there are a few of those, but the main mission – which is so extraordinary to witness – is the rescue, rehabilitation and release the marine mammals who are injured or sick.

In fact, as you tour the facility, you see the surgical operating room, and tanks where sick sea turtles are recovering from their various ailments.

The “Behind the Scenes Tour” at Clearwater Marine Aquarium gives you a more intensive tour of the working animal hospital ($19.95/adult, including admission).

Specialized programs enhance the visitor experience, including a 30-minute Dolphin Encounter that brings visitors close to Winter (we got to stroke her) and the other dolphins which have been rescued and rehabilitated ($85); Sea Life Safari Cruises where you join CMA’s marine biologist for a two-hour interactive nature cruise ($28.95/adult, including admission);  Trainer For a Day where you get to shadow a trainer for about three hours. 

The Aquarium also offers one- and four-day Marine Life Adventures where visitors are teamed with marine biologists to study endangered animal and plant species. The adventures are customized for all family members with excursions ranging from snorkeling to behind-the-scenes tours or even beach combing. CMA also oversees the Pineallas sea turtle nesting program, so you can sign up as a volunteer to help delineate and protect the nests.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium is not to be missed (open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Sunday; 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL 33767, 727-441-1790, www.SeeWinter.com).

An excursion on Little Toot, a 40-foot tug out of the Clearwater Marina, is a chance to see dolphins “in the wild” (or at least the marine equivalent of the suburbs). These dolphins live and play just off the Clearwater Beach shore. The dolphins typically enjoy playing in the boat’s wake, giving passengers an opportunity to see them at close range leaping out of the water in that gloriously graceful pose. The excursion also offers a very pleasant, entertaining and witty narrated tour of Clearwater Beach and Clearwater (you see mansion homes, including Tom Cruise’s, near the headquarters for the Church of Scientology). (Little Toot departs from Slip No. 16, 727-446-5503).

The evening affords an opportunity for a star-gazing beach walk in the company of environmentalist Linda Taylor, and a new way to appreciate the beach. As we walk on the sand and the sky becomes darker and darker, we focus more on sound of the waves hitting the shore, and the feel of our step in the sand, and then the stars that burst out of the darkness. Talking with Linda and feeling perceptively that a conversation has affected your perspective on things, I am surprised to find that we have been walking for almost two hours or so. (It’s Our Nature, 888-535-7448, Linda@itsournature.com).

Back to Nature

It is not hard to imagine yourself in a Robinson Crusoe fantasy, as the ferry comes into mangrove-enclosed passage to a place associated with Indians, Spanish explorers, pirates and Prohibition-era whiskey runners.

Less than a half-hour up the road from The Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island  offer nearly 1,000 acres that appear much as they did in the 1500s when the Spanish first explored the area. Once a single island (known as Hog Island), a savage hurricane in 1921 cut through, creating Hurricane Pass and forever separating the islands.

Today, the only way to visit Caladesi Island is by boat or ferry. Though the ferry from Honeymoon Island takes just about 15 minutes, it adds to the sense of adventure, and you feel you have traveled to some exotic, remote place, with an unspoiled beauty.

Rated the #1 beach in the United States for 2008 by Dr. Beach (Dr. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University) and a recipient of the Blue Wave Award for environmental beach management, Caladesi Island State Park is one of the few undeveloped barrier islands left in Florida.

Between 1892 and 1934, the only inhabitants were Henry Scharrer, a University of Zurich-trained biologist, and his wife Catherine and their daughter, Myrtle. Henry Scharrer often rescued lost sailors; visitors to their homestead included Robert Lincoln, Carl Sandberg. Their daughter, Myrtle Scharrer Betz, has documented 158 species of birds, gravesites and Indian burial mounds. After Scharrer’s death, in 1934, the island returned to its primitive state.  The State of Florida purchased Caladesi Island for a state park for $2.9 million in 1968.

The only way to see the remains of the Scharrer’s homestead is to walk a self-guided nature trail that winds through the 600-acre island’s interior, through virgin pine flatwood and live oak hammocks.

Ranger Carl Calhoun who has been on the island for 26 years was responsible for carving a  four-mile canoe/kayaking trail through the thick mangrove forest (at points, there is not even enough room to extend the paddle, and you pull yourself along using the branches). The trail then opens into the Gulf, where fish literally leap out of the water in front of my kayak. The kayak trail takes about 2 or 3 hours to complete, and we have a little time to explore the beach (still not sitting) and see why it earned Dr. Beach’s #1 beach ranking this year, before we catch the ferry back to Honeymoon Island (the departure is timed to limit your stay on the island to four hours, which is another reason the island is always uncrowded).

The ferry departs hourly from nearby Honeymoon Island, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday (every half hour during summer), with a maximum stay of four hours; ($10 for adults, $6 for children 4-12. For ferry information, call 727-734-5263, www.floridastateparks.org/caladesiisland).

We return at our appointed time on the ferry back to Honeymoon Island, where we continue our exploration.

Honeymoon Island

How Hog Island became Honeymoon Island is a delightful story. In 1939, a New York developer, Clinton Washburn, built 50 small palm-thatched bungalows for “newly married couples of high moral character” who would have to be sponsored (Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman were purportedly turned down). They would pay $25 for a two-week stay, promoted in the pages of Life Magazine (Washburn knew the editor) During World War II, the cottages were used for R&R for company workers and the island lost its appeal as a honeymoon destination. The community rallied to save the island from massive condominium development (a few were built and remain on the island) and since Honeymoon Island was turned into a state park in 1982, it has become one of the most popular in Florida.

Honeymoon Island State Park is a true barrier island – a three-mile trail takes you through different ecosystems (you need to allocate two hours to complete the trail, though you can take a cut-off) – and you are almost guaranteed to see ospreys. It offers 427 upland acres, 816 acres of sea grapes, 5 acres of tidal marsh, 7 acres of marine mollusk and one of the few remaining virgin slash pine forests in South Florida.

The new Rotary Centennial Nature Center is the best place to start, to get oriented to what you will see. The park boasts several nature trails and bird observation areas.

Visitors can swim, fish, and snorkel in the warm waters of the Gulf. Shelling is particularly good here, because the Gulf currents deposit an incredible variety of seashells on the shore. Showers are available and the Park’s concession has a gift shop and snack bar (open daily, 8 a.m. to dusk, $5/entry fee per car up to 8 people; 727-469 5942; http://www.floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland).

The short ride back to The Sandpearl Resort, gives us a glimpse of a portion of the 37-mile paved Pinellas Trail, a dedicated trail for biking, in-line skating, jogging and walking that extends from St. Petersburg all the way in the south to Tarpon Springs to the north over what had been the tracks of the first Orange Belt Railroad train in 1888. There are plans to extend the trail to 125 miles! Bike rentals are available.  (727-549-6099; www.pinellascounty.org/park/12_Trail.htm).

I mark this down on my list of “things I must do when I return” along with the longest over-the-water recreational trail in the United States: The “Old” Gandy Bridge spanning Tampa Bay between Tampa and St. Petersburg has undergone a $7 million transformation into a 2.6-mile long recreational park called the Friendship TrailBridge, open for non-motorized activities including biking, walking, running, roller-blading and fishing.

Clearwater Sailing Center

The theme of our visit to Clearwater Beach is to be a participant, not a spectator – and while it is fun motoring along on an excursion boat, there is amazing gratification – and thrill – to being the master of the tiller.

The next morning, we find ourselves at the Clearwater Sailing Center – an amazing community facility run by the Clearwater Community Sailing Association where visitors are welcomed to join for a day ($10/individual, $25/family), a week, the season, or the year – and have access to the club’s fleet of more than 40 sailboats, catamarans and kayaks. As a member, even for the day, you can rent a 14-foot Hobe Wave catamaran ($35), kayak ($20), Pram ($20), Sunfish, Laser or Bigfish ($25).

Families can take a “learn to sail” program ($75/hour for one person, $35/hour each additional person; four-hour package on Hobie wave catamaran, is $250 first person, $175 for second person). The sailing center offers summertime youth sailing and windsurfing camps for 8 to 16 year olds ($250/week).
                  
Sailing is offered year-round – the water never really gets cold, and the area is fairly protected, making it ideal for neophytes.

(Clearwater Community Sailing Center, 1001 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater, FL 33767, 727-517-7776, www.clearwatercommunitysailing.org).

Practically every water activity imaginable is available in Clearwater Beach and the 26 communities from Tarpon Springs in the north to Fort DeSoto in the south that make up “Florida’s Beach.” These include deep-sea fishing; backwater salt flats fishing (rated as some of the best in Florida); boating and sailing; canoeing and sea kayaking; SCUBA diving (dive shops offer daily trips to wrecks, artificial reefs and freshwater dives to area springs and rivers); wind surfing; shelling. 

In the afternoon, I explore Sand Key Park, one of the 14 sites throughout Pinellas County officially designated as points on the Great Florida Birding Trail (and a great beach). Here, you are apt to see semipalmated plovers, American oystercatchers, waders and ducks and white ibis.

I hop a ride on the Jolly Trolley, a fun and convenient way to get around the area without a car, paying $1.25 to ride back to The Sandpearl Resort, in time for the Sunsets at Pier 60 festival.

Sunset is justifiably a big deal here, and Clearwater Beach has turned it into a nightly event with its daily festival, Sunsets at Pier 60. Modeled after Key West’s Mallory Square, the “street” festival brings together artisans, crafters, live musical and busker-style entertainment (they actually audition) for two hours before and after sunset. You are very likely to see juggler Dallas and his 15-year old son who is an escape artist (6 to 10 p.m., weather permitting, 727-449-1036).

Where To Stay

We love staying at The Sandpearl Resort & Spa, Clearwater Beach’s first new beachfront hotel to open in 25 years when it opened its doors in August 2007 and the first in the Southeast to be built to LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards; it has been admitted to the Florida Green Hotel Association.

It offers a luxurious, sophisticated, yet comfortable and casual atmosphere – with every amenity possible, including spa, supervised children’s program, fine-dining restaurant, and a marvelous selection of activities families can enjoy together, such as a visit to the Suncoast Sunbird Sanctuary ($10, with half donated to help the birds); a private boat tour of Mandalay Channel to observe wildlife; Astronomy Night with an expert Astronomer; and Moonlight Nature Walk with a naturalist.

Situated along a 700-foot expanse of pristine Gulf Coast beach, Sandpearl offers 253 luxurious guest rooms (including 52 one and two-bedroom condo suites, great for families, with full kitchen and laundry facilities), a lagoon-style beachfront pool (purified by an ozone process rather than chlorine), full-service spa, fine and casual dining, plus meeting and event space.

The Sandpearl Resort is a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts (www.preferredhotels.com.)
For more information, rates and packages, contact The Sandpearl Resort & Spa, 500 Mandalay Avenue, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767, 727-661-2425, 877-726-3111. www.sandpearl.com.

Sheraton Sand Key has its own beach on the Gulf that extends 1,100 feet from its wall to the water. It offers 390 guest rooms including 15 suites with private balcony; a beachside pool and whirlpool; a fitness center; three lighted tennis courts with on-site pro; water sports including sailboats, kayaks, wave runners and parasailing; and fine dining bistro-style restaurant, Rusty’s, where there is live music Tuesday through Saturday, 7 to 10 p.m. Family-friendly (and pet-friendly) features include a 24-hour convenience store, a children’s playground and planned activities from June through August, 37-inch flat screen LCD TV with in-room Nintendo, and there is no resort fee. Also, the hotel is next door to the Sand Key Park and Preserve, offering a combined two-miles of walking trails, plus recreational facilities. (Sheraton Sand Key Resort, 1160 Gulf Bouelvard, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767-2799, 727-595-1611, 800-325-3535, www.SheartonSandKey.com.

Also on Sand Key, Marriott Suites Clearwater Beach, with 220 suites on 10 floors, is the only all-suite resort in Clearwater Beach, and is ideal for families. It offers a daily schedule of families, plus supervised children’s programs during the day and in the evening; a lushly landscaped, free-form heated pool with cascading waterfall, playground and wading pool; spa; fitness center.  From the resort’s own waterfront, you can rent kayak, or a Craig cat boat, jetski and go parasailing over Tampa Bay. There is live piano entertainment Tuesday through Saturday evening at the Watercolour Lounge. Watercolour Steakhouse & Grille, the fine-dining restaurant, has an exquisite setting with stunning views over Tampa Bay and offers indoor and outdoor dining, and is famous for its signature steaks.  Marriott Suites Clearwater Beach, 1201 Gulf Boulevard, Clearwater Beach, FL 33767, 727-596-1100, www.clearwaterbeachmarriottsuites.com.

Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort has just completed a $26 million renovation. The family-friendly, 416-room hotel offers two heated beachside pools and whirlpool; a full program of water sports includes parasailing, kayaking, snorkeling, and deep-sea fishing,. There is an on-site fitness room, and complimentary access to full service health club a block away. It also offers a supervised children’s  “Fun Factory” program. (Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort, 400 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, Fl. 33767, 727-298-1481, 888-353-3222, www.clearwaterbeachresort.com.

Wining & Dining

Island Way Grill presents a stunning, contemporary and sophisticated ambiance, an Asian fusion menu with an influence of Caribbean and Floridian food, and amazing steaks and desserts (20 Island Way, 727-461-6617, www.islandwaygrill.com).

Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber Restaurant, a Clearwater Beach landmark and family owned since 1948, is casual and the menu is a combination of new and traditional dishes, with the emphasis on “homemade. (447 Mandalay Avenue, 727.442.4144, www.heilmansbeachcomber.com).

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, a beachside restaurant and bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, has the perfect atmosphere for families: colorful and fun, and serves many styles of seafood, steaks, burgers, with a few Mexican, Jamaican and Floribbean items for good measure. The music starts up at 7:30 p.m., adding to the beach-party feeling. Frenchy’s actually has four locations (7 Rockaway Street, 727-446-4844, www.frenchysonline.com).

Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar, with its patio dining on the water, is another festive, “happening” place, and one of the best places for families to enjoy sunset dining. There is live entertainment nightly from 7 p.m., and weekends from 2-6 p.m., as well. It offers steaks, pasta, sandwiches, and seafood (Jimmy’s Fish House and Iguana Bar, 521 S. Gulfview Blvd, 727-446-9720).

If You Go:

Clearwater Beach is just only 30 minutes due west from Tampa International Airport.

For further information, packages and events contact the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, 1130 Cleveland Street, Clearwater, FL 33755, 888-425-3279 or 727-461-0011, www.visitclearwaterflorida.com, or email info@clearwaterflorida.org.
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