There’s a clear reason to pop the corks in Clearwater and keep the party going – because the Florida holiday hotspot is happily celebrating its 100th birthday.
A mere centenary might sound a bit trite to us Brits, with a heritage stretching so far back that a century can seem like just the other day, but it’s a big deal in a young-ish place that’s increasingly attractive to visitors of all ages.
And having a good time is what Clearwater and its nearby twin, Clearwater Beach, is all about.
The two centres are tied in with neighbouring twins St Petersburg and St Pete Beach, both sharing contact with the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay and sharing a website – Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater – packed with information.
The whole area takes in 26 distinct communities, and the Clearwater part is quite a spread out sort of place, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Tampa Bay, with the bustling strip of Clearwater Beach reached by a causeway from the nearby mainland and its small, but growing-in-stature, Downtown district.
Clearwater’s main road, Highway 60, is fittingly called Gulf to Bay Boulevard and stretches for miles between the two, finally reaching the causeway across to Tampa. It’s lined with a familiar mixture of shopping centres and goodness knows how many food outlets, and boasts, among other things, the original Hooters bar, dating back to 1983 – still proud of its signature menu including ‘wings and waitresses’ and still with a full car park. And also, it has to be said, great beer, food and friendly service which even wives appreciate. Honest.
Back at the Gulf end, Clearwater Beach is the focus for many a holiday brochure and rightly famous for its vast, flat stretch of pristine white sand and every beach activity under the sun, from volleyball, if you’re that way inclined, to fashionable stand-up paddling on an overgrown surfboard. Gentle walks, bike rides and segway trips along Beach Walk to see and be seen are also on the agenda, or you can potter between excellent beach bars and just lounge around, watching others do the energetic bit, while you top up the tan and the calories.
Locals and tourists alike turn up for a therapeutic bit of fishing from Pier 60, but this spot really comes alive with a nightly festival of music, performance art and pop-up stalls to celebrate the amazing sunsets.
Back a bit from the sand and the place comes alive with restaurants and bars, demonstrating big-style that there’s no way you’re going to go away hungry.
Bit sad, though, that when I went to Crabby Bill’s a couple of days after the start of the stone crab season, the one thing they didn’t have was … stone crab!
For that longed-for treat, I had to go a few miles up the coast to Dunedin, a picturesque settlement with Scottish roots running so deep that it stages its own Highland Games every year. Barely out of the lively sprawl of Clearwater, Dunedin is cosy, small town America, with a village community atmosphere and a welcoming Main Street which cries out for you to walk down it and chat to the local cop and smiling passers-by.
When you get to the end of Main Street by Edgewater Park — fittingly, at the water’s edge – step into the Olde Bay Cafe and Dunedin Fish Market and you can tuck into a pile of fresh, sweet stone crab claws almost straight from the boat. Delicious – and such a more-ish lunch that we took a 40-odd mile round trip back there from where we were staying and had another pile of claws for dinner.
It’s worth noting that if you fancy something other than crab, nothing on the Old Bay menu is fried, which has to be something to shout about in the States! Instead, the main event of your lunch or dinner is seared on a cast iron skillet and finished in the oven – and the chef will also happily cook and serve up your catch if you’ve been lucky fishing from the nearby jetty.
Delicious crab claws, too, a bit further up the road at Frenchy’s, where again they tasted so good one day that I made a detour a couple of days later to get some more.
There’s a Frenchy’s back at Clearwater Beach itself, as well as a couple of other locations,but the Outpost is just by the causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park, a spectacular part of ‘The Real Florida’.
The island got its name in 1939 after a wealthy developer bought it and jointly funded a contest with Life magazine for newly-married couples to spend a fortnight ‘honeymoon’ there, and is fondly described as a barrier island paradise, rich in wildlife you can catch sight of from nature trails through its pines and mangroves, including ospreys, great horned owls, raccoons and gopher tortoises; not forgetting the eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. Fishing is another big draw here, especially at the south of the island near Hurricane Pass, with snook, trout, redfish, pompano and shark for the taking.
Catch a regular ferry from here and you can pop across the Pass to Caladesi Island State Park, where you can also moor up in a 108-slip marina (even overnight) to enjoy some stunning surroundings, including four miles of amazing, award-winning beach, which is on the Great Florida Birding Trail. I’m reliably informed that you’re likely to see American oystercatchers, black skimmers, royal and least terns, and snowy Wilson’s and piping plovers; and loggerhead and green sea turtles also use the beach for nesting.
On the bayside of the wildlife-rich island (yes, it has rattlers!) there are great blue herons, snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills in the tidal flats, and the sea is also teeming with fish.
If you feel energetic, you can trek through the trees or there’s a three-mile, mangrove-shaded kayak trail and the park rangers also offer a number of programmes, but for me, the glorious beach wins out and is fantastic for collecting shells or just relaxing and strolling near the surf.
Head south down the barrier island chain a good few miles to beyond St Pete Beach, and just before falling off the end you reach Fort DeSoto Park, with views of the Sunshine Skyway. This is a ‘best beach for families’ winner and another counterpoint to in-your-face holiday Florida, with miles of white sand across its 1,000 unspoiled acres on five keys, along with fishing piers and trails for hiking and biking.
There’s scope to do the tourist bit, too, with historic Fort DeSoto itself, built during the Spanish-American War and featuring a prized 12-inch mortar battery and some pretty impressive 1890 artillery pieces, made in – wouldn’t you just know it – England.
David Graham visited the Clearwater area on an extended trip to Florida, flying into Tampa from Manchester with Virgin Atlantic and partner Delta, stopping off at several favourite destinations while based in Sarasota – articles to follow.