We have begun taking short (2-3 days) trips to places in Florida where we’ve never been. This is to explore our new state, but also to check out areas where we might like to settle, once we are too decrepit to live aboard C Ghost. We’ve already been to Lakeland, Tallahassee, and Destin, all of which have features to recommend them. Of course, St. Augustine is a strong contender as well. This trip we decided to explore Clearwater Beach. Located on Florida’s West Coast, it’s essentially an island connected by bridges to the mainland, Clearwater, as well as Sand Key.
A hopping tourist spot, the island has a traditional residential section in the extreme north, and white sand beaches on which many tourists gather, bask in the sun and swim in the calm, warm Gulf Waters. There are lots of cabanas for rent as well as paddle boards, kayaks, jet-skis, and towable tubes to ride. Parasailing is also popular, and the brightly colored parachutes with tiny humans dangling below can be seen paralleling the beach all day long. There are multiple beach side shops and eateries and a fishing pier where artisans display their crafts and buskers perform. The South portion of Clearwater Beach has condos, giant hotels and more restaurants. Sprinkled about on the causeway side (between Clearwater Beach and the mainland) are several marinas, some with sailboats and sizable power vessels, both fishing and recreational.
Arriving at midday on Sunday, we still needed to sit in slow traffic over the Clearwater Memorial Causeway-the only route from the mainland. Pretty water views from the bridge distracted from the wait. We stayed at the Cabana Hotel, a small two-story hotel with simple but well-appointed rooms, a pool, coffee mess in the morning, and self-serve laundry. Parking is quite scarce on the Beach, so we were lucky to find a spot next to our hotel, and we left the car there our whole trip, as distances were walkable for us. We arrived Sunday afternoon and ate lunch at the Beach Shanty Cafe and walked a bit of the beach. That night we had dinner at Ocean Hai, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Wyndham hotel. We ate on the fan-cooled veranda. Great view! The food was amazing- we split a delicious sushi roll called “Crazy Rich Asian” for appetizer and Tommy had seared ahi tuna and Paula had lamb chops for entrée. We couldn’t resist dessert which was billed as a strawberry cheesecake, but was more of a cheesecake dream, with the light, creamy, cheesecake filling applied in a thick piping around the circumference of the dish, and garnished with strawberry pastry crumbs in lieu of crust, sliced strawberries, and crystallized sweet basil morsels. Too good!
Monday morning, after coffee and a breakfast at the Another Broken Egg Café – also highly recommended – we decided a lot of walking was in order to balance all the food we’d eaten. We started by touring the residential section, which had older homes of every size, ranging from tiny cottages to multi-chimneyed monstrosities. The houses were tightly packed, and this was the only area of the island that had telephone poles and wires. Everywhere else electricity and phone lines were below ground (safer in a hurricane, and more aesthetic.) The plant life was beautiful: live oak, mango, sea grape, various unidentified flowering plants, and even a pine or two!
Once the houses ran out, we walked through a public beach access to the white sand, and decided to head north, away from the crowds. We were able to walk onto the grounds of Caladesi State Park which were full of mangroves.
Any dead limbs were decorated with shells placed by passersby, and we added one as well.
Although we saw a few walkers headed south, we were the only ones on the pristine white park beach until two rangers showed up, following female turtle tracks to the nest in order to stake it out and protect it. We saw a small, worm-like snake (live) and a young shark dead of apparent propeller strike. After a rest and swim (water warm and clear with a little seaweed), we started back towards the main beach drag, which seemed crowded and loud by comparison, but not lacking in interesting sights.
We had grouper sandwich (Tom) and beet salad with grouper on top (Paula) at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, very good and reasonably priced. Frenchy appears to be the local entrepreneur as every third restaurant and beach clothing shop bears his name. Now stuffed and tired, we went back to the hotel to shower off, swim, and take a nap. That night we ate at Blinker’s, the local steak house and had very good filet mignon with mushroom garlic topping, and Caesar salad. Before bed, when we tallied up our walking totals we were amazed to see we’d walked over 14 miles.
Next morning, we went back to the Another Broken Egg Café, and in addition to pancakes, eggs, and Belgian waffles, we bought two of their cool coffee mugs. We then braved the main beach, somewhat less occupied on a Tuesday morning, and splurged on a rental cabana where we read and dozed. We went to Jimmy’s Crow’s Nest for lunch, 13 floors above the street, mainly for the great view.
The food-Southwestern chicken bowl (Paula), and pork bowl (Tommy) was tasty and filling. That evening we ate at Forlini’s, an Italian restaurant with excellent mussels, lasagna, and veal picatta. Tiramisu for dessert meant that another walk was in order. This time we explored the Southern part of the Island all the way to its end where it intersects with Sand Key by way of a tall bridge. After a long stretch of hotels and bars/eateries we saw many condo neighborhoods and a marina.
Throughout our stay we noticed that the beach and surrounding neighborhoods were clean and kept up and there were a number of small parks with basketball, tennis, large public pool, boccie courts as well as a library. What wasn’t present was any full-sized grocery store, although there were some small food and sundry shops, and two drug stores. Any major grocery trip for residents means contending with the crowded causeway bridge to Clearwater proper.
Wednesday morning, we were lucky enough to have scheduled a tour of the Island Packet Boat Factory in Largo, about 8 miles from Clearwater Beach. We were able to see versions of different sized Island Packets in various stages of construction, and some at the factory in repair after hurricane damage in the Virgin Islands. We got to hear information from the craftsmen who build the boats. As most of the employees are long-term, some with 30 years + experience at Island Packet, we were able to meet and ask questions of some of the folks who actually built C Ghost! Bill Bolin, who has been with Island Packet since 1987, and has worked in multiple aspects of the company, including customer service and quality assurance, spoke to us at length about our past and current projects. The tour was illuminating and helpful, answering some questions we had about the structure of C Ghost, including wiring paths, etc.
We very much enjoyed our stay at Clearwater Beach. Its best aspects, in our view, was the quality of the beaches, the calmer Gulf waters, and the availability of good restaurants. On the other hand, if one were considering moving there, the large tourist population, lack of some essential services on the island necessitating crossing the always-busy causeway (grocery stores, hospital) gave us pause. Evacuation, if there were to be hurricane threat would be difficult, as the causeway bridge is the only way back to the mainland. Real estate, as expected, is pricey. However, for a vacation or short trip, it is a great spot, and we would visit again.