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Miles of sugar-white sand

At one point on the return trip, we were nearly surrounded by commercial boat tours—to our left, two floating tiki bars heading out for sipping and sightseeing, and on the right, a vessel full of families and sporting a banner advertising dolphin tours with free ice cream. Straight ahead, we spotted the distinct bright red hull and tall masts of a pirate ship embarking on a themed cruise.

The number of outfitters offering on-water excursions—from fishing and diving trips to speed boat rides and family friendly cruising—makes it obvious that Clearwater is a destination for boating and fishing enthusiasts. To be honest, though, it was hard to leave the beach once we settled in at the Sandpearl Resort, which sits directly on the wide, powdery-white Clearwater Beach.

If you’re looking for more fun ’n sun in the form of a beach escape before or after attending the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Florida, consider Clearwater—44 nautical miles to the west and home to Clearwater Air Park Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which put you close to the main attraction.

To be fair, we’re not the first to be enamored with the beauty of Clearwater Beach…or the last to be lulled into laziness by the comfort of digging our toes in its soft sand.

The quality and quantity of traveler reviews on TripAdvisor earned Clearwater Beach the ranking of No. 1 beach in America in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

The quality and quantity of traveler reviews on TripAdvisor earned Clearwater Beach the ranking of No. 1 beach in America in 2016, 2018, and 2019. It continues to appear regularly in that list’s top 25 (No. 24 in 2022), as well as other beach rankings.

There’s even a festival devoted to the super-fine, sugar-white sand. If you plan your visit to arrive after the annual aerospace expo, you can take part in the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival scheduled to run April 8 to 24. For 17 days, the beachwide festival brings in sand artists to create masterpieces and stages activities on the sand, ranging from live music and buskers to kids’ play areas and sand sculpting classes. Fireworks add dazzle as the fun continues after dark.

Clearwater Beach is on a barrier island three miles from downtown Clearwater and 25 miles from downtown Tampa. The main section of sandy beach is nearly three miles along the Gulf of Mexico and the accompanying accommodations, restaurants, bars, and shops are tightly packed into the three-block width between the beach and the Intracoastal Waterway.

The view of Clearwater Beach from the Sandpearl Resort in the morning, after the daily raking of the sand. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

Each morning I looked out from the balcony at the Sandpearl to see a pristine, just-raked beach. It is maintained by the city and has lifeguards on duty daily. No alcohol and no pets policies add to Clearwater’s reputation as a family-friendly beach, along with the generally calm water.

There wasn’t a better view of the sunset than from my balcony, but I did venture out to experience the nightly sunset celebration at Pier 60. Artist booths line the 1,080-foot concrete fishing and sightseeing pier, and musicians and performers gather from two hours before until two hours after sunset year-round for the events.

The pier sits at roughly the center of Clearwater Beach, making it an easy walk from any point along the beach either through the sand or using the paved beach walk that parallels the shoreline.

We spent one full day reading and people-watching under a cabana next to the pier. Hotels rent umbrellas, chairs, and cabanas on their property and concessionaires handle the rest of the beach. From our cabana, it was just a five-minute walk to seafood tacos and a fan-cooled respite on the patio at Badfins Food + Brew.

Stone crab season in Florida runs from mid-October through mid-May. Fishermen harvest large claws—shown here at a Frenchy's Rockaway Grill—without injuring the crab, which will return to the ocean and regenerate the claw. If you get the chance, try this delicacy. It has a sweet flavor similar to lobster and is served chilled like shrimp cocktail, steamed with drawn butter, as the protein in tacos, and many other ways. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

Another favorite meal was just a short walk through the sand from the Sandpearl to Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, the largest outpost of a family of five restaurants. The beachfront restaurant is packed in the evenings with diners wanting a sunset view, so plan ahead. We were fortunate to visit during stone crab season (mid-October through mid-May), ordering the claws served warm with drawn butter.

On our last day in the area, we drove to Honeymoon Island State Park, which is accessible by a causeway and offers a quiet beach to swim, shell, fish, hike, and bicycle. This also is where you can catch a 20-minute ferry to Caladesi Island State Park. Once reachable only by boat, Caladesi is no longer technically an island. With the inlet filled in, you can walk three miles along the beach from the northern edge of Clearwater Beach to reach the state park. Be sure to check the tide schedule and consult with locals if you decide to walk. Either island is a great destination during springtime bird migration.

A shell tree found along the beach on Honeymoon Island State Park, one of two state parks near Clearwater Beach known for their mostly undeveloped, quiet beaches. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

Back to what successfully tore us away from the beach: Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Just one mile from Clearwater Beach, the nonprofit is less of an aquarium attraction and more of a working marine rescue center that you’re allowed to tour. The staff is focused on rescuing; rehabilitating; and releasing dolphins, sea turtles, river otters, stingrays, and nurse sharks, among other marine life.

It has been an international destination since 2011 when the movie Dolphin Tale was filmed on location starring and telling the story inspired by Winter, a bottlenose dolphin injured in a crab trap and brought to the center, where a prosthetic tail allowed her to swim again. We saw Winter swimming in the dolphin complex’s main pool with PJ and Hope, another rescued dolphin who starred in Dolphin Tale 2. Sadly, a month after our visit, Winter died unexpectedly at age 16.

The aquarium has created an opportunity to swim with Winter virtually and experience her personality in their virtual reality theater. There are plenty of real-world experiences at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, also, including animal exhibits, guided tours, and boat rides including the Sea Life Safari Tour.

Whether you want an on-the-water adventure or a lazy, toes-in-the-sand retreat, Clearwater Beach can extend the fun and the sun if you’re headed to Sun ’n Fun.

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