Summer Guide 2010: Clearwater Beach

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click to enlarge Summer Guide 2010: Clearwater Beach - Charles Greacen
Charles Greacen
Summer Guide 2010: Clearwater Beach

Head west down State Road 60 over the gigantic arches of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway and you'll know you're almost at Clearwater Beach by the traffic backed up to the top of the bridge. Like a ferris wheel, you may be stuck at that height longer than you'd like, but the view is spectacular.

Like so many barrier islands up and down the gulf coast of Florida, Clearwater Beach is a study in contrasts. White sand beaches and crashing waves backed by tightly packed development that seems to cover every square inch of the island. Kitschy tourist traps side-by-side with independent and historic restaurants and activities. It's not exactly quaint, but it sums up our state so well you might as well put the whole island into a natural history museum with the tag: Florida.

Clearwater Beach does have a few things going for it that sets it apart from much of the rest of the area. The island is bordered by some pretty spectacular parkland: the rolling expanse of dunes at Sand Key Park provides a border between Clearwater Beach and Bellaire Beach to the south, while the unspoiled island paradise of Caladesi Island — just about the same size as the densely populated Clearwater Beach — lies just off the northern shore.

That means you can experience the extremes of Florida's beach wildlife by watching turtles hatch on Caladesi or participating in mating rituals at Shephard's; cruising the ocean blue on Captain Memo's faux-pirate galleon or snorkeling into the lively shallows around the pass of Sand Key; eating exquisite Floribbean grouper at Caretta's or noshing on a Clearwater public beach hot dog.

It's Florida, baby. The good, the bad and the ugly, with a spectacular view.

DINING & NIGHTLIFE

1. Bait House Tackle and Tavern 45 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-446-8134, clearwaterbaithouse.com. Buy some bait shrimp and new weights, rent a boat, eat a grouper sandwich and drink a cold draft beer, all in one convenient spot.

2. Caretta on the Gulf 500 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-441-2425, sandpearl.com. Tucked into the Sandpearl Resort as a result of a recent renovation, Caretta is a beautiful and romantic spot to nosh on elegant food while watching the waves crash ashore a few hundred feet away.

3. Clearwater Wine Bar and Bistro 483 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-446-8805, clearwaterwinecompany. This intimate wine bar features 40 different pours by the glass, a good beer selection and some simple fern-bar food and Mexican dishes featuring local produce. They also sell wine retail.

4. Frenchy's Cafe 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach, 727-446-3607, frenchysonline.com. A local favorite, this café is the quiet, no-nonsense father of the Frenchy's chain. It's small, but not cramped or noisy with half-naked drunks.

5. Frenchy's Rockaway Grill on the Beach 7 Rockaway St. Clearwater Beach, 727-446-4844, frenchysonline.com. Frenchy's is the beach bar in Clearwater. Surrounded on two sides by sand, the open-air hot spot offers a breezy atmosphere with endless views of volleyball games, sunbathers and the surf. The bars are constantly packed with sun-worshippers drenched in salt water and salty margaritas.

6. Heilman's Beachcomber 447 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-442-4144, bobheilmans.com. A Clearwater Beach landmark, Heilman's has been serving its signature beach-chic meat and seafood since 1948.

7. Kelly's Beach Bar on Mandalay 454 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-447-5080, myspace.com/kellysbeachplace. For those who don't like to mix dancing or dressing up with drinking, Kelly's is a relaxed watering hole frequented by Clearwater locals and service industry folks after the sun goes down.

8. Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar 10 Bay Esplanade, Clearwater Beach, 727-446-2642, palmpavilion.com. This open-air bar and grill is a slightly fancier, calmer and more family-friendly alternative to the booze-drenched bar across the beach at Frenchy's.

9. Shephard's Beach Resort, Tiki Bar, and Wave Nightclub 601 South Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-442-5107, shephards.com. If you have a boat but don't like to mix your drinks or food with sand, Shephard's is your spot, featuring an impressive buffet for those who prefer rocking Hawaiian shirts to bikinis. At night Shephard's comprises the whole of the club scene in Clearwater, catering to vacationers and visitors with a taste for beer, bands, bikinis, wet T-shirt contests, DJs and dancing. (See Sex & Love Editor Shawn Alff's account of a night at Shepard's on p. 64.)

ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS

10. Caladesi Island Ferry Across from Pier 60 Parking Lot, west end State Road 60, 727-442-7433; west end of Dunedin Causeway, end of State Road 586, 727-734-1501; caladesiferry.org. Caladesi Island was rated number one beach in the world by Dr. Beach in 2008, thanks to three miles of unspoiled and uncrowded white sands reachable only by boat. If you don't have your own ride, hop on this ferry; the Dunedin boat runs every hour and costs $12 round trip, while the Clearwater version takes longer but guarantees dolphin sightings and free beer, wine and soda for $59 round trip.

11. Captain Bligh's Landing 630 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-443-6348. Sure, it may be a standard putt-and-play place, but the big wooden pirate ship and damp caves pack a little extra punch this close to the beach, and they still have video games!

12. Captain Memo's Original Pirate Cruise Clearwater Marina, Clearwater Beach, 727-446-2587, captainmemo.com. The ship looks like nothing more than Captain Hook's ill-fated vessel, and the two-hour trip includes tutorials on the finer aspects of the pirate life, minus any actual rapin' and pillagin' or rat-infested food. At $25 for kids, the price isn't a king's ransom, even when you count the inevitable purchases of plastic swords and faux-flintlocks to outfit your budding pre-adolescent pirates. You will have to bring your own rum ration in a flask, but keep it on the down-low.

13. Clearwater Marine Aquarium 249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, 727-441-1790 or seewinter.com. Home of local mascot Winter the dolphin, this waterfront aquarium specializes in the rehabilitation and care of rescued dolphins, turtles and sea otters, who then perform tricks for people like you.

14. Honeymoon Island State Park #1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, 727-469-5942, floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland. Swim, snorkel, fish, shell, birdwatch or just lie on the beach at this extensive state park facility just over the causeway from Dunedin.

15. Queen Fleet Deep Sea Fishing 25 Causeway Blvd. Slip #52, Clearwater, 727-446-7666, queenfleet.com. These are charter boats for serious fishermen, each rated to hold 150 passengers. You can join in one of the scheduled fishing trips, or rent out an entire boat for an all-day party and fishtravaganza deep into the Gulf of Mexico.

16. Sand Key Park 1060 Gulf Blvd., Clearwater, 727-588-4852. This Pinellas park is a wide stretch of unspoiled white sand beach, albeit with amenities that include beach cabanas and surf wheelchairs. Check out the sea turtle nests — from a distance — during the summer.

SHOPPING & SERVICES

17. Chapel By The Sea 54 Bay Esplanade, Clearwater, 727-446-0430, chapelbythesea.net. The only church on Clearwater Beach, the Chapel is an equal-opportunity house of worship, non-doctrinal and inter-faith, so no one will chide you for your lapsed attendance. More importantly, they do a lot of weddings.

18. Frenchy's Seafood Company 419 East Shore Drive, Clearwater Beach, 727-442-6411, frenchysonline.com. Yeah, Clearwater Beach is Frenchytown. Here's where the Frenchy's fleet unloads fish caught in the Gulf, easily some of the freshest fish you can purchase in the entire Bay area.

19. Olde Nautical Shoppe 25 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater, 727-441-3036, oldenauticalshoppe.com. You can tell by the name that there's some history in this shoppe, which features antiques and reproductions ranging from vintage fishing gear to artifacts from centuries-old schooners.

20. Psychotic Ink Tattoo and Piercing 432 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater, 727-298-0968, psychoticinktattoo.com. After a day in the sun, what better way to celebrate your trip to Clearwater Beach than with a new tattoo? (Apparently, dolphins are very popular.) But if you opt for a belly button ring — a popular accessory on Clearwater's bikini beaches — make sure to heal up before heading back to the surf.

Click here to return to the Summer Guide 2010: The Beaches

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