Happy New Year! It’s great to be back at Or So She Says, writing about favorite travel destinations and ideas. This is the time of year when I dream about beach vacations. So today I’m spotlighting one of the best family beach destinations in the United States – Clearwater, Florida.
Clearwater is a fun and family-friendly beach town located on Florida’s gulf coast. It is a short drive from the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, and about two hours away from Orlando.
What to Do
The sugary sands and blue-green water at Clearwater Beach are its biggest draw. Clearwater’s beach is so good that readers of USA Today voted it “Florida’s Best Beach Town” in 2013 and the #1 Place to Watch a Sunset. It’s a great place to play in the waves, build a sand castle, or relax under a beach umbrella with a good book.
The best way to enjoy Clearwater’s famous sunsets is to stop by Pier 60 each evening to enjoy live music, local artisans and street performers sharing their talents at Sunsets at Pier 60. This free family event is held year-round.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is the home of Winter, the dolphin whose inspiring story was told in the movie Dolphin Tale. You can see Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, along with other animal stars from the film.
Your admission to the aquarium also gets you into Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, which is a separate building filled with props and scenes from the movie Dolphin Tale. Visitors from the aquarium are provided with transportation by water taxi or trolley.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium is still a rescue hospital first and a tourist attraction second. Admission fees and donations are being used to expand the hospital and build better facilities for future visitors.
Caladesi Island State Park
Caladesi Island State Park lies at the far northern end of Clearwater Beach and can only be reached by boat. You can rent a kayak or take a ferry to reach the park. Once there, you can get an idea of what the Florida beaches looked like decades, or even centuries ago.
The beach is undeveloped. Mangrove forests are preserved. There are no roads. There are a few amenities, including a small café, restrooms, a playground and beach chair rentals, but most visitors bring their own chairs and picnic. It’s a great place to get away from the crowds. It’s also one of the best places around to collect sea shells.
Where to Eat
You can’t really say you’ve been to Clearwater Beach unless you’ve tried Frenchy’s. There are four Frenchy’s restaurants on Clearwater Beach. The menus vary, but Frenchy’s famous grouper sandwich is on all of them, along with a tempting array of other seafood specialties. There is a kids’ menu, with chicken tenders and grilled cheese sandwiches for picky eaters.
If you’re feeling a little adventurous, try the poutine at Frenchy’s Original Cafe. This dish of French fries topped with brown gravy and fresh cheese curds is a true guilty pleasure. Frenchy’s atmosphere is casual and friendly, and the prices are reasonable.
Where to Stay
Location is an important consideration when shopping for hotels in Clearwater. Clearwater Beach is a barrier island which is connected to the city of Clearwater by a causeway. The island is only about three blocks wide, so any hotel you choose will be near the beach.
You can save money – up to 50 percent – by staying on the other side of the causeway in Clearwater. However, if you’re visiting on a weekend or holiday, be aware that traffic jams on the causeway are common during peak times, and it may be challenging to find parking of any kind at Clearwater Beach.
For families on a budget, hotel rooms at Clearwater Beach can be found for under $200 per night in peak season. One of these is Frenchy’s Oasis Motel, which is owned by the same company as the Frenchy’s restaurants. My family stayed at this quirky retro motel last June and it was perfect for us. Our updated room had a full kitchen, a big-screen television and a patio with a view of the harbor and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Few places embody the family vacation better than Florida. And, when you’re thinking of a Florida beach vacation, chances are that you are thinking of a place like Clearwater.