Make every day sun day in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Florida

Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

If dreams of daytime highs of +24 instead of -24 or visions of sandy beaches are occupying your mind, then it’s definitely time to take your wind-chilled heart south. Sun, fun and beautiful beaches that will surpass your dreams await you in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area of Florida.

Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

You could hit either location for a beach escape, but it’s worth the effort to see both. They are a mere 40-minute drive apart. Each city has something unique to offer with its own vibe. In part, that is because of the difference in size and population.  St. Petersburg (St. Pete) has more than double the population of Clearwater (250,000 versus 110,000).

Both St. Pete and Clearwater are approximately a 30-minute drive from Tampa Bay Airport. Rent a car.  It is essential to get around.

While there is no question the beaches, beauty and heat are key attractions, St. Pete has an interesting history that dates back to 1875. General John Williams came down from Detroit and bought some land to create a city with beautiful parks and broad streets. Today’s St. Pete is a testament to his vision.

St. Pete quickly placed itself on the map and in 1914 became a key location for baseball spring training. That year also marked the first ‘commercial’ flight which took off from the area. From there, the sky was the limit. Tourism skyrocketed during the Roaring 20s and the city grew and flourished. The city’s beautiful Mediterranean architecture dates from that era.

When the U.S. Coast Guard and Army Air Corps set up shop in the region in the 1940s for training, the activity in the area during that war and post-war period increased. It brought thousands of people to the area.

Architecture in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

It developed a reputation as “God’s waiting room” but that has vanished over recent years. There is a really great lively vibe to St. Pete now. It is a warm community with an eclectic centre with funky, quirky shops, microbreweries, cafés, bars (with patios of course). There is a certain cool, yet eccentric, sophistication about the city. With scores of galleries, an active performing arts community and seven museums, the city is the cultural hub of central Florida. While being indoors may not be a top priority, the Dali Museum is a fantastic place to visit. It is the home to the largest, most comprehensive collection of Salvador Dalí’s work outside of Spain.

If glass art is your thing, then hit the Chihuly Collection. It is the first permanent collection of Dale Chihuly’s work in the world.

Not surprising, given the fantastic weather, the streets have become an art gallery themselves, with over 30 public art projects scattered throughout the city. St. Petersburg Preservation offers a great walking tour where you can see some of the pieces as well as get a comprehensive history of the place.

St. Petersburg/Clearwater hold a Guinness World Record for the most consecutive days of sun, lasting 768 days (which started back in 1967) so you may just want to spend as much time as you can on the beach. Many of the region’s beaches regularly make the top 20 lists of many different surveys.  The ones that will truly take your breath away include St. Pete Beach, Clearwater, Caladesi State Park (well worth the drive), Fort DeSoto (a stunning 900-acre county preserve with five islands and over 10 km of undeveloped beaches).

The Don CeSar Hotel. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

If you just want to camp out at a hotel, spoil yourself and have the beach and a beautiful beach- side hotel at your fingertips, there is no better place than the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, known as the ‘Pink Palace’. Splurge. It is worth every dime. Built in 1928, it faces the white, sugar-like sands of the Gulf of Mexico and has had quite the guest list including people such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Presidents Carter and Clinton, to name just a few. (There are also guests that apparently never leave … the Pink Palace supposedly is haunted.  It was used as a veterans’ convalescence home during the war/post-war period. Furthermore, there are reports that the founder of the Don CeSar benignly and posthumously wanders around his hotel.)

It has been used in movies as you might imagine, including Once Upon a Time in America (Robert DeNiro) Forever Mine (Ray Liotta, Ralph Fiennes). Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers used the hotel for an MTV video special.

It has two pools, a hot tub and an incredible outdoor bar, all of which are close to the beach. Your kids can swim in the pool (if you bring them) while you sit nearby in the hot tub. If you want them to disappear altogether, there is a children’s activity centre where they can have fun while you peacefully enjoy the beautiful sunsets from the Don CeSar beach. They are stunning.

The food is what you would expect from a high-end hotel. However, there are many eclectic off-site dining spots to experience the local flavour. Frenchy’s, (which was actually founded by a Quebecer), and Crabby Bill’s are two regional chains that are legendary, local institutions. They are reasonably priced and are peppered around the St. Pete/Clearwater area.  Frenchy’s has the best seafood ceviche you may ever have. Its fresh grouper is also incredible. Crabby Bill’s has excellent fish and seafood as well, (including, yes, the most, delectable crabs), and somehow has a bit more of a laid-back feeling, although everywhere in the region a welcoming, relaxed environment seems to permeate.

There is an expression in Clearwater that every day is sun day and it’s for good reason.  There are 361 days of sun and a fabulous average temperature of 73 degrees in the area.  While it has the same weather as St. Pete, Clearwater has a different vibe.  It has a bit more of a resort town/party feel to it and a lively post-sunset night life.

Winter from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg & Clearwater

Be sure to hit Pier 60 for its nightly sunset festival with a movie, artisans, crafters, buskers, music.

If you do decide to venture away from the beautiful beaches there are lots of touristy-type activities. There is dolphin watching, sailing, cycling, boat tours and many water sport activities.

Kids of all ages will enjoy a ride on Captain Memo’s Pirate Ship, the Pirate’s Ransom. It is a big hit with the younger set and those over 21 will enjoy it too, if only for the free drinks – even before noon.

The blockbuster movies Dolphin Tale I and Dolphin Tale II have recently put Clearwater on the radar screen for a lot of people and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, (CMA) where the movies were filmed, is an absolute must-see. Winter, a dolphin who had her tail amputated after having been stuck in a crab trap, and now has a prosthetic tail, survived against the odds and has thrived at the Aquarium. She became an international symbol of resilience for the physically challenged and the Aquarium has become a pilgrimage of sorts. Her story touched millions and Hope, another rescued dolphin, has added to the attraction of the place.  Other rescued sea life are fun to see as well. The CMA’s mandate is to rescue, rehabilitate and release healed marine animals as well as to educate the public.

Frenchy's Oasis Motel

In Clearwater, and in St. Pete for that matter, there is any kind of accommodation you want.  If you want big chain hotels, some with the price tag to go along with it, they are there. Less extravagant chains are there too. There are options on the beach and others that are not. However, the fact of the matter is, wherever you are, the beach is never far away.

For an intimate experience and to get a feel of old-school Florida, try Frenchy's Oasis Motel. The same person who founded Frenchy’s restaurant chain bought the original motel (the Olympia) and renovated it, but did so maintaining a retro feel. It has all the necessities, like a great outdoor pool in the centre of the motel. The place is small and has a community ambience to it. There is a 24-hour common area with a computer and printer, a great coffee machine and a tv and movie collection that you can watch there or borrow for your room. While there is no maid service, there is daily towel replacement if you need it and the pool is well equipped with towels and toys. The rooms have a kitchenette but skip the cooking as there are incredible restaurants everywhere.

One of the great things about Florida is that it is not that far away so travel time can be minimized and beach time maximized. If a week is impossible for a getaway, even a long, four-day weekend to St. Petersburg/Clearwater will get you that hit of sun to get you through our tumultuous winter.

Just do it. You won’t regret it.