Away from the theme parks…

Just over two hours driving time from the thrills and spills of the world’s best theme parks in Orlando is an area of Florida often overlooked by the British.

Clearwater Beach lays on a barrier island in the clear warm seas of the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s west coast. My mother (a very young 72 year-old at the time) and I tore ourselves away from the fun of Orlando and drove just over 100 miles towards the sea. Initially terrified of driving on the wrong side of the road in an area I didn’t know – AND in an automatic car – I soon relaxed at the wheel and began to enjoy the scenery. We knew we were near the sea when we crossed over a vast, sparkling expanse of water – on the Courtney Campbell Causeway – where pelicans perched on each side of the bridge and the water shimmered in the hot Florida sunshine. We crossed Pinellas county and another road bridge and soon arrived at our destination, Clearwater Beach.

Our hotel, the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort(www.hiltonclearwaterbeachresort.com), was in a perfect position; right on the beach, but also within a very short walk to some great restaurants, the marina, and the famous Pier 60. The check-in staff were welcoming and friendly, and our room, although not overlooking the beach, had a balcony with views across the causeway to the mainland.   From here we could see the steady flow of boats coming and going in the marina, and the trolley buses passing in the street below.

 

But we’d only just arrived, and wanted to stretch our legs and wind down with a cool drink and something to eat. We wandered towards the marina and were lured by delicious aromas into Crabby Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, where we ate hot chicken ‘sandwiches’ and drank ice-cold, freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice.  We were here at last, relaxing on Crabby Bill’s shady veranda, beneath the gentle breeze of the ceiling fans, enjoying the warmth and the salty sea air, and listening to a couple of ‘good ole boys’ singing along to their guitars!

The marina at Clearwater Beach (not to be confused with Clearwater itself on the mainland) is full of boats of all types;  some are just for tourists (Captain Nemo’s Pirate Cruise Ship takes buccaneers of all ages on a 2-hour swashbuckling adventure along the coast, where kids get to be Captain Jack Sparrow while their parents relax with a rum punch); some supply fresh fish to local seafood restaurants, and some will take landlubbers out to chase marlin and mahi-mahi.

 Huge brown pelicans perch on every mooring post, and herons strut around on the boardwalks hoping to catch the leftovers as the fishermen sort the day’s catch. Alongside the marina are little shops selling fishing tackle, sea shells, sun cream and gifts.

The resort itself stretches out along the coast, and has no obvious central focal point, apart from in the late afternoon when the sun starts to lose a little of its heat.

Then, two hours before sundown, Pier 60 becomes The Place To Be.

By day the pier is just a wooden boardwalk stretching into the sea; but come sunset, local craftsmen set up little stalls all along it, selling paintings, jewellery, candles and photographic prints.  It becomes the focal point for locals and tourists, who gather to potter among the stalls and watch the jugglers, buskers and magicians who entertain adults and children alike. You’ll probably want to join the many people sitting on the soft, white sand of this broad beach to watch the sun slip below the horizon out to sea.

 

 Sunsets here are spectacular; and if you’re REALLY lucky, you just might see the elusive ‘green flash’, a phenomenon that sometimes bathes the horizon in a flash of green light if atmospheric conditions are just right. Then it’s time for a local favourite – Cajun-fried grouper at Frenchy’s Saltwater Café – washed down with a cold beer or a cocktail.

The next day we took the Suncoast Beach Trolley – a very cheap way of travelling (slowly) down the coast – to the quaint little community of Pass-a-Grille, passing through the little seaside resorts of Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Treasure Island. All the way along we had tantalising glimpses of the Gulf between the small hotels and guest houses. Just before Pass-a-Grille we drove past the huge Don CeSar Beach Resort, at the southern end of St Pete Beach. This ornate pink building, with its towers and turrets, dating back to 1928, is straight out of a Hollywood movie, and dominates the beach it sits on.  Pass-a-Grille, in contrast – a mixture of small B&Bs, bars and restaurants, and private homes – is low key, laid-back, homely and quiet. The road here runs as far down the coast as it can before it turns back on itself; you can’t get any further, and guest houses are called ‘Island’s End’ and ‘Inn on the Beach’. All along the Gulf side the old-fashioned pastel-coloured buildings face onto the sea-grass and the white sands. One block back, the road looks out over the bay to the ‘mainland’ of Tierra Verde and a stretch of luxury homes with moorings for private boats. Here again, every mooring pole provides a comfy sun-spot for brown pelicans. At Pass-a-Grille’s famous Hurricane Seafood Restaurant we took ourselves up to the roof terrace, where we ordered margaritas, conch fritters and battered gator tails (a bit chewy, and a bit like squid)! Jimmy Buffet songs played quietly in the background, and we gazed across between the palm trees at this little slice of Florida that seemed to be happily and firmly stuck in a bygone era. I could live here….! We ate ice cream and paddled at the water’s edge, looking for sand dollars – flat white ‘sea-shells’ commonly found on these shores. Then we took the trolley-bus back to our hotel to see what Pier 60 had to offer that night.

 

We’d heard so much about the beaches around here – those at Clearwater and Pass-a-Grille were fantastic, but we knew that just a couple more miles further south lay Fort De Soto (www.pinellascounty.org/park), which over several years has been voted America’s Top Beach and Trip Advisor’s Number One Beach! We took the car this time, driving down the Pinellas Bayway until we found ourselves at Fort De Soto, in what, from the car, appeared to be an area of flat scrubland with a few clumps of trees dotted around. We found a huge, shaded, fairly deserted car park and followed a path through some trees which we assumed would lead us to somewhere more interesting….

Then, suddenly, a view that took our breath away.

Stretched out before us was a vast expanse of the whitest sand, the bluest sky, and the deepest turquoise sea I have ever seen. Everything shimmered and sparkled; pelicans floated lazily across the cloudless sky; the leaves on the palm trees clicked together in the breeze, and across the vast expanse of soft, white, powdery sand we could hear gentle waves lapping on the shore. Little tufts of sea oats and sea grapes clustered around the back of the beach, and groups of sandpipers ran in and out of the waves, looking for shells.

 

 In spite of a gentle wind, the heat was incredible. I left my mother stretched out in the shade, and wandered along the shore next to the sea as far as I could go before shrubbery took over the sand. Here, behind the beach, a small wooded area hid a vast dappled lake, where I sat for twenty minutes watching a heron stalking fish in the shallows.

When the heat became too much for us, we headed back to the car and followed the Park’s road to one of the fishing piers near the old Fort itself.

We walked to the end of the pier, where a few people were fishing, attracting a huge amount of attention from herons and pelicans (which would fly parallel to the pier, then suddenly fold back their wings, stretch their heads downwards, and dive like bullets head-first into the sea, slicing through the waves with a muffled splash).

Once dwindling in numbers, these brown pelicans have made a strong comeback thanks to strict conservation measures in the area. They frequently get tangled up in fishing lines as they try to snatch the fishermens’ catches; the men will calmly untangle the huge ungainly birds and send them on their way, squawking and flapping.

Then – the highlight of the day – out to sea the silver-grey shimmer of a dolphin fin broke the surface….then another… and we realised there were several of them, in little pods of three or four. I’ve swum with dolphins before, in Discovery Cove in Orlando, where you can hold their fins as they propel you through the water, and lift a finger to make them jump and twirl. But nothing can compare to the thrill of seeing them in the wild, zooming across the waves and frolicking in the sunshine! This was spellbinding, magical, unforgettable. I tried to take photos, but they were too quick for me, and I couldn’t focus on the right place at the right time. In the end I gave up and just enjoyed the spectacle. Reluctantly, eventually, we said goodbye to Fort De Soto; we’d barely scratched the surface of this amazing park, which covers over 1,000 acres, and as well as the perfect beaches has a hugely popular campground, paved cycling and skating paths, kayak trails, bike rentals, shower blocks and snack bars.

We only spent five nights at Clearwater Beach, then moved on to St Pete Beach for a further five nights (staying at the Tradewinds Sandpiper Resort – http://www.justletgo.com/flbch).

St Pete Beach is scattered out along the coast road and seems to consist of a long line of hotels, restaurants and bars, all with easy access to the stunning beach and nightly sunset show. There is so much to do in this part of Florida that at least two weeks would be needed to do it justice. We managed to squeeze in a day at St Petersburg, where we visited the world-famous Dali Museum, and the Pier with its upside-down pyramid building. We found lovely, homely little diners where we had our breakfast each day (eggs over-easy, pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and fresh strong coffee..), and in the evenings we ate in burger shacks, Cuban bars and upmarket seafood restaurants. We would sit on our balcony at night and watch the lights of the cars driving over the causeway as Captain Nemo’s Pirate Ship sailed off into the sunset. At the Tradewinds Sandpiper, we lay in hammocks on the sand, or wandered around the little waterways in the beautiful tropical gardens of the sister hotel just along the beach, (the more upmarket Tradewinds Island Grand). We never saw the legendary ‘green flash’, but every sunset was breathtaking.

We DIDN’T get a chance to visit Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay; or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Caladesi State Park (Fort De Soto’s rival for the title of America’s Best Beach), the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, the eclectic shops and restaurants of the Historic John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk; and many, many tantalising restaurants and fascinating places that we just didn’t have time to try. But I will be back, next time with my husband and teenage sons, because this part of Florida – the lesser known part – has absolutely everything for a family holiday that will stay in your memory forever.