Sunday, January 2, 2011

Clearwater Beach: A Little Bit 2011, a Little Bit 19??

Clearwater Beach remains a standout among beaches. Anyone who has only visited Florida's east coast has missed the real beauty of Florida beaches. While not a surfer's paradise, the pure white sand and crystal blue water draw sun worshipers, shell collectors, beach bums and retirees alike. Sunsets invite a round of applause from the patrons at local beach bars. Of course, the whole Suncoast is dotted with natural beauty and lays claim to Dr. Beach's top awards most years. Clearwater Beach adds in all the touristy goodies.

Clearwater Beach seems to be torn between two personalities (or eras) at the moment. It was once a more old-fashioned beach vacation spot, with primarily Mom and Pop motels, ice cream parlors, tacky t-shirt places, various sightseeing and booze cruises and seafood joints and bars. Much of that remains, though many of the Mom and Pops have been devastated by the economy of the last few years (and the unfortunate misperception that the oil spill affected this area, putting the proverbial nail in the coffin for some businesses). However, in recent years, the city has made some improvements to the infrastructure, with a beautiful beach walk along the Gulf. At the same time, a few upscale hotels joined the crowd of Mom and Pops. The variety is nice, and I like having a range of options, but it does make for an odd mix at times. The area still draws a lot of visitors from overseas, so not only do you have all ages and styles of visitors, you often find a variety of nationalities and languages.

It's a great place to take a walk on the beach and the morning is the best time to enjoy the peacefulness. As the day progresses, it's fun to embrace the people watching and soak in all the tacky goodness.

Some spots I would recommend:

Any of the Frenchy's Restaurants for fresh seafood. Rockaway Grill has the best location, especially for a sunset, but you can get a lot of the same food at the other spots with generally lighter crowds. Grouper in any form is delicious (fresh off their own boats) and the She Crab soup stands out (Just plan ahead--it is a meal in itself. A bartender told us they had a staff contest and most couldn't get beyond a bowl.). For anyone who hasn't tried Stone Crab claws, they may seem expensive until you taste them. They rival lobster any day.

Bobby's Bistro. The more intimate and modern little brother (or grandson?) to Heilman's Beachcomber. The Beachcomber is a little too traditional (stuffy, staid?) for me and the bistro offers the same quality (and awesome wine list) with a modern touch. We lucked in to a bistro table on New Year's eve due to a cancellation-a great end to 2010! The grouper dish I chose for my entree was the best grouper I ever recall eating (and I've had more than my share). It was cooked in parchment with a bechamel sauce and lump crab meat, so it was tender and rich, but the chef's biggest coup was in striking the perfect seasoning. Even after several courses on the prix fixe menu, I couldn't stop until ever bite was consumed.

Swim Bar at the new Hyatt. Located up high above the Gulf, this deck bar and pool afford some of Clearwater's best views. Come for the view at sunset, enjoy a cocktail or two.

Some other great places to visit include: The Sandpearl Hotel and it's restaurant and bars, for a fancier experience and beach front views. You get the feeling you're in Naples or Miami instead of Clearwater Beach. Head just across the street to Clear Sky Restaurant, which is well known for great food including a killer breakfast (Why is it that big breakfast seems to go so well with the beach? I guess it's the whole vacation indulgence thing...or being able to sleep it off...). I'm also a big fan of Island Way Grill for sushi, appetizers and great drinks, especially on their deck. It's also a good spot for a special occasion dinner, but I prefer the more casual atmosphere of the bar, deck or sushi bar.

The Sandpearl or the Hyatt are clearly two standout places to stay on the beach, but don't forget the Mom and Pops. We stayed at the Sands Point Motel and it's a whole different experience. I like having more space than a typical hotel room when it's for a few nights and many of the Clearwater motels offer small apartments (for prices also reminiscent of another era). Our room had a nice sized living room and small kitchen, so these places may be especially appealing to families as you can prepare food and stretch out a bit. They don't always have all the modern I found out when I discovered no hairdryer (oh well, wet hair at the beach isn't a deal breaker). Also, our space heater didn't quite warm things to the preferred temp. the first night (these places weren't equipped for the climate change that seems to be hitting Florida in winter lately). Check online for a wide variety of small hotels and motels. I take TripAdvisor reviews with a grain of salt, but it's a good place to read up on some of the smaller hotels to get an overall impression.

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