When my best friend announced that she was moving to Clearwater, my heart stopped. For decades we'd stumbled through life in Washington, DC, raising our boys from diapers to high school diplomas. Not having her nearby seemed unimaginable. But my BFF, who was sick of shoveling snow and wanted to be closer to her family in the Tampa area, was heading south.
Frequent phone calls eased the pang of missing each other, but before long we were online comparing plane fares for a Florida vacation and reunion of our families. Our plans were set, and we could not wait to tug off our heavy sweaters during the flight and watch the temperature jump from frozen tundra to balmy tropics.Upon landing at the Tampa Airport, we learned that you can go from baggage claim to sunny waterfront in the blink of an eye. Local beaches are famous for soft sand, warm waters and tall palm trees. Ranked among America's best, Clearwater Beach is a gorgeous 2.5-mile-long stretch of barrier island with gentle waves and seaside activities ranging from scuba diving and charter fishing to bikini volleyball matches and sand sculpture festivals. Strolling along the Beach Walk reveals a variety of unique shops and seafood restaurants. A visit wouldn't be complete without a Frenchy's Café fried grouper sandwich washed down with fruity rum drinks.
Those seeking a more secluded side of the sea have superb options. South of Clearwater Beach is Sand Key Park, a 95-acre preserve where sea turtles lay eggs in white sand while humans picnic, swim, hike and run little ones at the playground or dog park. North of Clearwater is Caladesi Island State Park, which is only accessible by public ferry or boat. It provides a pristine haven for seashell collecting, bird watching and kayaking through a mangrove forest. The marina's concession stand only offers snacks and refreshments, so pack a cooler for day trips. Just north of Caladesi lies Honeymoon Island State Park, with four miles of uncrowded beach for sunbathing, fishing and playing fetch at the pet beach.
Nestled inside a bastion of natural beauty, Clearwater is not a sleepy beach town. It bustles with theaters, shops, pubs, restaurants, craft breweries and art galleries. Sunsets at Pier 60 showcase nightly music, street performers and local craft vendors, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium encourages interactive learning with dolphins. Clearwater Beach Marina provides a central location for visiting all the attractions.
Despite repeated warnings to put on more sunscreen, our crew was glowing red, so we took a break from the sun and began exploring coastal towns near Clearwater. First stop was Dunedin, located north of Clearwater overlooking St. Joseph Sound off the Gulf of Mexico.
This charming town is pre-season home for the Toronto Blue Jays. Restaurants, art galleries, craft breweries and stores are hip enough to hold their own against urban counterparts. But the place to be at the day's end is the town pier. Crowds gather there at sunset to watch the celestial orb cast colors across the water before it moves out of sight. Awed by the spectacular display, people disperse while the nocturnal show features birds at flight and twinkling stars.
Palm Harbor awaits up the coastline, flanked by St. Joseph Sound and Tarpon Lake. Whether you cruise into the 100-year-old Speckled Trout Marina or upscale Home Port Marina, you arrive at a family-friendly town with an old Florida vibe. Its main street is lined with historic buildings and eateries serving everything from sushi at the Thirsty Marlin and fine cuisine at Ozone Blue Grill. For parents: Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club, a 900-acre luxury destination with four golf courses, including Copperhead where the PGA Tour holds its Valspar Championship. For the kids: Suncoast Primate Sanctuary for encounters with apes, lemurs and other exotic critters.
We expected fresh seafood and sunshine on this trip but did not anticipate spanakopita and Greek music. The journey north from Palm Harbor brought us to Tarpon Springs along the Anclote River. Strolling up Dodecanese Boulevard, our mouths watered at the smell of lamb souvlaki mixed with a briny breeze. We passed block after block of Greek restaurants, groceries, bakeries and gift shops with sponge displays.
While seated at a table on the waterfront deck at Dimitri's on the Water, we learned the town's backstory. In the 1800s, Bahamian, Key West and local black watermen harvested sponges with three-pronged rakes in the plentiful local reefs. In 1905, John Corcoris arrived and introduced the more effective Greek method of sponge diving, and a sponge boom time ensued. As Corcoris brought in scores of Mediterranean divers, the Greek community blossomed, with the elegant St. Nicholas Cathedral as its centerpiece and a statue near the docks that honors the divers. A short distance from the Greek district you find beautiful Victorian homes, dolphin cruises, aquarium, art galleries and museums. Capt'n Jack's Waterfront Grill, across the Anclote River from Dimitri's, serves superb seafood dishes, especially local shrimp.
Our final destination was due north, upstream from where the Weeki Wachee River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Since the 1940s, tourists have flocked to Weeki Wachee to see mermaids perform a water ballet show while breathing oxygen through a specially designed tube. A splash park with water slides, beach and picnic spots are nearby, but manmade attractions were not on our agenda. We were here to see manatees.
Near Weeki Wachee State Park, we rented kayaks at the Kayak Shack and started paddling through astonishingly clear water. Plush foliage and palm trees along the shore heightened the sense of adventure. The up-close view of fish, crabs, turtles and other aquatic creatures swimming beneath us was exhilarating, and the cool waters lured us out of the kayaks for a quick dip. Then we met the manatees. Slowly and gracefully, gentle herbivores glided past us, using short front flippers and powerful tails to propel their round gray bodies through the water.
It was a magical experience that none of us will ever forget. And building new memories with our dearest friends made the distance seem not so far away.