The Gulf of Florida: Clearly Clearwater
By Laura Reiley


When you conjure in your mind a Florida Gulf Coast beach, it’s Clearwater Beach you’re imagining. It’s all textbook stretches of white sand and clear, warm Gulf water, with lots of comfy beachside hotels and waterside amenities for families.

Beyond its wide, inviting shoreline, Clearwater Beach offers serious beach volleyball and equally serious nightlife and casual seafood restaurants. The Jolley Trolley whisks visitors from their hotel, through town, and right to the beachside Pier 60 , something of the center of town with its own nightly festival in observance of the ostentatious sunset displays over the Gulf of Mexico.

FAMILY ADVENTURES

Beyond the allure of all that sand and sparkling blue water, loads of other family fun can be found around every corner.

While the Florida Aquarium in Tampa usually gets the bulk of the kudos, Clearwater Marine Aquarium (249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, 727/441-1790, $9 adults, $6.50 children 3-12) is a smaller, more modest facility with, in some ways, loftier aims. It’s a working research facility and home to rescued and recuperating marine mammals (dolphins, whales, otters, etc.).

For the visitor, the thrust is on education, with hourly animal care and training presentations and exhibits on animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. The museum operates a daily two-hour-long Sea Life Safari (25 Causeway Blvd., Slip #58, Clearwater Beach, 727/462-2628) that takes visitors around the Clearwater estuary and Intracoastal Waterway, with commentary by a marine biologist.

CULTURE


When you want to take in a little culture, head to Ruth Eckerd Hall (1111 McMullen Booth Rd. N., Clearwater, 727/791-7000, www.rutheckerdhall.com, times and prices vary), the locus for much of the area’s lively arts activity. The 2,200-seat space was designed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation more than 20 years ago and the space still looks fresh, the sound still full and lush.

This month the lineup is varied, verging on schizophrenic, featuring REO Speedwagon and Styx, Trisha Yearwood, Ron White, ZZ Top, and a run of the play "Dr. Dolittle." If you tastes in theater run to the "whodunnit," the venerable community theater Francis Wilson Playhouse (302 Seminole St., Clearwater, 727/446-1360, curtain 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. matinees, $14) stages "Cliffhanger" in October and November, an old-fashioned thriller/chiller with some heart, heartbreak, and hearty laughs.

This is an exciting time to stop in for a visit at nearby St. Petersburg’s Florida International Museum (244 2nd St. N., 727/341-7900, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and Sat., until 9 p.m. Fri., noon-6 p.m. Sun., $10 adults, $8 seniors and students, $5 children 7-12, six and under free).

October 6 marked the grand opening of the museum in its new location, with the launch of "The Beatles: Back Stage and Behind the Scenes." The show comes direct from a successful season at The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and focuses on the Fab Four’s groundbreaking 1964 trip to the United States and includes photography, memorabilia, video, and music.

Maybe a little quieter currently, the Salvador Dalí Museum is the world's most comprehensive collection of permanent works by the famous Spanish master, with a dense concentration of his Surrealist works, what he described as a "spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivation of delirious associations and interpretations." (1000 3rd St. S., St. Petersburg, 727/823-3767, 9:30 a.m-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-5:30 p.m. Sun., $14 general, $12 seniors, $9 students, $3.50 children 5-9, children 4 and under free

HOW TO GET THERE

Clearwater Beach
and Pinellas County are easily accessible from major interstates along the Midwest (I-75) and Northeast (I-95) corridors, as well as Orlando (I-4). Interstate 275 serves the western portions of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, including downtown Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Bradenton. Once in Pinellas, Clearwater is in the north along the Gulf, St. Petersburg is in the south along the bay.

The area is served by two mid-sized, easily-traversed airports. Tampa International Airport (5503 W. Spruce St., 813/870-8700) was recently ranked by Conde Nast as the seventh best airport worldwide, located just over the bridge and causeway from St. Petersburg and Clearwater and about 30-45 minutes from beachfront accommodations. You’ll probably fly in and out of Tampa, unless you’re coming from Canada. But there’s also St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (14501 Roosevelt Blvd., Clearwater, 727/531-1451), which has a newly enlarged terminal.

HOW TO PACK

But before you book those tickets, note the town dress code. Clearwater, indeed most of Florida, is casual, with all the good and bad that that entails. There are very few women on the Gulf Coast who could spot a knock-off Hermès Birkin bag at 20 paces. That’s not all bad. Packing clothing becomes largely a function of comfort.
The name of the game all year is layering. For women: a twin set and slacks when dressed up. For men: a breezy collar knit and chinos. You need several pairs of shoes: something for dinner, sneakers for hiking (ones that can get wet repeatedly), and swim shoes or Tevas.

Even if you’re visiting the Gulf Coast in the summer, bring a sweater. Everything is over-air-conditioned. Floridians tend to be large (as of two years ago, 57 percent of Floridian adults were overweight or obese), and maybe as a consequence they like interior temperatures brisk. In the winter, a long-sleeved pullover with light slacks is usually fine.

STAYING HEALTHY


The sun is probably the biggest underestimated foe. Sunburn can be wicked, so be sure to slather with at least an SPF of 30, and because you’ll be in and out of water, and sweating in the steamy humidity, opt for waterproof or water-resistant cream such as Banana Boat Sport Sunblock Lotion (waterproof/sweatproof, SPF 30).

Even better, one of my favorite finds on the Gulf Coast, Avon now makes an SPF 30 Skin So Soft cream with a DEET-free pesticide in it to cope with the Gulf Coast’s other big bully, the mosquitoes . DEET-based products are more effective in preventing mosquitoes from landing on you, but I hate to have that poison sitting on my skin all day. Lather up with the Avon product, then apply a DEET-based spray only if the mosquitoes are bad. Mosquitoes in Florida don’t carry any diseases such as malaria, but their itching can certainly be preoccupying.

Another itchy subject is Florida’s fire ants . If you see loose, sandy mounds on the ground, do not stand in them. These little devils get incensed at the foot in their house and swarm up your shoe and beyond to leave raised white or red welts that really hurt and itch for days. There is no known treatment for their bites, except several people have told me that if you douse the area within 90 seconds with Clorox bleach, it neutralizes the poison.

Jellyfish
are common to Gulf beaches. Not the big terrifying man-o-war types, but their local species’ sting can still be pretty fierce. Shuffle your feet in the water to alert nearby jellyfish as to your presence. In the event that you do get stung, the experts say ammonia poured on the sting relieves the pain, as does meat tenderizer and toothpaste. (Who figures these things out—is someone getting stung and then applying poultices of household products just in the name of science?—"Preparation H, yes. Mr. Clean, no.")


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WHEN YOU GO, REMEMBER:


*Bring sunscreen, binoculars, polarized sunglasses (for seeing depth when you fish), a bird book, snorkel, swim flippers, a juicy novel, more bathing suits than you can use, bug spray, flip-flops, a digital camera, and your cell phone (it won’t work in some rural areas, but everywhere else is fine, especially with Verizon service).
*You can rent: bikes, scooters, skates, strollers, beach chairs, boogie or surf boards, fishing equipment, motorboats, jet skis, kayaks, canoes, and sailboats.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:


*St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (
www.floridasbeach.com ) This site focuses, not surprisingly, on the beaches. It’s easy to book a room from here, and it features excellent downloadable maps.
*St. Petersburg Times (
www.sptimes.com ) The Gulf Coast’s best daily metro paper has an equally superlative website—the place to go if you want to be versed in local politics or find out the day’s most exciting events. The paper’s restaurant and movie critics are notably good.
*Visit Florida (
www.flausa.com ) For a good introduction to the Gulf Coast, contact the state’s official tourist information organization, Visit Florida (or call 888/7-FLA USA) for a copy of their excellent annual Visit Florida guide, the Florida Events Calendar , or Florida Trails . Visit Florida also has a 24-hour multi-lingual tourist assistance hotline at 800/656-8777.
*Florida Secrets, The Insider’s Guide to Unique Destinations (
www.florida-secrets.com ) The graphics have a cheese factor and it’s heavy on the advertising, but the site is a treasure trove of little-known destinations in Florida, divided up on the Gulf Coast by southwest, west-central, eastern and western Panhandle.
*Florida Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds (
www.floridacamping.com ) It’s an easy-to-use comprehensive database of Florida campgrounds, including amenities information for each site. You can also go on their website and order a print version of the guide.

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Laura Reiley began her career as a food critic but, since moving to Florida two years ago, she now writes mostly about travel and fun things to do with kids. She lives in Tampa with her husband, a psychologist; her daughter, a nine-year-old; and her dog, a schnoodle.

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