If you’re like us, canceling your summer retreat this year is NOT an option (recession or no), but spending money wisely is a definite must. We have an idea: Skip the airfare, shorten the time away from work and take a long family weekend in paradise. Clearwater Beach is only a two-hour drive, but a world away from it all. Written by Heather Reneau
No, we wouldn’t recommend you go to just any beach town. This little community along the Gulf Coast has it all when it comes to family fun: Unique activities, restaurants and shops are all within walking distance. You can even jump on the beach trolley for a faster ride and a great adventure for the kiddies. Either way, for a laid-back beach town, Clearwater is the PLAYGROUND destination of choice for a great extended weekend getaway this summer.
Hands-down, the only place for you to stay is the Sandpearl Resort. This brand new property is the only one of its class in the area. Seriously, don’t even bother researching other places. Just stay here. Not only is it the nicest resort for families, it has THE BEST spa in the area, a chic restaurant, a beach bar & grill, the most impressive service we’ve experienced, the perfect location along Mandalay Avenue, and (wait for it…) childcare. We’re telling you, IT ROCKS!
So, you can have a killer three days in Clearwater Beach, however, here’s the rule: Traveling time isn’t included. Figure in one travel day on each end of your itinerary and you will have a great little vacation that will be relaxing for you and a blast for the kids.
Kids Highlight:The “fire eater” at the Sunset Celebration
Parents Highlight: The Starbucks that’s in the lobby of the resort
We recommend getting your bearings the first day. Explore the hotel, enjoy the totally kid-friendly pool, bond with that other family you’re sure to befriend during your stay, take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico, just let the sand settle in between your toes and start living in the “now.”
We know the best part of vacation is the food. And remember we’re on a limited time frame here, so drag the kids out of the pool and head over to Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill for lunch. It’s easily accessed by taking a quick stroll down the beach (heading north). It’s conveniently located next door to the Sandpearl, and is a local favorite. (All savvy travelers know to hang out where the locals go.)
Your evening activity is a toss-up, since there are two really cool options. The SandPearl has a killer fire pit right on the beach where families can gather around to cook s’mores and take in the vibrant West Coast sunset. Then there’s the nightly Sunset Celebration (Key West-style) at Pier 60 that is NOT to be missed during your stay. Pier 60 has the biggest sandy playground that we’ve ever seen, and it’s covered by a giant pavillion. Street performers, Captain Jack Sparrow, Jamaican-style hair braids, great chotchkies to browse and live music make this a really great (and free) family activity.
TRAVEL TIP: If your kids are still at napping age (lucky you), make arrangements to rent a poolside cabana for the day. These luxurious indoor/outdoor living spaces are a great spot for the kids to take a siesta while you enjoy the poolside amenities.
Kids Highlight:The ferry ride to Caledesi Island
Parents Highlight: The pure white “sugar” sand
A trip to Caledesi Island will be a unique activity for your day. This Florida State Park was rated the best in the United States in 2008. (Seriously, look it up on www.drbeach.org.) You can only access this natural wonder by ferry or kayak. We recommend letting Sandpearl Resort coordinate the excursion for you, which will include a picnic lunch and your transportation from the hotel. (Sweet!) While you’re there, it’s easy to play “castaway” or enjoy the three-mile nature trail running through the center of the island.
After a full day on a secluded, primitive island, it will be nice to go back to the resort and enjoy an awesome dinner at Caretta on the Gulf. This isn’t just any ol’ resort restaurant. It’s been highly ranked as one of the best places to dine in the area, and is trés chic!
TRAVEL TIP: Opt for outside seating at dinner, with a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf at sunset.
Kids Highlight:Touching the sea urchins in Camp Ridley’s aquarium
Parents Highlight: The complimentary beer & wine on the pirate ship
You might want to cash in your “Kid-Free Card” and let them enjoy a half- or full-day experience at Camp Ridley, another awesome amenity at the Sandpearl. They will love the underwater- themed kids’ lounge, and enjoy coastal activities with camp counselors. (Shh… Don’t tell them, but it’s educational too.) Not only is Camp Ridley available during the day, they are also open on weekend evenings. Score!
We highly recommend that you take this opportunity to get in some Spa-Ahhh time for both of you. This very relaxing (and romantic) experience will start with a dip in the co-ed hot tub that’s nestled between the men’s and women’s lounges. It’s complete with a plunge shower, if you’d like to take it to the extreme. Then, follow up with a treatment together in the couple’s room. It will be a bonding experience like no other.
We’ve saved the best for last. Your evening activity will blow your kid’s mind (and ease your guilt for sticking him in “daycare”). Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise is the coolest thing since sliced bread. Your family will become true buccaneers when the pirate crew hands out hats and (squirt) guns upon boarding. There is pirate face painting, treasure hunting, pirate stories and dancing during this two-hour sail. By the end of the cruise, everyone will be acting like pirates and having an awesome time.
TRAVEL TIP: We recommend going on the Sunset Cruise that sails from the intracoastal out to the Gulf of Mexico. You will have front row seats to the sunset and the added bonus of a champagne toast to a great vacation, PLAYGROUND-style.
Somehow, Fit It In:
Island Way Grille
This Sunday Brunch is the best that we have ever experienced. No, really … ever! It’s a true dining extravaganza and a hop, skip and a jump from the Sandpearl Resort. www.islandwaygrill.com
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The Sandpearl can arrange a VIP behind-the-scenes tour to make your family feel special. Kids will fall in love with “Winter,” the resident dolphin. www.cmaquarium.org
This über-rad little surf shack is a nice change from the usual “cheesy” tourist trap. You’ll find custom Freaky Tiki brand clothing items that are all limited designs. Couture surf shirt, anyone? www.freaky-tiki.com