Published on Monday, January 28, 2013

FLORIDA: After five years of wishing, I get to Clearwater Beach

Bev Fearis and family drive to the west coast to sample some of Florida's best beaches. First stop Clearwater/St Petersburg.

I remember a few years back being invited to a press event in London to meet a very nice man called Mr Beach and a very proud team from the Clearwater/St Petesburg's tourist office. Mr Beach, a beach expert (as you might have guessed), had awarded Clearwater Beach the honour of being the best beach in the US in that particular year (I just googled it and apparently it was 2008). Together, they showed me lots of photographs and described Clearwater's soft white powdery sand and I remember wishing how lovely it would be to put my feet in it. Five years later and I'm finally on my way.

The drive from St Augustine to Clearwater is pretty dull (you skirt around Orlando that's about it) so we were thankful to find a couple of great radio stations (60s on 6, 70s on 7, 80s on 8 - you get the idea) to make the three hours pass more quickly. Our Chevy Impala, courtesy of Hertz, cruised along nicely and the air con worked like a dream. By now we'd got to grips with the Hertz Neverlost, so we worked our way around Tampa, drove over some stunning bridges over the Gulf of Mexico, saw some fabulous waterfront homes, then arrived at Clearwater Beach.

We're staying at a relative newcomer, PierHouse60, which opened at the end of last summer. It's one of a rash of new hotels that have opened in Clearwater in the last three or four years, reflecting the growing popularity of this laid back resort. It's named after Clearwater's famous pier, Pier60, which is a landmark on the beach and a popular spot for a stroll or for fishing. The hotel is right across the road from the beach and as we go up in the lift to our 7th floor room, I get my first view of it. It doesn't disappoint. I can't get into my bikini fast enough. It's 3pm and I want to make the most of the sunshine and finally get my feet into that sand.

Much of the sand on Florida beaches is made up of quartz crystals, produced by the weathering of continental landmasses like the Appalachian mountains. The quartz mixes with shell, coral, limestone, fossils and organic matter, giving the white sand a colourful sparkle. Not only does it feel soft and fluffy, but it stays cool too. Apparently Quartz doesn't hold the heat like rock or coral, so you never have to make one of those painful and embarrassing hops down to the sea. I take off my Birkenstocks, slide my toes into the sand, and it's heaven.

We take a stroll north along the beach for a drink at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill. Frenchy is a Clearwater institution and he now has four laid back eateries here. The Rockaway is the most touristy, but understandably so as it's the only one right on the beach. Locals will tell you to go to the original, Frenchy's Café, a block back from the beach where prices have been kept low, but we don't get to eat on the beach too often, so we do the touristy thing. It's great and the enormous menu looks too good to resist, so we decide to come back here later for dinner.


We get back to our hotel just in time for sunset and make our way to its 10th floor bar, Jimmy's Crow's Nest Bar, which claims to be the best place to watch it. We're not the only ones and all the tables on the sunset side are already taken, but we can still see it from our seats at the bar. As the sky turns orange and purple, a pirate cruise ship passes by and we hear the noise of canon fire. At Jimmy's, everyone is snapping away with their cameras and once the sun finally disappears, the bar staff ring a bell. It's 6pm, and time for a quick change before heading back to Frenchy's.

Pier60 is also renowned for its 'festival', which is basically a fancy word for street entertainers and market stall holders who come here each night to make a buck. The night time entertainment is hotting up by the entrance to the pier and we watch a man acrobat through a small hoop and then do a gravity-defying flip over four nervous looking members of the audience. It's pretty impressive. A hat is passed around and apparently a $100 bill is donated - not from us (it wasn't that impressive!).

Frenchy's is fabulous, and it's clearly not just the tourists who are eating here. We wait 15 minutes for an outside table (it's worth it) and we have the grouper fajitas and the fresh fish tacos. Freddie has grilled chicken and fries. It's all delicious. Don't miss this place.


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