I’m not a fan of Florida, so when I was invited by the Clearwater Region Chamber of Commerce to explore “Natural Clearwater,” I must say I was intrigued. I spent four days exploring this wonderful part of the state and discovered that this region is worthy of attention, After learning that it survived Hurricane Irma and Jose without problems, I wanted to revisit one of my favorite destinations.
For those who don’t know, Clearwater Beach is a barrier island surrounded by the spectacular Gulf of Mexico on the west and the Intracoastal Waterway on the east. The entire Clearwater area is rich in marine and bird life, and offers nature preserves and an extensive state park system brimming with flora and fauna. To top this all off, award-winning beaches, gentle enough to keep the entire family happy, are everywhere. In nearby Tampa and St. Petersburg there are many first-rate attractions including art, science and history museums. All together, the area offers a very appealing combination of activities for all interests and age groups and makes a great spot for a family vacation.
Let’s Go Swimming
Almost everyone who goes to Florida has the beach on her agenda and, with over 28 miles of gorgeous Gulf beaches in Clearwater, you will not be disappointed. Families with infants and toddlers will be especially delighted by the calm, shallow surf and warm water, making these family beaches an ideal place to introduce young children to the sea. Incidentally, “Dr. Beach,” aka Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a Florida International University professor who annually ranks beaches for their health and safety, including the clearness of the water, the purity of the sand and the undeveloped state of the shorelines, consistently chooses Clearwater Beach as the best on the Gulf. There’s now a beachside promenade with greenspace, public areas, and improved pedestrian, bicycle, rollerblading and vehicle access that’s perfect for a short run, bike ride, hike or sunset stroll.
Other area beaches of note include Sand Key Park, a half-mile-long white sand beach with bathhouses and picnic shelters (but no lifeguards), tranquil Honeymoon Island State Park and, further afield, Fort DeSoto Park Beach named for the standing Spanish-American War fort, which offers nature trails, canoeing and kayaking areas, picnic facilities and fishing piers.
Meet an Aquarium that’s more than its Name
Even the “Dolphin Encounter” that had attracted my attention was much different than expected. I imagined the usual experience offered in many tropical areas where you interact with a dolphin by touching and swimming with it, but the encounters I had here were totally different… and amazing.
First, we visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — not an aquarium in the traditional sense, but a nationally recognized marine hospital. They are dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded and injured sea animals who either reside there permanently or, whenever possible, are released back to the wild. The aquarium works with Pinellas County personnel to monitor sea turtle nesting along area beaches to ensure that all nests are located and cared for until the baby turtles hit the beach. In small educational exhibits, the facility features river otters, stingrays, five species of sea turtles and several species of dolphins.
CMA also runs extensive educational programs including the a two-hour Sea Life Safari nature cruise which takes you into the Intracoastal Waterway for an exploration of the waters. Marine biologists drop nets, and fish, seahorse and other sealife are pulled in, examined, recorded and then thrown overboard, or brought back to the aquarium for study. Kids just love it!
Thanks to the enormous popularity of one special dolphin, the CMA expanded in 2011 to double the size of the sea turtle rehabilitation area, enhance surgical facilities, add education programs, create a 1.4 million gallon Dolphin Pool Complex with stadium seating, and weave this dolphin’s story into the facility.
Meet Winter the famous Dolphin
“Winter,” named for the season in which she was rescued, is the star of the aquarium. Found entangled in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral in December, 2005 when she was only 3-months old, Winter was in bad shape. She was underweight, dehydrated, and suffered from many lacerations. Most serious, her entire tail fin was hanging by a thread, and soon after her rescue to the Aquarium, it literally detached. The staff feared her death would come soon, however, to their surprise, Winter healed, and adapted to her handicap well.
She swims and turns as she frolics with one of the older female dolphins who has “adopted” her. For a while, she couldn’t swim the way normal dolphins do, but she found a way to compensate for her missing tail. Finally, the aquarium, in collaboration with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc. created a prosthetic tail and trained her to feel comfortable wearing it, finally enabling her to swim like the others. (She doesn’t wear it all the time so you may not see it in action when you visit.) Some of the materials and techniques used in creating her new tail have been adapted for use in human prothetics and have helped injured children and adults, including military veterans, adapt to their disabilities. You can learn more about her at the facility’s web site, but I urge you go visit Winter in person. And if this story hasn’t inspired you to hop on the next flight to Clearwater, make sure to Netflix the original Warner Brothers 3D motion picture entitled “Dolphin Tale,” and its sequels. Not 100% accurate as you’ll learn if you visit, but very inspiring.
Getting Back to Nature
Those of you who enjoy outdoor pleasures, can go hiking, biking, boating and bird-watching to your heart’s content in Pinellas County. Brooker Creek Preserve in nearby Tarpon Springs offers several self-guided trails as well as guided hikes, various environmental programs and a resource center in their 8,000-acre peaceful pineland preserve. Moccasin Lake Nature Park is a 51-acre environmental and energy education center offering a five-acre lake and nature trails through a variety of natural habitats. Standing on the observation area over the lake you may see alligators, native birds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Trail guides are available to inform you, and to introduce you to the park’s permanent residents – several non-releasable birds of prey such as bald eagles, hawks, vultures and owls.
Honeymoon and Caladesi Islands were originally connected to the long chain of barrier islands that run along the west coast of Florida. Separated by hurricane activity, these two islands remain undeveloped and are a haven for nature lovers. Honeymoon Island is reached by causeway and a 20-minute ferry service is available from there to Caladesi Island. Activities include swimming and snorkeling in the clear gulf, canoeing and kayaking trails encircling mangroves, picnicking, fishing, beachcombing for a wide variety of seashells, and walking a choice of nature trails and bird observation areas where you can view several threatened species and osprey nests (don’t forget your binoculars). Caladesi Island offers a hiking, biking, kayaking, a marina, a concession stand, beach chair and umbrella rentals, a children’s playground and modern bath houses with showers and restrooms.
Indoor & Outdoor Recreation
More on dolphins. Later in the day we boarded Little Toot a cute 40’ red tugboat for another sea cruise into the Gulf of Mexico. Here, we were told that we were guaranteed to see dolphins, or our money would be refunded. As we cruised, the guide filled us with local facts and figures and as we reached deeper waters, the boat sped up creating a huge wake. Suddenly, a pod of dolphins appeared, jumping and frolicking in the waves beneath us. We heard them splash up and slap down, and it was amazing. They seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch, but they were in their own environment, not accessible to the human hands.
After a day at the beach, or exploring nature, the kids might yearn for a different kind of fun and Clearwater has just the place to fill the bill. Head to Celebration Station for miniature golf, bumber boats, lazer tag and other games.
Families who want to try their hand at catching grouper, snapper and more will find Pier 60 their headquarters to rent gear, buy bait and hop aboard a fishing boat at the Clearwater Municipal Marina. If fishing isn’t your passion, join a dive boat or rent watersports equipment here. Top off your day with Sunsets at Pier 60 where artists, craftsmen and performers gather for a street fair with musical entertainment to celebrate the (spectacular) sunsets. There’s shopping, nearby snacks and entertainment for all ages.
Living History in central Florida
The area even offers a Colonial Wiliamsburg-esque museum exploring Pinellas County in the mid- to late-19th century. Sound dull? — It’s really impressive. Heritage Village at the Pinewood Cultural Park in nearby Largo is a 21-acre historical village featuring 28 restored buildings including several homes (don’t miss the House of Seven Gables), a school, a railroad depot and a general store. Costumed interpreters stroll the property and engage your family in activities and craft demonstrations such as rope making, net mending, blacksmithing, and pioneer cooking. Gallery exhibits in the Visitor Center include one featuring devices used by housewives of the time to accomplish domestic chores, with a hands-on area for kids, and an exhibit on the county’s contributions to agriculture, tourism and more.
The Village also hosts several festivals throughout the year including a Folk Music Festival, a Florida African American Heritage Celebration, National Quilting Day, a World War II and the Swinging Forties Fest, and an Antique Car Show. Strolling the winding paths among the historic buildings, this native New Yorker was amazed to see a mother and several baby armadillos traversing the road, something I will not soon forget.
Another venue at Pinewood Cultural Park is the Florida Botanical Gardens, a 150-acre serene spot highlighting the flora and fauna of Florida amid several showcases such as Beach, English Cottage and Topiary Gardens. Finally, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art rounds out this lovely facility by presenting contemporary art created by Florida artists, fine craft objects from the Southeastern U.S. and an outdoor sculpture garden.
The visitor information centers are very helpful, we have more information about some of the hotels in the area, a very good value.
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