CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida—Clearwater Beach has a faith so unshakable in the superiority of its sand that each summer it holds the Sugar Sand Festival. This year, protected from the elements by a beach tent, sand sculptors from afar came to carve and shape, rendering homages to musicians like The Beatles and Bob Marley. Sand sculpting classes, speed sculpting competitions, music, movies, and fireworks rounded out the offerings.
Just outside the tent, kids sculpted sand next to a sign embedded with tiny sand samples from as far as Hawaii and Greece that invited a direct comparison to world-famous tourist destinations. But they couldn’t quite hold a candle to the home turf’s sugar-like, soft, fine white sand.
Clearwater Beach has earned a number of accolades, including No. 1 beach in the country (named by TripAdvisor this year), with an eclectic mix of restaurants and activities along two and a half miles of superlative sand and calm waters.
When to Go
Take it from the locals—though breezes keep it manageable during the sweltering summer, fall is the best time to go. The temperatures are great with low humidity, the summer lightning storms are gone, and the stingray season is over.
Concerning these critters, there’s a purple flag that goes up on the beach when they pose a danger. If you wade into the shallow waters during that time, you’re supposed to do a funky little dance called the stingray shuffle, shuffling your feet along the seafloor to warn the beasts of your presence and shoo them away.
Again, fall is the time to go.
What to Do
Should you be somehow set on doing something at the beach other than enjoying sand and water, there are plenty of options.
Pier 60, a fishing pier that juts out 180 feet into the middle of the Gulf, is lively with activities. A bait house offers rental equipment; a beach playground keeps little ones busy. And every evening from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the pier comes alive with entertainment for the Sunsets at Pier 60 festival.
For the younger set, dolphins have been a big draw since the “Dolphin Tale” movies were released. You can see the movies’ star dolphin, Winter, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a rescue and rehab operation.
At the Clearwater Beach Marina, catch an excursion like Encounters With Dolphins, where dolphins are likely to jump alongside the boat to get a look at the passengers.
If pirate-themed cruises are more in line with your children’s interests, there are several operating out of the marina.
Where to Eat & Drink
For an informal lunch or dinner, grab a table on the deck of the Bait House Tackle & Tavern, located on the water. Diners—who come for the fresh seafood—are as likely to arrive by boat as they are on foot.
For a more formal setting, Sea-Guini, located at the Opal Sands Resort, offers coastal cuisine with an Italian influence. Just outside it, the Sandbar is a relaxed tiki bar with direct access to the beach and fantastic views.
The “it” hour is clearly sunset, and if there’s only one thing you’re going to plan for, make sure you find a good spot to enjoy the sunset, with drinks or dinner.
Popular places include Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar and Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. At the latter, get the the grilled Cajun grouper sandwich ($11.95), which comes with homemade tartar sauce. Don’t forget to cap off your meal with key lime pie ($4.95) as you gaze at the sunset.
Where to Stay
While you’ll find mostly hotels with facades of tropical pinks and corals, and very few mom and pop operations, the hotel scene has more recently grown more upscale.
This past winter, the 230-room, luxury Opal Sands Resort opened at the southern end of the beach, with a curvy facade and all of its guest rooms featuring spectacular views of the Gulf. The curved exterior somehow makes you feel as if you’re not merely in a hotel on the beach, but sailing into the deep blue ocean.
Its color palette—in natural shades of calming blues, greens, and browns—is a soothing balm to the bright white sand and blazing sun, and provides a lovely contrast to the sunset hues.
Getting to Clearwater Beach involves some traffic jams, especially on weekends. “I’m not sure how much more [cars] it can take,” a local mentioned.
But Clearwater Beach is eminently walkable—unlike many Florida vacation spots—so there’s no need to rent a car. Once you get there, you can get around on foot, or hail a car from Florida Free Rides, a private car service that provides free rides around town. A bonus: Its drivers are “mobile concierges.” If you are not sure where you want to go, they’ll have plenty of helpful suggestions.