Clearwater Beach

Often cited as the best beach in the United States, Clearwater Beach offers fun for families, couples and party types on Spring Break with events, watersports and luxe resorts. That celebrated sugar sand is also worth the visit.

Clearwater Beach’s soft sand, opulent resorts, party options and family friendly vibe make it a popular pick with a wide range of visitors. It’s routinely ranked the best beach in the United States. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
Pros
  • Beautiful beaches you have to see to believe.
  • Options for the party crowd, cute couples, the family set or retirees.
  • Somehow manages that seedy feel that plagues a lot of urban beaches.
Cons
  • The traffic. The traffic. Also, the traffic.
  • The seasonal crowds can make it hard to find parking and a seat in a restaurant or bar.

You’ve probably heard of Clearwater Beach if you breathe and have access to the Internet.

It has been named a top beach several times over by various publications, acclaimed for its sugar sand and — eh-hem — clear water. It claimed the No. 1 spot as best beach in the United States in the 2018 TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice Awards, which are based on reader reviews about locations around the world, after last winning the honor in 2016.

Clearwater Beach certainly has a lot to offer at the shore and off the sand, where restaurants, bars and shops line the 3-mile barrier island. But it’s important to keep in mind that with that notoriety comes the masses.

If you’re looking for a quiet day to lay out with your favorite book, stay clear of the main beach at Pier 60. Want a day of sun, sand and shopping with a twist of tourist kitsch and family-fun activities? This is your place.

The area is part of the much larger city of Clearwater on the mainland, just across the Clearwater Memorial Causeway. The city was incorporated in 1915, with the first wooden bridge crossing Clearwater Bay the following year. That brought development to the island, and boy, does Clearwater Beach know from development.

Major resorts line the L-shaped island, with beach homes (and Caladesi Island State Park) to the north and Clearwater Pass to the south.

Cross the Clearwater Bridge over the pass and there is a sliver of undeveloped beach at Sand Key Park, a county park that offers a respite from the commercialism, if not the crowds.

Beyond that are condo canyons blocking the view of the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Belleair Beach.

An eclectic mix of people from all over the United States and the world are nudging their way onto the beachfront real estate here. Prepare to hear accents ranging from Midwestern to Appalachian to Portuguese to Japanese, all asking for Jet Ski rentals, bottles of sunscreen and frozen drinks.

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GETTING THERE

Clearwater Beach lies about 21 miles from Tampa International Airport (TPA), and 12 miles from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (PIE). It’s a straight shot west on State Road 60 (not Interstate 275) across the Courtney Campbell Causeway from TPA to get there. SR 60 turns into Gulf to Bay Boulevard in Pinellas County. From PIE you’ll have to head north either across the Bayside Bridge or up US 19 to get to Gulf to Bay.

Shuttles and taxis are available from either airport, as are ride-sharing services. A rental car is a must only if you plan on leaving the beach, because there are plenty of transportation options once you get there — Uber or Lyft, taxis, buses, limousines, pedicabs, you name it and the area has it.

Driving is certainly doable, but there are drawbacks. Expect the causeway to be anywhere from a crawl to a parking lot during peak season in February, March and April, when crowds begin to swell considerably. The three-mile trip can conceivably take close to an hour on the worst days. Then you get to the island and all those cars are all trying to navigate the same roads and traffic circles.

Once you’re on the beach, we’d highly recommend walking or renting a bike to get where you need to go. The sidewalks are wide enough for both, although either side may grumble about the other.

Regardless of traffic, we recommend parking downtown in one of several free lots and taking the Clearwater Ferry from the harbor to the beach. It’s generally stress-free and is usually either cheaper than parking for the day or worth paying the premium for the convenience. Plus, you’re usually at least moving, while others roast in their cars on the causeway. More on this option below.

Florida Free Rides is a free transportation service on the island itself, and operates from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. The drivers work for tips, so be generous, especially if their picking you up from the bar. They can take trips to the mainland, too, but that incurs a $10 charge. More information is here.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority operates its Suncoast Beach Trolley service along the length of the various main drags, which alternate from Mandalay Avenue north of the traffic circle off the causeway and Gulfview Boulevard to the south of it, then finally Gulf Boulevard across Clearwater Pass. Stops are clearly marked, and schedule is here. Several other bus routes from downtown Clearwater to the rest of the County also are available.

The Jolley Trolley, which helps cart people between Tarpon Springs and Clearwater, runs along Gulf Boulevard from roughly Acacia Street in North Beach to Bay Park south of Sand Key. A schedule and details are here (there’s even a live tracker to monitor the closest trolley car.)

Bonus: The Jolley Trolley offers free rides during Spring Break season. This Park and Ride service runs from Clearwater City Hall and the Harborview Center downtown to the Clearwater Beach Transit Center near the roundabout at the end of the Memorial Causeway. People who use this service then enjoy free fares on any route the whole day with their Park and Ride pass. Note that the trolley doesn’t have an off-road route; it gets stuck in traffic like everyone else. Perhaps point and laugh at it from the ferry instead.

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PARKING

This is a typical April weekend day on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway. Plan accordingly. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

Seriously, don’t bring your car to the beach.

Parking has been a perennial problem in Clearwater Beach for years, arguably more so than the actual traffic jams. The island can only hold just so many cars. And forget the cars for a minute: Pedestrians cross the roads and jaywalk like the street is Disney World. Ditching the ride is the most sensible option, if you can do it.

But if you must have a vehicle, there are several parking garages and lots from which to choose.

The city of Clearwater provides a parking map that points out every city lot and the public/private parking garage the city recently built. The map even points out how many spaces there are, the time limits for using them and the hours the rules are in effect.

This is an ever-evolving subject with local government, and ordinances and prices change constantly. The map lists the following lots, all of which take credit cards:

Lot 31: Pier 60, 160 S. Gulfview Blvd., 139 spaces

Lot 32: 420 S. Gulfview Blvd., 65 spaces

Lot 34: 429 Mandalay Ave., 23 spaces

Lot 35: 461 Mandalay Ave. 25 spaces

Lot 36: 4 Rockaway St., 145 spaces

Lot 37: 6 Avalon St., 53 spaces

Lot 38: Family Aquatic & Recreation Center, 51 Bay Esplanade, 79 spaces

Lot 39: McKay Field, 605 Mandalay Ave., 17 spaces

Lot 43: 390/1 East Shore Dr., 41 spaces

The North Beach Parking Plaza, 490 Poinsettia Ave., is used in part for government business. Out of its 702 parking spaces, 252 are set aside for visitors. For some reason, people haven’t initially viewed this garage as a viable option, so try your luck there.

The map also points out metered on-street parking, which is scattered throughout the island but is subject to different time limits and hours of enforcement. These 406 spaces are, it should come as no surprise to learn, extremely hard to come by. If you find one of these rare spots, celebrate quietly and feed the meter for as long as it will let you.

Do that math and you can see that there literally are not enough parking spaces for everyone trying to drive their convertible down Coronado Drive. The city further provides an interactive map detailing how full these lots are, but on busy days you’ll simply be greeted by large red signs saying you’re out of luck.

Some hotels offer to let people who aren’t guests park in their garages, but you will pay exorbitant fees to do so ($30 or more per day in some places, depending on the day). Most of these are accessed from Coronado Drive or Mandalay Avenue.

There are other private lots, too; a 300-space garage sits above Surf Style along BeachWalk and is much cheaper than a hotel, for example, but it fills up just as fast as the city-owned parking areas.

Do yourself a favor and don’t park at the municipal marina. Well, unless you’re taking a fishing charter or dinner cruise or something. The 346-space lot will look enticing, but it is strictly for marina business. People caught wandering off to the beach will face the consequences.


The beach is always a good place to toss the pigskin around. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

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BEACH SCENE

This is the Gulf beach that shows up in all the travel brochures. The sand is powdery and soft, just like the advertisements say. The Gulf of Mexico is turquoise, and yes, clear enough to see your feet as you wade in.

Clearwater’s peak season coincides with spring breaks, which are mostly in March and April with a few stragglers in February. While the weather is close to perfect — sunny, high temperatures in the 70s and 80s, that kind of thing — the crowds are denser and rowdier.

If you want the same weather without the drunk college kids, you may want to go in the fall, ideally in October. You can go in the summer if you want, but the region becomes a perpetual steam room. The water often gets too cold to swim in the winter, but there is a certain appeal that comes with a beach picnic over the holidays.

Beach access really isn’t an issue, because the beach runs right up to the property lines. There are no dunes to speak of, so getting on the sand on just about any given block is easy.

The beach welcomes families, with full-time lifeguards patrolling a stretch near the pier and kid-friendly activities along the shore, which means lots of opportunities for tykes to spill their snacks and draw aggressive flocks of seagulls.

Hotels and resorts, many of which sport umbrellas and beach chair rentals, line the sand as far as the eye can see. Consider this another warning to stay clear if you’re looking for a serene solo beach day. There are, however, quieter options among the sections of beach.

NORTH BEACH

The crowds thin out slightly on North Beach, which has some of the major resorts but then thins out to a more residential feel.

This part of town is everything north of the causeway, fronting Mandalay Avenue. Because it’s up the street from Pier 60, the crowds largely consist of resort guests and people who park at Mandalay Park, which is across the street from the Clearwater city pool.

There are vendors on the beach that will rent just about anything, from beach chairs to Jet Skis. There are several BouYah Watersports stands ready to render services up here.

North of Bay Esplanade, the traffic thins as you get deeper into the neighborhood. Many of the houses here are up for grabs on rental sites, but keep in mind many people do live here year-’round.

Continue north past the Carlouel Yacht Club if you’re trying to hoof it to Caladesi Island (more on that below)

People will crowd the nexus of the beach each night for Sunsets at Pier 60. It’s really quite a sight. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

PIER 60

This is the heart of Clearwater Beach, right where the roundabout meets the sand. The area around it is not necessarily what we’d call a party beach, but it’s definitely lively.

On its busiest days, traffic is at a standstill and the sidewalks are shoulder to shoulder. But even then, moving off the main drag even a half-block means the crowds thin out considerably.

Pier 60 juts out 1,080 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, and serves as a fishing pier, meeting landmark, busker haven and all around gathering place. Pier 60 Park features a visitor’s center, a pavilion and serves as the focal point for big events, including the annual Sugar Sand Festival and Sunset Cinema, when the town shows movies outdoors on weekends.

The pier itself has a bait and tackle shop with equipment rentals (there’s a daily fishing fee, with longer passes available), snack bar, restrooms and often more vendors than you can shake a debit card at. There’s a $1 charge to walk to the end.

From December through February the pier is open 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. seven days a week. From March through November those hours are in effect Sunday through Wednesday, but on Thursday, Friday and Saturday the pier is open 24 hours.

There’s a nightly celebration, Sunsets at Pier 60, that lasts from two hours before sunset until two hours afterward. You’ll find giant inflatable bounce houses, artists, magic shows, dance troupes, bizarre photo ops and street performers of just about every stripe.

SOUTH BEACH

Leave Pier 60 Park and you’ll hit Beach Walk, a wide promenade for foot and bike traffic leading south.

Bicyclists and rollerbladers take advantage of the pavers, but it can be loaded with pedestrians, too. This path to the lower half of the barrier island and the resorts beyond.

The beach here also maintains a busy vibe, thanks to all the hotel guests and parking possibilities along the way. Really, this is the place to be if you want to shamble right from the water into a burger joint.

Beach Walk leads past Fifth Street to the Magnuson Hotel and the city parking lot across the street. There are plenty of restaurants and shops along Gulfview Boulevard, but the beach ends at a large jetty at Clearwater Pass.

There are smaller spits of beach behind the businesses along the pass, leading to the causeway. Clearwater Point, on the other side of the bridge, has a semi-private beach behind the stacks of condos there.


Windsurfing is a popular pastime along Clearwater Pass. The Clearwater Community Sailing Center offers rentals and lessons. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

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SAND KEY PARK

For folks who want to be out on Clearwater Beach but prefer to eschew the more commercial aspects, you’re in luck. There’s usually respite from the crowds and storefronts on Sand Key.

Sand Key is a Pinellas County park on, well, Sand Key, just south of Clearwater Pass. The 95-acre park features undeveloped space to enjoy a picnic or go fishing, and there’s a sizable swath of beachfront to go with it.

The sizable parking lot does incur a $5 per day parking fee (annual passes are available), but it’s well worth it if you want some room to stretch out. Even on some busy days, Sand Key Park can seem like a deserted oasis compared to the area around Pier 60. Even so, more than 1 million people visit the park each year.

There is a playground, picnic shelters that can be reserved, restrooms, showers and rentals for umbrellas, cabanas, kayaks and bicycles. There’s a concessions stand that sells the usual bits and bites.

Lifeguards are on duty from March to Labor Day. They’re also the ones in charge of doling out beach wheelchairs (rangers handle it the rest of the time).

It’s interesting to note that the park serves as the base for an artificial reef program, and is home to a recurring sea turtle nesting ground.

Finally, while you can’t bring your dog on the beach, there is a dog run in the park.

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ABU SEBA BEACH / SAND KEY BAYSIDE PARK

Across from the entrance to Sand Key Park is a fairly hidden sliver of beach facing the mainland.

What’s it called? Good question. No one seems to know for sure.

Depending on the map you consult or the person you ask, it’s either Sand Key Bayside Park (as in the island, not the county park) or Abu Seba Beach. Even the people on duty at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, just inside the entrance, weren’t 100 percent sure what the name was.

It still manages to draw crowds that prefer it over the bustling main beach, though.

Past the sailing center (more on that in the Watersports and Fitness section), the mangrove stand and the paid boat storage, there’s a small, metered parking area with a good amount of frontage. You’re supposed to pay to park here, but during our last visit the pay stations were both out of order.

Paddleboarders, kayakers and Jet Ski types enjoy the easy access to the intracoastal. The Kai Aniani Canoe Club, a serious outrigger canoe paddling club, is based out of this beach. You’ll even see business people catching a waterside lunch out here from time to time.

You can try to do the math to see if taking the Clearwater Ferry to the beach is worth it, sure. But most of all, you’re paying for the lack of stress getting to the island via the causeway. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

TAKING THE CLEARWATER FERRY

If you haven’t guessed by now, we are strong advocates for taking the Clearwater ferry to get to the beach, especially at peak times.

Boats leave the Clearwater Harbor Marina, in the shadow of the causeway, and take about 10 minutes to get to the barrier island. The ferries depart every half-hour or so, or more frequently at busy times. A schedule is here.

You can park behind the Harborview Center or City Hall for free (the city provides a parking map for downtown here) and go to the stand at the marina. Hours are generally 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Dogs, strollers, wagons, beach chairs, and other items you want to schlep along are allowed. If you can carry it, push it, pull it or walk it on a leash, it’s welcome.

It’s a simple affair: You wait for a boat, you get on the boat, you pay for the boat. The views crossing Clearwater Harbor are beautiful, and there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with zooming under a bridge clogged with cars.

A round trip costs $8 for adults, $4 for kids and $6 for seniors and military. There’s a pass for a family of four for $20, a savings of $4 (children 3 and younger are free). You also can buy tickets online ahead of time and show the captain a printed receipt or your cellphone as proof of purchase.

There are three stops: The Clearwater Beach Marina, within walking distance of attractions including Pier 60; North Clearwater Beach, a quieter alternative to the main drag; and Island Estates, a largely residential area that’s home to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (and Winter the Dolphin, but we’ll get to that later). Those last two stops often are by request or even cut out entirely, depending on the day.

Human traffic on the ferry can vary day by day. Often the ferry is just waiting for passengers, and you can walk right on without any trouble. Other times, such as holidays or big festival days, the wait is considerable. During one trip to the Sugar Sand Festival, on a fabulous April afternoon, the wait was 90 minutes, and was only partially covered by the canopy on site.

Another thing to consider is the cost. Even $8 per adult is a lot, let alone $20 for a family, but remember you’re paying for convenience more than anything. It would cost plenty to park a car, and this method saves the frustration of having to sit in traffic for half the visit.

Plus, as a bonus, you can stop at the Bait House Tackle & Tavern at the beach marina before catching the ferry back to the mainland.

CALADESI ISLAND

North of Clearwater Beach is Caladesi Island State Park, which offers the same beach conditions with far fewer people. Caladesi has topped Dr. Beach’s best beaches in America list twice in recent years.

Conventional wisdom says there are essentially only two ways of getting to those sugary sands, however: You can either take your own boat, or catch the ferry from Honeymoon Island.

But there’s also a third way: Adventurous types can wait until low tide and make the trek on foot, because Clearwater Beach and Caladesi are technically connected by a land bridge. (You’d have to wade a portion of it during high tide.)

The trip runs about a mile and a half if you hit the Clearwater Beach sand at its northernmost public access point, at Juniper Way and Eldorado Avenue a few blocks up from the Regatta Beach Club. After passing through the Carlouel Yacht Club segment of the beach, continue to the north end of Clearwater Beach, past the beach houses, to where the mangroves stretch out toward the water. The whole trip from the yacht club to the main stretch of beach on Caladesi takes about 30 to 45 minutes.

The area wasn't always like this. The link formed in the 1980s, when sand began accumulating in Dunedin Pass. Hurricane Elena rolled through in 1985 and sealed the channel. This land bridge has been thinning, but storms dredge up sand to reinforce it.

The road to the Caladesi Island ferry, meanwhile, is to the left just inside the Honeymoon Island State Park entrance, which you access by driving across the Dunedin Causeway north of Clearwater on the mainland.

There is a sizable parking lot at the pier for the ferries. That means that you have to pay both the park fee and the fare to take the ferry — a $14 round trip for adults and $7 for kids 6-12. Kids 5 and younger are free, and there is a military discount. The ferry service also offers discount coupons on their website.

Two ferry boats depart starting at 10 a.m. every half hour from mid-February to mid-September, and hourly the rest of the year. The ride takes about 15 or 20 minutes.

There is a marina, bathrooms and concessions on Caladesi, which we explore in more detail in our section on Caladesi Island.

Taking a boat to the island doesn’t have to mean a motorized craft. Depending on water conditions, it’s a relatively short paddle from Honeymoon Island or the causeway (where kayaks and paddleboards are available to rent) to Caladesi.

Keep in mind that Hurricane Pass can get busy, so be sure the coast is clear before paddling across the waterway. In the summertime, scads of boats drop anchor in the pass just off the beach, and the area is very popular among anglers.

Because it’s a short distance, people often swim across Hurricane Pass to reach the island. We recommend a lot of caution, because the current in the pass can be quite strong, especially at low tide. We’ll also point out the area is known for its shark and crab fishing, so you won’t be alone in the water.

WHERE TO STAY

OPAL SANDS RESORT

The area has moved toward high-end hotels in the last decade, including this development that opened in 2016 with a spa, Italian restaurant and gulf views for all 230 of its rooms. There’s also a giant outdoor pool and a covered outdoor bar.

SANDPEARL RESORT

Another luxury option that offers gulf views for every room. This one tries hard to maintain a tropical vibe, with a large pool and positively giant bar and restaurant. Plus, it’s very close to two Frenchy’s locations, which we endorse.

EAST SHORE RESORT

This is one of the few mom-and-pop options left out here, but that seems to have made it even more popular. The apartment hotel along Clearwater Harbor is small, and it books up fast, so be sure to look for rooms here earlier rather than later.

HARBORVIEW GRANDE

This condo hotel on Gulfview Boulevard offers families the option of renting three-bedroom units for a week at a time. It’s good if you plan on bringing the whole band for a midrange vacation.

SHEPHARD’S BEACH RESORT

This is a much smaller, casual affair that is a local landmark past South Beach. The rooms are nicely appointed and have some personality. There’s live music in the nightclub and a string of shops and eateries nearby. If you’re looking for a party hotel to hang out at, this is a good bet.

HYATT REGENCY CLEARWATER BEACH RESORT AND SPA

This is a standout among the big hotel chains because it feels like its own small town. There’s a kiddie pool, a waterside bar and grill and lots of different room options, just across from Beach Walk.

CLEARWATER BEACH TASTE FEST

This annual May festival features food and wine from local restaurants and live entertainment at Pier 60 Park. It’s part of Restaurant Week, when area eateries offer special prix fixe menus for foodie to gorge.

CLEARWATER SUPER BOAT NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP FESTIVAL

A fun option in September features boat races, parties and a parade. People line the beach on land and aboard their own watercraft to watch speedboats race on a 2½-mile course.

SUGAR SAND FESTIVAL

In April, there’s more than just the nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 in the middle of town. The county brings in games, fireworks, live performances and commissions dozens of sand sculptures, which are displayed under a tent to keep them safe from rain.

CLEARWATER JAZZ HOLIDAY AT COACHMAN PARK

This four-day music festival on the mainland has been going strong for years. The lineup may not always skew toward jazz, but it comes at just the right time of year for all the locals to desperately want to be outside again.


Winter the dolphin lost her tail after getting it caught in a crab trap. She was fitted with a prosthetic tail after being taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium for rehabilitation. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

THINGS TO DO

CLEARWATER MARINE AQUARIUM

Winter the Dolphin, star of the popular movie Dolphin Tale about her rescue from entanglement in a crab trap line, lives at this facility on Island Estates. (If you recall, the ferry drops off here. Go ferry!) The aquarium, which is first and foremost an animal rescue and rehabilitation facility, has another rescued dolphin named Hope and exhibits such as a touch tank and pelican aviary.

SKY SURFING AVIATION

If you don’t want to take another ho-hum boat tour, try a ride on “the motorcycle of the sky,” an airborne trike, or delta-winged weight-shift-control aircraft. It looks a little like a sidecar strapped to a hang glider. Take a flight out of the Clearwater Airpark on the mainland and fly around the island.

PHILLIES SPRING TRAINING

Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball teams holds its annual spring training here each February and March. You have to go deep onto the mainland for this one, but the ballpark is actually one of the nicest in the Grapefruit League, with cheaper berm seats and a tiki bar. The A-ball Threshers play here the rest of the season, and are a popular attraction.

CAPITOL THEATRE

Old theaters are charming in a way modern venues aren’t. This 750-seat concert venue on ever-growing Cleveland Street features musicians, comedians and other performers. It’s managed by Ruth Eckerd Hall across town.

CAPTAIN BLIGH’S LANDING

Because really, is it a family vacation without some miniature golf?

WATERSPORTS AND FITNESS

There are public boat ramps at Island Estates, the marina and the recreation center (plus the harbor on the mainland). There’s more information here.

You can’t swing a dead wakeboard on Clearwater Beach without hitting a gear rental joint. Here’s a look at some of our picks:

BOUYAH WATERSPORTS

As mentioned above, these watersports rental booths are everywhere on North Beach. In addition to paddlecraft and Waverunners, they rent out chairs, cabanas and umbrellas, too.

MAKIN’ WAVES

This one-stop shop behind Shephard’s really does rent it all: Jet Skis, paddleboards, golf carts, surrey bikes, beach chairs, you name it. You can even get a kid carrier to hitch onto your bicycle.

NATIONAL WATERSPORTS

Renting a Waverunner and parasailing is nice, but we’ve got three words to describe this place: Banana. Boat. Rides.

SKY’S THE LIMIT PARASAILING

This company uses a winchboat to launch up to three people in the air at once, which is a nice option for small families (or really big ones).

TOTALLY TUBULAR WATERSPORTS

Waterskiing, wakeboarding and tubing is the order of the day here. Jet boats are for rent, but island excursions and shelling trips are available, too.

CLEARWATER BEACH FITNESS

Hulk Hogan isn’t the only wrestler with a beach business here. Former grappler Luke Williams, half of the old WWF tag team the Bushwhackers, owns this 24-hour gym on North Beach. It offers daily, weekly and monthly passes. Also wrestling t-shirts, because Clearwater Beach.

SAND KEY POWERSPORTS

If you’re at the county park and want to get on the water, this is the place. They offer catamarans, paddlecraft, Jet Skis and more.

CLEARWATER COMMUNITY SAILING CENTER

This nonprofit across Gulf Boulevard from Sand Key Park will rent out paddleboards, dinghies, catamarans, kayaks, windsurfing boards and more to walk-ins according to availability. But the real deal is getting an unlimited rental package for two days, or even a monthly, quarterly or annual membership. There are sailing lessons on Saturdays, too.


Tommy’s Tiki Bar at the Hilton is the quintessential hotel beach bar. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK

CRABBY’S BEACHWALK BAR & GRILL

Fairly standard seafood and the like off South Beach. But the frozen drinks and live music significantly add to the appeal.

FRENCHY’S

his a veritable Clearwater Beach empire, with five outlets and a motel (one of the eateries is in Dunedin) that manage to be both party faves and family friendly. Our personal favorite is Frenchy’s Rockaway on North Beach, where you can walk in off the sand and right up to the indoor/outdoor dining room. Try the Garlic Crab Fries and She Crab Soup before hitting the grouper for the main event. And get a Rum Runner, too.

CLEAR SKY CAFE

A higher-end dining option on North Beach (“higher end” meaning there are dishes that require a knife and fork). Please wear a shirt. Otherwise, go to the Clear Sky Drafthouse in Dunedin.

BOB HEILMAN’S BEACHCOMBER

For true retro fine dining, there’s no better option. The Beachcomber has been here since 1948, and boy does it feel like it (in a good way). The decor is fashionably old, and the bar just waiting to serve you a Manhattan. A highly educated and attentive staff that will help you decide between a steak and a whole fish. There’s also the legendary relish tray, a unique platter of pickled munchies that you won’t understand at first, but will love after sampling. They also serve prix fixe menus on the big winter holidays, making this a great option for that Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

CAPTAIN MEMO’S PIRATE CRUISE

There are lots of dinner cruises available, but this one is on a bright red pirate ship. It’s delightfully cornball and fun and, also yes, does weddings.

ICE & CREAM CREAMERY

It’s hot. You’re at the beach. You want ice cream. You know you do. This is the best selection in town. Eat it. Enjoy it. Thank us later.

BASIMO BEACH CAFE

If you’re staying on Sand Key and can’t stand the thought of another shrimp basket, this is a vegetarian-friendly, organic option near the park. There’s another on Mandalay Avenue, too.

SHARKY’S BEACH BAR

This is a good sunset-viewing option across from Beach Walk, with a bunch of specialty drinks (try the Shark Attack). They’ll feed you, too, since you’re so demanding.

TOMMY’S TIKI BAR

Hotel bars are a real thing in Clearwater Beach, and this is just one of the options at the Hilton. It's nothing elaborate, just a shaded, ceiling-fan cooled tiki bar on the beach just below Coasters Lounge. The cool thing is that it's not just on the beach — it's on the sand, as in, take your shoes off and get the sand between your toes. That's as Clearwater Beach as it gets.

TROPIX BEACH BAR

Speaking of hotel bars, this option at the Quality Hotel is also on the beach, and also serves drinks. If you’re into that.

WAVE NIGHTCLUB

Shephard’s Beach Resort’s nightclub has two floors of DJs and bottle service, and is near the hotel’s tiki bar and other amenities. Plus it’s open until 3 a.m. in season. You can always get a room later, if there’s a vacancy.

JAMMINZ BEACH BAR

Sometimes you’re on, say, Mandalay Avenue and you want to duck into a dive for a beer. This is where you go, and maybe stick around to watch a ballgame on the tube. And then meet a half dozen people who will want to stay out all night.


There can be a lot of people on the beach during Spring Break. And they all want a t-shirt. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

SHOPPING

FREAKY TIKI SURF SHACK

Come for the sugar sand, leave with all the $5 T-shirts, massive towels and beach-themed mugs and magnets you can fit in your bag. There are enough beachy stores for everyone. No, really, that can seem like the only business open on any given block. This one advertises locally made clothing and gifts, and is a little more unique than many of the others.

RON JON SURF SHOP

And then there’s this staple, advertised on billboards along Florida interstates far and wide. You know you’re going to buy a bumper sticker. Plus, it’s conveniently located next to the Hooters.

HOGAN’S BEACH SHOP

Did you even go to Clearwater Beach if you didn’t partake in Hulk Hogan fandom? The famous wrestler-turned reality TV star is from the area and has a beach shop on Mandalay Ave. Now, do you go Hollywood or Hulkamania?

ONYX RESORT BOUTIQUE

Sand Key has its own shops, including this one, which is a good place to stop if you’re going to have a nice dinner at the Beachcomber. Or maybe just need a dry t-shirt.

WHAT'S BREWING

Clearwater has been smidge late to the craft brewery scene, but still has some quality beer.

GRINDHAUS BREW LAB

Down the street from the Clearwater Airpark is this craft brewery shoehorned into a warehouse space that serves as a home-brewing supply store. The owners love movies, so stop on by for the sizable samples and catch a viewing of Meatballs or Friday the 13th.

SOUTHERN LIGHTS BREWING COMPANY

In a strip mall just down the street from Clearwater High School on the mainland, this brewery focuses on quality over quantity. Local art on the walls is always for sale.

Joshua Gillin is Florida Beach Insider’s Beachcomber-in-chief. When he’s not actively looking for a clear spot on the sand with his family, he enjoys hiking, martials arts, comparing drink specials and shopping for American-made products.
Kathryn Varn used to hate the beach until she moved to the gulf coast and realized that water could, indeed, be blue instead of the murky brown of her previous home near Jacksonville. An incessant social media user, she has since become one of those people who posts beach photos with the caption #WeLiveWhereYouVacation. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kathrynvarn.

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