Nicholas A Collura-Gehrt
Photo: Courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

Not only does the Clearwater area hold the Guinness World Records title for the longest run of sunshine, but the sugar sand beaches in this Florida town are truly a sight to behold. Pack your swimsuit, sunglasses, and flip-flops, because a trip to Clearwater is all about the fun and sun.

By Kara Franker

A Coastal Gem on the Gulf of Mexico

Few beach towns have it all, but Clearwater is one of those rare and precious jewels. Nestled on Florida’s west coast near Tampa, the area averages 361 fabulous days of sunshine per year. And it even holds the record for consecutive sunny days at 768—that’s more than two years of straight sun!

It’s no wonder why visitors from around the world (especially snow birds) flock to Clearwater to swim in--you guessed it--crystal clear water. A constant supply of warm weather (temps range from low 70s in the winter to low 90s in the summer) and close proximity to two airports (St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Tampa International Airport) make planning a vacation here a no-brainer.

Main attractions include lots of free and family-friendly waterfront activities, fresh-from-the-Gulf seafood, great beach bars, an exciting year-round events calendar, a selection of hotels that fit any budget, and of course, miles and miles of drop-dead-gorgeous beaches.

Nicholas A Collura-Gehrt
Photo: Nick Collura

Free Things to Do

You can’t fault the folks at Visit St. Pete/Clearwater for touting their best asset: the beach. One look at their Instagram channel and you’ll see exactly what we mean. It’s all about that powdery white sand and aquamarine water. And the sunsets. Oh, the sunsets.

The most popular spot on the sand, Clearwater Beach, offers lots to do. Stroll the half-mile Beach Walk (pictured above), where you can spend a day frolicking in the water, check out the surf shops, hunt for the perfect souvenir at a touristy boutique, or grab a bite to eat along the waterfront.

No matter what you do during the daytime, head straight to Pier 60 for the nightly sunset celebration. It’s a free show that you don’t want to miss. Not only does the sun display brilliant, glorious colors across the sky, local street performers like fire-breathers, tightrope-walkers, and musically inclined jugglers will keep you oohing and aahing throughout the evening.

Photo: Courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

More Great Beaches to Visit

While Clearwater Beach is the heart of all the action, nearby Sand Key Park is a hidden slice of paradise. Explore 95 acres of winding trails through salt marshes and spacious sandy beaches. Here you’ll also find plenty of parking ($5 per car), a rock jetty to clamber over, and kayaks to rent.

Just a short jaunt from Clearwater, Honeymoon Island is Florida’s most-visited state park. The 385-acre barrier island is home to four miles of completely undeveloped beaches and while the island draws quite the drove of beach-goers on the weekends, if you go on a weekday, you’ll have the place all to yourself. Admission is $8 per vehicle.

From Honeymoon Island, you can hop on a ferry ($14 per person) to Caladesi Island State Park (pictured above), which is only accessible by boat and isn’t quite as crowded as its sister park. The beach here is second to none, so pack a picnic and plan to make a whole day of it.

Photo: Nick Collura

Top Family-Friendly Attractions

Score some face time with Clearwater Beach’s most famous local residents. Winter and Hope, stars of Dolphin Tale 1 and Dolphin Tale 2, have shared the big screen with the likes of Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Harry Connick, Jr., just to name a few. And they reside at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a hospital for sick and injured marine life. The aquarium is also an educational facility that offers animal encounters, boat tours and daily presentations. General admission starts at $21.95 for adults and $16.95 for kids.

Ahoy to all pirate-loving briny buccaneers! Board Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise (pictured above), a bright red ship at the Clearwater Beach Marina and embark on a two-hour odyssey that includes a treasure hunt, dolphin-watching, water gun games, face painting and tall tales from the captain’s crew. Tickets start at $36 for adults and $28 for kids.

A great way to get around town, the Jolley Trolley operates daily service on Clearwater Beach. The Coastal Route runs on weekends between Clearwater Beach and downtown Clearwater, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs—all of which are great spots for a fun day trip to walk around and explore these charming coastal communities. Unlimited daily passes are $5 per person.

©2013 Steven P. Widoff
Photo: Steven P. Widoff

Best Local Restaurants Near the Beach

A mainstay of Clearwater Beach and famous for its classic grouper sandwiches, Frenchy's Rockaway Grill is the largest of the four Frenchy's establishments in the area. The open-air restaurant offers the perfect mix of Floribbean food, beach views, colorful rum drinks, and live local bands.

Another hotspot located in the heart of all the action on Clearwater Beach, Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar (pictured above) is where you can catch spectacular gulf sunsets, sip on tropical cocktails, nosh on coconut shrimp, and listen to nightly live music on the deck.

For the best weekend brunch in town, head to either Island Way Grill on the Clearwater harbor or Clear Sky Beachside Café in Clearwater Beach. Both are local favorites where the Bloody Marys and mimosas always go down nice and easy.

Photo: Courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

Best Beach Bars and Local Brews

There’s an eclectic collection of bars in the area that will quench any thirst and fuel any dance party. The spring break crowd loves Shephard’s Tiki Beach Bar, where there’s a waterfront concert stage for live performances ranging from club-style DJs to laid-back reggae bands.

Situated atop the 10th floor of Clearwater Beach’s Pier House 60 Hotel, Jimmy’s Crow’s Nest (pictured above) is the perfect place to go for great views and cold brews. At sunset they celebrate by ringing a bell and passing around shots. 

Local brewery Pair O’Dice Brewing Co. is owned by former Anheuser-Busch engineers. They use 300 pounds of strawberries, grown locally in Plant City, for their popular Lucky Lucy Strawberry Blonde. Hang out in the tasting room and sip on a craft beer.

Photo: Courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

Where to Stay

With plenty of hotel options for nearly every style of traveler, here are a few great places to stay in Clearwater.

Book a room at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa (pictured above), and you’ll be close to the nightly sunset celebrations at Pier 60 as well as the pedestrian-friendly Beach Walk. The hotel sits on a stunning stretch of sand and most rooms have either beach or harbor views.

Stay at the Sandpearl Resort, which is located directly on the sand and within walking distance to all the action on Clearwater Beach. You’ll love the zero-entry lagoon style pool, beachside fire pits, kid’s club, and fine dining at the hotel’s on-site restaurant, Caretta on the Gulf.

Check in to the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, which offers every outdoorsy activity under the sun, including tennis, beach volleyball, and eco-tours of Sand Key Park. The hotel is surrounded by a 95-acre island nature preserve and offers the perfect respite for a laid-back vacation.

Other great hotel options in the area include the boutique-style Palm Pavilion Inn, Gulf-front Hyatt Clearwater Beach, and the new Opal Sands Resort.

Photo: Jeremiah Khokhar

When to Go

From food and music festivals to nightly sunset celebrations, there’s always something going on in Clearwater. Here are a few of the area’s top annual events.

Happening each year in the springtime, the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival is a 10-day celebration that pays homage to the sugary sands of Clearwater Beach. Under massive white tents on the beach, artists craft the most incredible sandcastles and works of art for the Sugar Sand Walk Exhibit. There’s also live entertainment, sand sculpting classes and competitions, and plenty of free activities for the kids. Admission to the Sugar Sand Walk exhibit is $10 for adults and $6 for kids.

Thousands of spectators head to the waterfront every fall for a glimpse of powerful boats that can reach speeds of up to 100 mph. The Bright House Clearwater SuperBoat National Championship & Seafood Festival is perfect for adrenaline junkies and seafood lovers alike. Local hotels and restaurants host special events and watch parties for the speedboat competition. Or board the StarLite Majesty Dining yacht for a five-hour VIP experience and the opportunity to see the boats up close and on the water. The SuperBoat Races Spectator Cruise starts at $77 for adults and $42 for kids.

The granddaddy of Florida jazz festivals, Clearwater Jazz Holiday (pictured above), draws quite the soulful crowd to Coachman Park each fall. Every year talented international musicians grace the stage and past performances have even included The Empress of Soul herself, Gladys Knight. General admission and lawn tickets start at $16 in advance or $25 on the day of the show.

Whether you’re a beach bum, tropical cocktail connoisseur or mini pirate in training, Clearwater Beach is the perfect place for those who love long warm days in the sunshine.