Florida’s crown jewel could also be considered our country’s crown jewel, at least when it comes to beaches. But there’s so much more to Clearwater Beach, home to Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice Best U.S. Beach for 2018, than its award-winning shore. From Winter, the world-famous dolphin, to nightly sunset celebrations showcasing world-class entertainers and artists, there is plenty to see and do without feeling like you’ve seen or done it before. For example, cruising up and down Mandalay Ave. in your Scoot Coupe rental, scouting out where you’ll have your next meal—most likely featuring fresh seafood. Since the options (and not just the dishes on the menus) can be overwhelming, here are five things to start with when building your Clearwater Beach itinerary.
1. Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Most people think of heading to Florida to avoid winter. But in Clearwater, Winter is a big draw. Her unbelievable true story—success learning how to swim again with the help of a prosthetic tail—played out on the big screen in 2011’s film, Dolphin Tale. Shown in more than 40 countries, it was filmed at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium’s CEO and Director, David Yates, remembers when they first rescued Winter. She was about two months old and nearly drowned after getting caught in a crab trap. “We were advised to euthanize her the day we got her,” Yates recalls. “But Winter had other ideas. She’s a very inspiring dolphin who refuses to give up.” Winter’s poolmate, Hope, also has a remarkable rescue story. “She was found, at almost the same age of two or three months old, trying to nurse from her mom who had passed away,” explains Yates.
According to Yates, the aquarium’s resident rescued male dolphin, Nicholas—a serious sunburn survivor—is “like a teenage boy on Red Bull.” He’s the one most likely to splash you during a behind-the-scenes program. While most aquariums aim to wow visitors with their exhibits, Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s mission is to educate visitors about marine life rescue and the work they do at their on-site animal hospital. In addition to dolphins, they rescue and rehabilitate North American River Otters and sea turtles—by far their biggest focus since Clearwater is located on the Gulf. Time a visit just right and it’s even possible to witness a sea turtle release! Regardless of when you come, there are plenty of permanent residents— including sharks, pelicans, stingrays, and even clownfish—you can count on catching your eye and maybe, if they’re anything like Winter, stealing your heart.
2. Clearwater Beach
Trip Advisor users deemed it the best beach in the country and the 7th best in the world (the only U.S. beach to land on the world’s top 10 list). But what makes this 2.5-mile-long stretch of sand so grand? For starters, the sand.
Patrick Bradford, Clearwater Beach’s head of beach lifeguard operations, describes it as “immaculate,” “groomed,” and “sugar-colored.” Sink your toes into the softness, and you’ll realize that not only does this sand look pretty, it’s pretty good at melting away stress. The Gulf waters are just as relaxing. Unlike Florida’s open Atlantic coast, the protected Gulf is usually pretty calm. The water is also warm—summer’s water temperatures average 85°F and fall and spring averages are both around the mid 70’s.
Of course, if you spend all day in the water, you might grow fins or a mermaid tail. So, after a dip, retreat to a rented cabana, which are available at spots like the Barefoot Beach House. Here, you can find rentals starting at $15 an hour after 3 p.m. or $30 per hour before 3 p.m. Deluxe Cabanas and Luxury Bed Cabanas are also available for an additional charge. The only thing easier than finding shade—everything from rentals to palm trees—here is finding food. And Barefoot Beach House has you covered with ice cream by the scoop available at the storefront as well as a concession area where you don’t want to miss the Grouper sandwich.
3. Sunsets At Pier 60
Benjamin Franklin was wrong. He should have included epic sunsets at Clearwater Beach in his famous quote about the only things in this world that are guaranteed. In addition to watching Mother Nature paint the sky above this west-facing beach, you can also catch local artists spray painting masterpieces while street musicians serenade you in the background. They’re all part of Clearwater Beach’s daily Sunsets at Pier 60. Two hours before and after sunset, the pier comes alive with a festival featuring the arts, crafts and an entertaining busker culture unique to Clearwater Beach.
“Expect to find jugglers, escape artists, acrobats, break dancers, magicians, stilt walkers and all kinds of craziness,” says Dallas The Fire Guy, Busker Coordinator at Sunset Pier. For Dallas—a fire-breathing breath of fresh air—busking is a family affair. His escape artist step-son, Nick, a.k.a. “Nicktorious,” has the kind of act you hate to love. It keeps you uncomfortably on the edge of your seat. Still, you know you can’t afford to look away. Most of us only see straight jackets in movies, and in the movies, no one escapes from them. Speaking of movies: Sunset Pier’s free outdoor movie theater, Sunset Cinema, is also a must. If you’re coming with kids, just make sure to check the schedule in advance. Usually, it’s feel-good movies like The Little Mermaid or Finding Dory, but every now and then they have to show the obligatory beach classic, Jaws.
4. Fun Ride Rentals
What do you get when you cross a convertible and a moped? A Scoot Coupe! These head-turning three-wheeled scooters hold two passengers wanting to cruise around Clearwater Beach with the wind in their hair but without the hefty price tag of a Porsche rental. Scoot Coupes are just one of several novelty modes of transportation in Fun Ride Rental’s impressive fleet. They also have surreys—those four-wheeled bikes with canopies and bench seats that can fit an entire family of eight.
If you want to try something new but you want a little more independence, rent gliders (like Segways but safer), scooters or bikes. The latter two are what you’re going to want if you plan on riding over the Memorial Causeway Bridge into downtown Clearwater or the Sand Key Bridge to Sand Key Park (where the Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescues some of its sea turtles). However, there is plenty of wheel-friendly exploring to do without leaving Clearwater Beach. For example, Beach Walk is a landscaped promenade with a two-lane paved path—reserved for pedestrian and bike traffic—that parallels the beachfront.
5. Food: Frenchy’s, Cooters, Badfins Food + Brew And Rumba Island Bar & Grill
The only reason to not go to Frenchy’s in Clearwater Beach is if you’re using it as an excuse to come back. And even that’s a poor reason to miss out on the Gulf of Mexico views from the open-air dining deck, live music provided by local musicians and seafood so fresh you’ll go home and toss the frozen fish in your freezer. Frenchy’s goes through so much fresh fish a day that Frenchy’s owner has his own seafood company supplying his five locations. The whole menu is tempting, but there’s a reason reviews rave about the Garlic Crab Fries (snow crab seasoned with Old Bay and garlic aioli atop a bed of beer-battered fries) and of course the Grouper Sandwich. Members of its cult-like following will insist it’s worth upgrading to a Souper Grouper or Colossal Grouper—otherwise, you’ll end up ordering two because they’re so tasty.
Cooters is another locally-owned Clearwater Beach establishment with the kind of authentic atmosphere money can’t buy. Pity the people who are allergic to seafood and can’t partake in its Old Bay Steamer Bucket. If you think fish tacos should be a food group, you’ll define paradise as the patio at Badfins Food + Brew. For a fish-based meal that you can’t find or make at home, drive across the Causeway to Rumba Island Bar & Grill in Clearwater. Their signature hogfish supper is best paired with collard greens and sweet corn mash. Appetizer and dessert-wise, Rumba turns first-timers into regulars with its seared tuna nachos and house-made Capt. Jack S’Mores Brownie.