Although Clearwater is consistently rated one of the best beaches in the U.S., there’s much more to do in this seaside town than sunbathe. Stroll down Mandalay Avenue, the main thoroughfare, where you’ll find a mix of upscale restaurants, like Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber, souvenir shops and boutiques, and kitschy attractions -- like the life-size statue of Hulk Hogan, a local resident and shop owner.
While much of the pristine 2.5-mile shoreline stretch along Florida’s Gulf Coast is densely packed with high-rise hotels, the town still retains pockets of old Floridian charm along the quieter north end, where condo towers give way to pastel 1960s-era motels. Need a place to park your bags? Try the newly opened Opal Sands, where every room has an ocean view (rates start at $287), and the town’s popular sites, such as the aquarium, are all within walking distance.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
This non-profit rescues and rehabilitates marine wildlife. It is best known as the home of Winter, a dolphin with a prosthetic tail who starred in A Dolphin’s Tale, but visitors can also see turtles, sea otters, and nurse sharks. Admission $21.95, $16.95 ages 3-12, $19.95 seniors.
Buy a ticket for the Jolley Trolley to reach Tarpon Springs, a small town with deep Greek roots. It was once the sponge diving capital of the world, meaning that divers dove more than 100 feet to retrieve sea sponges that were sold and used for everything from bathing to car washing. Learn all about it at Spongeorama, which has a shop and museum, and also organizes dolphin cruises ($18.95 adults, $9.95 children 10 and under). Indulge in a plate of authentic baklava at Hellas Bakery, or for something heartier, try The Original Mama Maria’s for grilled octopus and shrimp kabobs.
Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise
Embrace your inner pirate on board this replica vessel, complete with a Jolly Roger flag and a cannon. Upon boarding the ship, guests are greeted with a complimentary cocktail (even on the 10 a.m. cruise), and the pirate crew keeps children entertained for the duration of the trip with an endless supply of water guns, toy pistols, and pirate hats leaving the adults to sip drinks and enjoy the view. The cruise ends with a dance party to '90s hits like, “We Like to Party” and the “Cha Cha Cha Slide.” Admission $36 adults, $33 seniors, $31 ages 3-17, $28 ages 3-12, $11 2 and under.
The Gulf of Mexico is normally calm, which makes it ideal for swimming but less so for surfing. However, those looking to hang 10 aren’t totally out of luck. Flowrider, an indoor surf experience located inside the SurfStyle shop, brings the waves to you: the water flows towards the surfer at around 25 mph. $30 for a 30-minute session
Sunset at Pier 60
Sunsets are serious business in Florida, which is why the nightly celebration at Pier 60 kicks off two hours before the sun dips down and continues for an additional two hours. The Pier is lined with street performers (including jugglers and fire breathers), artists, and crafters, and there are also free outdoor movies.