Published Online: Sept/Oct 2003

Before You Go
Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise: 727/446-2587.
Fort De Soto Park: 727/582-2267.
Caladesi Island State Park: 727/469-5918.
Caladesi Island ferry: 727/734-5263.
Honeymoon Island State Park: 727/469-5942.
Fred Howard Park: 727/937-4938.
Regional tourism: 877/352-3224;

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Bunches of Beaches
Florida's Pinellas Peninsula has a beach for every mood.

By Chris King

We tend to think of beaches as a single place, a single experience, as in: “I love the beach!” But in fact, beaches are diverse places, offering varied experiences, and you’d be hard- pressed to find something that connects them all. You can’t even guarantee you’ll find the ocean at a beach, given the beaches—sometimes very wonderful beaches—we find along sounds and gulfs.

Along a piece of Florida that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, the diversity of beaches is made clear. New Yorkers might know the Pinellas Peninsula for its most famous beach, Clearwater, or its more famous neighboring sister city, Tampa, but the locals know their home for its multiplicity of beaches, including some of the best in the U.S.

In 2002, two of the peninsula’s beaches—those at Caladesi Island and Fort De Soto Park—ranked among the nation’s five best beaches (the competition excludes 11 previous winners for best beach), according to Stephen Leatherman, the self-appointed “Dr. Beach.” Every beach I’ll steer you to here received a Blue Wave Award last summer for responsible beach management.

Clearwater is the most accessible beach in the area, given that thousands of hotel rooms are situated along it. It’s also the best beach for what one local wag called “talent”—beautiful people. If the human form, dressed down to swimwear, is your principle attraction to beaches, then Clearwater has a spot for your beach towel. It’s a short stagger to many restaurants and nightclubs, making Clearwater a good choice for those who use the beach to segue into some social life.

At the same time, the Clearwater Marina is the point of debarkation for one of the area’s most popular family attractions, Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise, which offers a pirate ship experience for kids. At one point in the voyage, a mutiny is staged, and all the parents are forced to flee upstairs—where drinks are served—so adults can make the most of this while treating the kids to some fun.

Clearwater screams vacation, it screams sun-splashed, tourist-infested Florida beach. For a very different experience, drop to the southern tip of the peninsula and hit Fort De Soto Park, 7,100 acres of county park land with tree groves, bike paths, mangrove trails to canoe, places to pitch a tent (even right on the Gulf!) and beaches, of course—but no hotels or bars. If you’d like to alternate swimming and flopping on the sand with other activities, and a little green space, Fort De Soto is an essential spot.

The other is Caladesi Island State Park, which has the area’s most secluded and least spoiled beach. Caladesi is visible from the mainland, even from Clearwater, but accessible only by ferry or private boat, which weeds out the people who are not resourceful enough to rent and pilot their own boat or not flexible enough to follow the ferry schedule. Caladesi has a rugged little patch of back country, populated by wild things (like rattlesnakes), but its western shore is a stretch of shockingly white sand.

Honeymoon Island State Park offers something of a balance between accessibility and seclusion. It used to be of a piece with Caladesi Island, then named Hog Island, until a hurricane split the island in two in 1921. You can drive onto Honeymoon Island using the Dunedin Causeway, which connects with the mainland a handful of miles north of Clearwater. Honeymoon Island has a nature trail and (big news for people traveling with a dog) a pet beach.

For a final option, I’ll steer you to a local party scene, Fred Howard Park at Tarpon Springs. You won’t want to miss Tarpon, the former sponge capital of the world, a veritable Greek village in the days that Greek divers harvested the offshore sponges. People still visit Tarpon for its Greek restaurants and its unusual vibe of a Disney World village that really exists—a fragment of Greece that washed up in Florida.

Tarpon is a day trip for most visitors, who return the 10 miles to their hotel in Clearwater after a feast of Greek food (eat at Mykonos!) and an hour spent loitering in the curio shops. But find your way out to Fred Howard Park and you’ll find a festive scene of Tarpon locals enjoying their beach. It’s fun when traveling to peek in on truly local spots—to see area residents when they are doing something for themselves rather than checking you into a hotel or serving you dinner.

This account leaves out the battery of beaches that lines Sand Key, a narrow spit of land that extends below Clearwater. The beaches on the key lack the monster vacation atmosphere of Clearwater and the local rowdiness of Tarpon without achieving the remoteness of Caladesi Island or the natural beauty of Fort De Soto Park. Go ahead and buy some land on Sand Key if you see a good deal, but if you are just visiting, you can probably skip its beaches. With choices like these, you have to skip something.

Chris King is travel editor for AAA's New York Car & Travel magazine

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