On the tiny slip of a barrier island that is Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast lies a pearl in the sand. For a decade the Sandpearl Resort has attracted guests who want the amenities of a large beach resort but the experience of a boutique hotel with a classic Florida feel — and the views. Stepping onto the balcony of my suite, looking over the pristine pool, across a shoreline of talcum powder sand stretching a football field wide, and out to the clear, crystal-blue Gulf (of course it is clear), it is easy to see why the resort and the beach are accumulating accolades.
Stretching nearly three miles long and three blocks wide, Clearwater Beach, in the greater Tampa Bay area, draws 4 million visitors each year, making it a top tourist destination along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Last year, Clearwater Beach was named best beach in the U.S. by Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards. Among the reasons: the Tampa Bay area averages 361 fabulous days of sunshine per year. It even holds the record for consecutive sunny days at 768 — more than two years straight of sunshine.
Evansville real estate agent Jim Keck and his wife Christine enjoy vacationing in Clearwater Beach at the Sandpearl Resort.
“The Sandpearl is one of our favorite getaways,” says Jim. “The hotel and grounds are beautiful but not so over the top to make you uncomfortable. The pool and beach area are special. The beautifully landscaped pool has lots of shady areas (even gets Brian Wildeman’s seal of approval), plus plenty of sunny areas, and a cool ramped end for kids and families. The poolside food and beverage service from Tate Island Grill is wonderful.”
As Jim suggests, the Sandpearl also has attracted the interest of landscape designer Brian Wildeman, his wife Crystal (an attorney), and their children Adelaide and Marjorie for family vacations.
“The Sandpearl has become our go-to for family beach fun,” says Crystal. “The resort posts this quote — ‘No Hurry, No Worry’ — and that truly is how we feel when we’re there. Our biggest to-dos each day are chasing the sunshine and hunting seashells. Evenings are spent watching the sun slip into the ocean while roasting marshmallows to perfection for beach s’mores. It’s a true respite from the busy-ness of daily life. We treasure our time and memories made there and can’t wait to visit again.”
The Sandpearl’s signature touch begins when you enter the reception area — the “living room” — where guests are greeted with a welcome glass of champagne. Paintings and artwork depicting the property’s history by Florida artists are displayed throughout the resort, including photos of Clearwater history near the entrance of Caretta on the Gulf, the hotel’s restaurant and Clearwater’s only AAA Four-Diamond restaurant. The Clearwater Beach Hotel, which opened as a boardinghouse in 1921, was demolished in 2005 to make room for the Sandpearl Resort, opened on Aug. 27, 2007. The Hunter family, owners of the Clearwater Beach hotel for 50 years, is a Sandpearl partner and helped create a resort true to its roots. The resort has held on to many of the Clearwater Beach Hotel traditions. The original dinner bell is rung nightly by one of the resort guests, usually a child, at sunset. “Bottled heat,” a nip of bourbon given to guests of the original hotel to combat chilly nights, still is a tradition when the temperature is projected to fall below freezing.
“At Sandpearl, we want our guests to feel like family and for them to have a personalized and comfortable luxury experience. We see a lot of the same guests come back to Sandpearl with the reason being they know exactly what to expect — top-notch service and high-end amenities, cuisine, and accommodations,” says Nancy Cimney, director of sales and marketing at Sandpearl Resort. “The property has a rich history as it was formerly Clearwater Beach Hotel, and people have been coming here to this location for decades. This past summer we celebrated our 10th anniversary and were one of the first hotels in town when Clearwater Beach really started to develop as a tourist destination. We’re proud to say that now, a decade later, we’re still one of the top luxury hotel picks for travelers. Clearwater Beach is a special place we’re happy to call home. You’ll find beachgoers out picnicking, biking, and sunbathing by day and everyone gathered on the beach watching the sunset by evening.”
There’s not so much to do in Clearwater Beach that you will feel guilty for spending time at your resort (though there is plenty, and we’ll get to that); you will want to lounge around the lagoon pool, dine at Caretta on the Gulf, and escape the sun for a few hours at the Spa at Sandpearl. Choose from more than 50 ocean-inspired treatments, including the custom Signature Perfect Massage in the 12,000-square-foot spa, voted one of the top spas in North America by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler.
Named for the loggerhead sea turtles that swim along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Caretta on the Gulf features a gorgeous view and fresh, seasonally inspired cuisine. In addition to Caretta’s standard menu, an all-natural organic menu is offered, paired with organic wines. It is from this menu that Executive Chef Steve Jordan prepared a cooking demonstration and lunch for our group. (Demonstrations for small groups can be arranged by the resort.)
The atmosphere in Caretta is inviting; jackets aren’t required and guests can choose from both indoor and outdoor seating. In addition to à la carte selections and a chef’s tasting menu, Caretta offers a weekday breakfast buffet where children age 12 and younger eat for free. Sunday brunch at Caretta’s is a tradition enjoyed by locals and guests.
When you do venture from the Sandpearl, you will find plenty of great food and entertainment up and down Mandalay Avenue. Crabby’s Dockside is a festive three-story, open-air restaurant and bar located on the island’s roundabout; order Florida grouper (again) with Dockside Punch.
Just a short walk from the Sandpearl is Blinkers Beachside Steakhouse and Lounge, the Florida home of Blinkers Tavern in Covington, Kentucky. Blinkers serves dinner nightly featuring USDA Prime and Choice Sterling steaks prepared to order in the kitchen’s signature seasoning, along with fresh seafood and pasta dishes.
While Clearwater is home to more than a few celebrities (largely because downtown Clearwater is the “southern headquarters” of the Church of Scientology, the driver from the airport pointed out), I was able to spend time with Clearwater Beach’s most famous local residents. Winter and Hope, stars of “Dolphin Tale 1” and “Dolphin Tale 2,” reside at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a hospital for sick and injured marine life. The aquarium also is an educational facility that offers animal encounters, boat tours, and daily presentations.
After getting tangled in a crab pot in 2005, Winter was taken to the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a onetime wastewater treatment plant that specializes in marine rescue, rehabilitation, and release. The dolphin eventually lost her tail but was fitted with a silicone and plastic replacement — and Winter and her adopted home have been riding a wave of stardom ever since. The surge in movie-related interest has prompted the aquarium to open a second facility, Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, in a former department store in downtown Clearwater.
No trip to Clearwater Beach is complete without a stroll along Pier 60 — a 1,080-foot fishing pier and recreational park, with a bait house, telescopes, six covered pavilions, and a playground. Each night from before and after sunset, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., a festival with music, crafts, and buskers (street performers) is held, “Sunsets at Pier 60.” The park has restrooms and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days of the year.