Winter, the celebrity dolphin from the family blockbuster "Dolphin Tale," has become Clearwater's biggest attraction, drawing waves of families to these Gulf Coast shores a half hour west of Tampa International Airport.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a working marine veterinary facility where you'll see examination rooms, along with plenty of props from the Hollywood movie. Kids can also feed stingrays and watch trainers attach Winter's prosthetic tail.
But the aquarium is only one of the many things to do in Clearwater and neighboring St. Petersburg. Miles of pristine, powdery-soft shores, combined with world-class art museums, have made this a popular vacation destination.
Our trip, in part courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, visitstpeteclearwater.com, began at the swanky Sandpearl Resort, located on a magnificent wide stretch of Clearwater's white sandy beach. There's a kid-friendly zero-entry beachfront pool, soothing spa and complimentary beach cruisers for a scenic bike ride.
Sandpearl's on the main drag of Clearwater Beach, where you'll find hip restaurants, surf shops and sweet spots for dessert. It's also just a 10-minute walk to Pier 60, where there's a nightly sunset party.
A half hour south of Clearwater, you'll find St. Petersburg, or St. Pete, as locals call it. On your way, stop to eat and stroll at John's Pass, an old-fashioned waterfront boardwalk filled with fun restaurants and funky shops. We grabbed a table at The Hut, had a tasty grouper sandwich and drank in the stunning views.
Our home base in St. Pete was TradeWinds Island Grand, a sprawling resort with a kids' club, pirate shows and paddleboats for little ones. A three-story beachfront waterslide keeps teens and tweens from retreating to their iPods. There's also a romantic Italian restaurant for the adults.
If you can tear yourself away from the beautiful beach, you'll find St. Pete has first-class cultural credentials. The new Salvador Dali Museum, a stunning, geodesic domed glass structure, is a modern masterpiece overlooking the Tampa Bay waterfront. Down the street is the Museum of Fine Arts and across the street is the Chihuly Collection, showcasing the glass artist's vibrant and delicate creations (not a good choice for anyone with small children or clumsy family members).
Beautiful beaches, an amazing art scene and Clearwater's newest celebrity, Winter the dolphin, make a trip to Central Florida's Gulf Coast a perfect fit for families with culture vultures and beach bums. You'll head home in a Sunshine State of mind that hopefully lasts at least until the tulips bloom.