If you’re seeking surf and sand in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, Clearwater Beach is where the action is. Its sugar-white, soft sand stretches for 2½ miles, although the party is mostly contained alongside the Beach Walk, a half-mile, curvy waterfront promenade dotted with colorful sculptures and tropical landscaping. Day and night, the pathway hums with walkers, cyclists and skaters, many of whom congregate at nearby Pier 60 for the daily sunset festival.
On the cabana-covered beach, city lifeguards watch the swimmers and splashing families, while stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers and Jet-Skiers ply the Gulf of Mexico and parasailers crisscross above.
When my family moved to the area 45 years ago, Clearwater Beach was a popular but low-key spot. The Beach Walk, finished a decade ago, signaled a new, slicker look at ground level. Meanwhile, developers have been transforming the skyline, with mom-and-pop motels making way for some 15 high-rise resort hotels.
This year, for the third time in four years, the vacation destination was named No. 1 in the United States on TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice top 25 beaches ranking. It took sixth place on the site’s global list.
Clearwater’s popularity leads to crowds on the beach, traffic on the street and competition for pricey parking spots. Perhaps the most prominent downside, though, is that there is as much concrete as sand.
Alternative: Indian Rocks Beach
Sometimes you want to dress up and go to a party, and other times you just want to pop by a friend’s house. Indian Rocks Beach, only 15 minutes south of Clearwater by car, is that friend. It has maintained a strong small-town “old Florida” feel, quite a feat in Florida’s most densely populated county (Pinellas).
Except for one high-rise that was regrettably greenlighted a few decades ago, IRB, as it’s called, keeps building heights low. However, small motels and waterfront cottages on the barrier island have been replaced by condo buildings with larger footprints.
The beach here is also about 2½ miles long with soft, white sand, but it doesn’t have a focal point like Clearwater Beach does. Instead, there are 27 well-maintained access areas along the numbered avenues of Gulf Boulevard, most with free parking. The narrow paths and boardwalks to the water, small dunes, and swaying sea grass make beachgoing here feel more intimate.
I’m partial to two spots — 8th Avenue, because that was my teenage hangout and is now where Kooky Coconut presses amazing Cuban sandwiches; and 15th Avenue, a five-minute walk from my small condo where I’m a semi-snowbird. In a one-block radius around 15th, you’ll find a surf shop, a neighborhood pub, an ice cream parlor, a baseball diamond, a skateboard park, tennis courts, city hall and the local library — as well as a lot of people walking their dogs.
Location: Indian Rocks Beach is 6 miles south of Clearwater Beach, on the Gulf of Mexico.