Exploring St Petersburg and Clearwater
St Petersburg and Clearwater, located at the Northern end of Florida’s Gulf Coast, are where visitors come to relax and recover after a wild and exhausting time in Orlando, Disney and Universal Studios – calm beaches, amazing food, a relaxing atmosphere and the most consecutive sunny days in the entire country, 768 of them, earning St Petersburg the title, Sunshine City! The area is much more than a beach escape though, as a home to the Dali Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts and the Florida Orchestra, then there’s the Clearwater Marine Aquarium just a few miles down the road. For sports and activity lovers, there’s an endless list of cool things to do here – sports fishing, cycling, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, even exploring on Segways! There is no end of cool things to do here which, combined with the beaches, the ocean, the fresh seafood, and the arts and culture scene make St Petersburg and Clearwater a standalone vacation destination, regardless of whether you’re planning to visit Orlando.
Day 1 – Sanibel to St Petersburg and Clearwater
It was quite a drive from Sanibel Island to St Pete’s Beach where we would be staying, about 2 and a half hours north, so we stopped about halfway in Sarasota to check out the beach and relax in the sun!
Hotel Zamora at St Pete’s Beach, St Petersburg
We arrived at Hotel Zamora around late afternoon, and the first thing we noticed was the distinctly Spanish style of architecture – the white washed walls, the arched windows, the wrought iron balconies. We pulled up at the entrance to the covered car park; our bags were removed from the car, loaded onto a trolley and taken to reception while the car was kindly ‘disappeared’ for us by the valet parking man. The elevator took us up to the reception, which followed the same elegant Spanish theme from the outside of the building. Being a boutique hotel, they were no standard themes or any little touches that you might find elsewhere, and everything came with a sense of the individual, the unique.
Our room on one of the upper floors was incredible – an adjoining suite, consisting of a spacious living room with comfortable leather sofa, a huge widescreen LED TV and a coffee machine of course! From the living room was the bathroom, with marble stone surfaces and a rainforest shower.
The primary bedroom was directly adjacent the living room, sizeable enough to dwarf the king-size bed, with faced another giant widescreen LED TV, whilst giving a side view to the large window and the view of St Pete’s beach outside. The adjoining room, contained two king-size beds, another luxury bathroom and door to the balcony, offering the same amazing view and invigorating sea salt air. Although we didn’t use this room for anything in particular, this combination creates a family or group apartment, allowing the perfect combination of shared space and privacy when required.
The in-house restaurant leads out onto a dining terrace which overlooks the intra-coastal waterway, a calm passageway for private boats to reach their private moorings. Down the steps from the terrace and to the indoor/outdoor pool, lounge area and outdoor whirlpool spa, directly alongside the Hotel Zamora’s own seven-slip mooring for guests and visitors.
That evening, we went to the rooftop to enjoy the pièce de résistance of this amazing boutique hotel – the rooftop bar. Encompassing the whole of the beach-facing rooftop, the rooftop has 180-degree views along St Pete’s beach and most importantly, incredible sunset views to match the colorful cocktails from the menu. Once the sun sets, sit back in one of the open-air armchairs and relax in the warm, evening sea air, close enough to the beach to hear the waves break.
Day 2 in St Petersburg and Clearwater
Exploring Fort De Soto Park in St Petersburg
The next day we headed out to Fort de Soto Park, to explore just a small amount of the natural environment on offer here. Fort de Soto Park consists of five small keys, all inter-connected, which are home to an abundance of wildlife – mangroves, beach plants, wetland habitat, palm hammocks, hardwoods and many native plants. The 1,136-acre park is home to many species of wildlife, including many fish which attract high numbers of anglers – Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, pompano, permit and tarpon are the most often caught fish here, from any one of the two piers or by kayak. Other wildlife includes Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons and of course, Pelicans! There’s a very high chance of seeing Ospreys flying overhead with fish in their talons, as the park is a favorite hunting ground. It’s an incredible area for birders and any other photographers. In the right season, Loggerhead Turtles lay their eggs on the beaches here, while you can find raccoons and several varieties of snake in amongst the nature trails that run throughout the park.
St Petersburg and Clearwater (Photo – Pinellas County)
The fort itself, for the park, is named after, dates back as far as 1849, when it was decided that the area should be fortified. It was owned on and off by the military, but sold back to Pinellas County in 1948, when it became a public recreation area. The ruins of the old fort can be explored as well, and four 12-inch M1890 mortars and two 6-inch Armstrong guns remain on site.
St Petersburg and Clearwater (Photo – MartialArtsNomad.com)
We were there mainly to immerse ourselves in the nature that Fort de Soto is so famous for, so we drove over to the Topwater Kayak Outpost, where we collected our two-person kayak and paddled out into the calm of the mangroves. The quiet and stillness here were all-enveloping, no outside or man-name noise made it inside, just the splashes from the jumping fish, the beating of pelican wings in the air and the occasional osprey crying out overhead. As we passed through the opening of the mangroves and out into the bay, we could see the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance, connecting St Petersburg peninsula to the mainland in the south.
The Dali Museum in St Petersburg
The thing that surprised us the most about St Petersburg was that it is home to the largest collection of Salvador Dali paintings outside of the artist’s home country of Spain. We drove to the other side of St Petersburg for a guided tour of the collection. From the outside, the main form of the building screams of brutalism architecture, while the geometric glazing which seems to flow out of the roof and spill down the side like blue lava looks like the work of Zaha Hadid.
Half of the lower floor is a gift shop, selling every kind of memorabilia, from books and prints to anything else you can think of. The other half is dedicated to a café with a view out through the glass-lava window and into the garden. The main attraction is up to the dramatic helical staircase, in the main gallery, where a Salvador Dali expert explains the hidden meanings, motivations, and insights into many of the works in the gallery.
Segway tour with Segway St John’s Pass at Hubbard’s Marina, St Petersburg
After our tour of the Dali Museum, we had the option of a boat tour, or exploring the beach and marina area in a way we have never tried before – Segway! Of course, we love boats, we love dolphins, and we love the two of them together, but we wanted to try something different this time. We drove back across town to Hubbard’s Marina alongside St John’s Pass to start our Segway training class.
It was the first time for both of us to ride these self-balancing contraptions, which at first sight seem cumbersome and counter-intuitive, but as soon as you step onto one, you realize that they are designed to work with you and your natural body movements. Lean forward to go forward, lean back to stop and go backward, lean to one side to turn in that direction. It’s kind of like surfing with your feet together – stay loose, point your eyes you want to go, your body will follow and so will the Segway!
We started by visited the lost sailors’ memorial at the landing site of the old bridge, then crossed over St John’s Pass Bridge and across to Treasure Island Beach, where a dozen or more intricately designed and hand-crafted sand sculptures stood on display from the annual Sanding Ovations sand sculpting competition a couple of weeks earlier. Our guide, a young St Pete’s resident, and fisherman told us all about the local area, its history, the changes that have taken place over the years, including the building of the new folding bridge over Johns Pass. On the journey back to Hubbard’s Marina, we paused in the middle of the bridge to watch the last of the sun splash color across the cloudy skies. The Segways were great to ride and added a fun new dimension to how we saw the area.
Hubbard’s Marina also offers all kinds of other activities, like Shark trips, group and private fishing trips, sunset cruises, snorkeling and dolphin watching.
Dinner at The Orginal Crabby Bills – Indian Rocks Beach
That night we had a dinner arranged for us at a true local legend – The Original Crabby Bill’s at Indian Rocks Beach. Since 1983, this iconic seaside diner has been serving local seafood (and a few beers!) to locals and visitors – oysters, grouper, smoked or fried mullet, Florida clams, Florida stone crab claws and Alaskan king crab are all specialties here, with other delicacies like octopus and alligator tail.
Local sisters Karen and Sandy have been working here for many years and are a true representation of the laid-back, warm and friendly attitude and lifestyle, instilled into Crabby Bills and the seaside people and environment that inspired it. We asked for the sisters’ local expertise in selecting their best signature dishes to try out, and our table was filled with oysters, stone crab claws, Alaskan king crab, gator tail, octopus, pan-fried shrimp, and their famous in-house key lime pie! We can’t tell you which our favorite was; you have to try all of them!
Check out our full Original Crabby Bill’s Food Story – Coming soon!
Day 3 in St Petersburg and Clearwater
Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin near Clearwater
After sleeping off the incredible meal at The Original Crabby Bills, we woke up and drove from St Pete’s Beach to Dunedin, near Clearwater, to explore Honeymoon Island and Caladesi. Honeymoon Island is a completely natural island with 2.5 miles of nature trails, bird observation areas, fishing spots, snorkeling, kayaking as well as great shelling. Visitors can also rent bicycles to cycle along the islands paved roads.
For us though, an opportunity to relax on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, with hardly any other people around, was exactly what we were looking for. We visited the main Honeymoon Island beach and took some photos along the boardwalk, then took the 15-minute ferry across to neighboring Caladesi Island, another natural island paradise, almost completely deserted, except for several other people and a yacht moored to the jetty.
St Petersburg and Clearwater – Ferry to Caladesi Island
Rated America’s top beach in 2008, there are 3 miles of nature trails and a three mile kayak trail through the mangroves, but again, for us, it was a place to lie down on the beach, soak up some pure, Florida sunshine goodness and process the amazing Florida road trip we had had so far. With only one more destination left we were nearing the end of our journey, and we had begun to understand the reasons why so many of the people who visit Florida, either never leave, or choose to come back and live the good life!
When we woke up on the beach, several hours later, the sun was on its way down, so we drove down to the spot that the ferry crew had recommended to us, Causeway Boulevard, to join the local line fishermen and kayakers watching the sun drop into the water behind the islands.
Day 4 in St Petersburg and Clearwater
A Five-Star Breakfast at Sea Porch Café at the Loews Don CeSar – St Petersburg
On our final morning in St Pete’s and Clearwater, we checked out of the Hotel Zamora and went for breakfast in The Sea Porch Café in the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, also affectionately known as the Pink Palace, both for its grandeur and the Mediterranean styling.
Having been faced with destruction on more than one occasion, the Don CeSar has always risen again in a new form, with a new use and purpose. Now the iconic structure is one of Florida’s most recognized and desirable hotels. The Sea Porch Café is just one of the eating options at the hotel, located next to the pool with view to the sea beyond. We had a delicious breakfast of fresh, healthy juices and smoothies, an overflowing plate of fresh fruit, bacon and banana bread and the famous Don’s Benedict – their own special spin on a breakfast classic, incorporating fresh crab cakes!
You can check details and latest rates for Loews Don Cesar Hotel on Agoda or Expedia or visit their website directly at Loews Don CeSar. Don’t just take our word for it though, check out their reviews on TripAdvisor
Check out our full Don CeSar – Sea Porch Café experience, coming soon.
A perfect way to say goodbye to St Petersburg and Clearwater, before the final leg of our trip – Orlando!
Note: This trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help and support of Visit St Pete/Clearwater for our itinerary in St Petersburg and Clearwater and to Visit Florida, the official tourism office of Florida in Tallahassee, and especially Ms. Summer Gilhousen, who arranged the whole trip and coordinated with all the local tourism boards, private companies for our sponsored hotel stays, tours and car rental. Thank you!