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Pilot Getaways: Florida's family beachPilot Getaways: Florida's family beach

Clearwater, FloridaClearwater, Florida

Editor's note: We asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription.
  • Bart Jones flies a Piper 6XT past Clearwater Beach, 8 nm west of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Final to Runway 9. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • You can bicycle, walk, jog, and in-line skate on the Pinellas Trail, which runs the length of the Pinellas Peninsula. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.
  • Flying past the northern tip of Caladesi Island. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Parasailing near Clearwater Beach. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.
  • The area is known for its 20 barrier islands and 35 miles of white sand beaches. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.
By the 1930s, Tarpon Springs was considered the sponge diving capital of the world. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Tarpon Springs

Named for the abundant tarpon fish found in the waters, Tarpon Springs, 15 miles north of Clearwater, is another community that preserves historic traditions. With a large Greek community, street names like Dodecanese Blvd., and sponge docks along the shore, it’s possible to mistake the Gulf of Mexico for the Mediterranean Sea. Restaurants along the docks offer both sweet and savory Mediterranean cuisine. Sample spanakopita (triangular spinach pies) or dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) for a light and tasty lunch. The melomakarona (cinnamon honey cookies) or chocolate kok (a tall circular chocolate mousse like dessert) offers a sweet ending to an exotic visit.

Greek Immigrants transformed the industry by harvesting sponges with dive equipment rather than hook poles. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Since 1873, when turtle fishermen snagged their nets on sponge beds at the mouth of the Anclote River, sponge divers have flocked to the area. By the 1930s, Tarpon Springs was considered the sponge diving capital of the world. Today, you can watch a diver harvest a sponge aboard a 50-foot Greek sponge diving boat or buy a Greek-inspired souvenir in one of a multitude of specialty shops.

Tarpon Springs is on US 19 on the Gulf of Mexico and Anclote River. The Jolly Trolley operates within the town, $2.25 per ride. For more information on Tarpon Springs contact the Chamber of Commerce, 727-937-6109.

Within a 10-nm radius of PIE, there are three additional controlled airports, including TPA, so you’ll have to be careful to stay clear of, or get clearance through, controlled airspace. From the north and south, you can descend as you approach the Tampa area to remain below the floor of Class B. However, from the east, it may be easier to call Tampa Approach on 119.9 MHz for a transition. You will likely be cleared to cross midfield over TPA and then direct to the Campbell Bridge, on the west side of the airport. The bridge leads to a point just 2 nm north of PIE. From the southeast, it may be a good idea to follow I-275 across the mouth of Tampa Bay, and then call Albert Whitted Airport (SPG) tower on 127.4 MHz for a Class D transition en route to PIE.

PIE is easy to spot, on the west side of Tampa Bay; if it’s hazy, you can tune your VOR receiver to the on-field St. Petersburg VOR (PIE 116.4 MHz). Despite its imposing size, with one of its two runways measuring nearly 10,000 feet long, PIE is accommodating to light aircraft, and it even has an on-field flight service station. FBOs include Signature Aviation and Sheltair. The FBOs have high tiedown fees ($12–$55), though Sheltair’s are lowest and waived with 22-gallon fuel purchase.

If you would like to transition Class B airspace on departure, contact clearance delivery prior to engine start on 120.6 MHz for a squawk code and VFR clearance. Avoid a noise-sensitive area 5 nm north of the field.

History

Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez arrived near Tampa Bay in 1528 and claimed the region for his king. After violently trying to force the local Tocobaga Indians to relinquish their supposed stores of gold, Narvaez headed north to find treasure. Eleven years later, explorer Hernando De Soto landed on the peninsula and found Spanish soldier Juan Ortiz living with the Indians. It is unclear whether Ortiz was left behind by Narvaez’s expedition or by the search party sent from Spain to locate Narvaez. Regardless, Ortiz had been captured and tortured by the Indians in retribution for Narvaez’s cruelty. He would have been killed if the chief’s daughter hadn’t arranged for his escape to a different tribe (some historians believe Ortiz’s story might have inspired John Smith to fabricate the tale of Pocahontas saving his life). The Indians released Ortiz to De Soto and he became the expedition’s translator. De Soto named the land Punta Pinal or Point of Pines for the area’s plentiful pine trees. The name later became Pinellas, which is the name of the county today. De Soto is also credited with discovering five mineral springs near the Tocobaga village, though the Indians utilized the springs long before him.

Aerial view of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport (PIE) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.

The Spanish conquistadors’ ongoing quest for gold meant the settlement of Florida remained transient for another 300 years. Violence and disease brought by the Europeans may have led to the Tocobaga Indians’ disappearance. In 1817 the First of the Seminole Wars erupted on the peninsula, impeding European colonization. By 1819, Spain had ceded Florida to the United States as part of the Transcontinental Treaty.

The area waters were vulnerable to piracy, and merchant ships were often attacked. Count Odet Philippe, a self-proclaimed surgeon with ties to Napoleon, became the first non-native settler in the area in the 1830’s. Legend has it that Philippe was captured by pirates and earned his freedom by treating a fever epidemic that was ravaging his captors’ ship. He was released and given treasure and a map of the Old Tampa Bay. With his newfound freedom, he established the St. Helena plantation near the old Tocobaga village. Here, he cultivated Florida’s first productive grapefruit grove by root-grafting the citrus fruit.

The U.S. government built Ft. Harrison on Clearwater Harbor in 1841 as a recuperation site for soldiers fighting the Seminoles. The war ended the next year, and Clearwater was opened to settlement. The Federal Armed Occupation Act of 1842 brought Americans to the region by offering men 160 acres if they owned a firearm, cultivated five acres of land, and agreed to fight off any Indian revolt.

The area’s population growth was aided by Maryland physician Dr. W.C. Van Bibber’s claims to the American Medical Society in 1885 of the peninsula’s healing waters and pleasant winter climate. Tourists began arriving for the proclaimed healing properties. The mineral waters in Safety Harbor were bottled in five gallon jugs and shipped all over the world. Three years later, the first train arrived, allowing tourists to reach the area with more ease. Henry Plant purchased the railroad and in 1897 opened the extravagant Belleview hotel. Known as “The White Queen of the Gulf,” the hotel was a favorite winter getaway for high society, who arrived on private railway cars. Since then, tourism has remained the economic center of the Pinellas Peninsula.

What to Do

The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport sits on Tampa Bay, between the cities for which it is named. Clearwater is the largest city on the upper half of the Pinellas Peninsula, sitting just below the connection to mainland Florida. The barrier islands running along its length provide access to white sand beaches with family-style activities like pirate ship excursions and daily festivals on the pier. The smaller town of Dunedin borders Clearwater to the north, its bungalow-lined streets selling Scottish wares and antiques. Dunedin’s two barrier islands are top-ranked for wildlife preservation. East of Clearwater is Safety Harbor, a great place to explore the history of the region. Though the peninsula is only ten miles wide, the lack of expressways makes it a 20-minute drive coast-to-coast. If you restrict yourself to one community, it is easy to get around on foot. Bikers can travel between communities on the Pinellas Trail, which runs the length of the peninsula.

From the airport, travel seven miles north along the shores of Old Tampa Bay, the northernmost portion of Tampa Bay, to begin your visit at the very beginning… of history, that is. Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History traces the time as far back as prehistoric fossils. Original documents once belonging to area settlers are on display, like De Soto’s letters and the congressional land permit issued to Odet Philippe, suggested donation $4, Tue–Fri 11 a.m.–4 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.–2 p.m., 329 South Bayshore Blvd., 727-724-1562.

Captain Memo’s pirate ship cruise. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.

A scenic two-mile walk north from the museum along the water’s edge on Bayshore Boulevard leads you to the shady oak trees of 122-acre Philippe Park. This was originally the site of Philippe’s St. Helena plantation, and his gravesite can be viewed at the south end of the park. The original buildings no longer remain, but citrus trees descending from his original grove still thrive. In the center of the park, the Tocobaga Indian mound, a burial mound as well as a trash site for the Indians, overlooks the bay. Odet Philippe once saved his family from the flooding waters of a hurricane by having them climb to the top of the mound. Today, zigzagging concrete stairs and a paved walkway facilitate your climb, 7 a.m.–dark, 2525 Philippe Pkwy., 727-669-1947.

West of Safety Harbor on the Gulf is the city of Clearwater and its pristine barrier island, Clearwater Beach. The island has the best city beach on the Gulf Coast according to Dr. Beach, a professor of environmental studies at Florida International University who annually rates the U.S.’s top beaches. The powder-white sand makes the island perfect for sunbathing, while the busy intracoastal docks and fishing pier offer more energetic activities.

Cast your fishing line for Spanish mackerel, mangrove snapper, or pompano off Pier 60 during the day. Or enjoy the cool of the night with a spotted sea trout or snook at the end of your hook. Equipment and bait are available on the pier, open 24 hours Mar 1–Nov 30, adult fishing fee $8, children 5–15 $6, seniors 5–10 $7, rod rental $8, no fishing license is required for ocean fishing, 1 Causeway Blvd., 727-462-6466.

The Sunsets at Pier 60 daily festival entertains families with street performances by clowns, fire-eaters, and magicians, while live music keeps toes tapping in the sand. Browse the handmade arts and crafts booths for jewelry, paintings, and shell gifts with a colorful gulf coast sunset as the backdrop. The festival begins each day two hours before sunset and goes until two hours after, admission free, Pier 60 Park, 727-449-1036.

The intracoastal docks of Clearwater Marina opposite Pier 60 are a marketplace for seagoing adventures. One option, Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise, lets adults relax with a cocktail on the top deck of a custom-built pirate ship while the kids (and the young at heart) enjoy face painting and mutiny with the ship’s crew. Cruises last two hours, adults $36–$39, children $28–$31, departures from slip #3, Mon–Sat at 10 a.m. (seasonal), 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m., & 7 p.m. Mar. 13–Sept. 5, 727-446-2587.

A marine biologist from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium pulls a trawl net for a hands-on look at the gulf’s sea-life on the Sea Life Safari Boat Tour. Touch and feel sea horses, prickly urchins, starfish, and shells. Don’t be surprised if you see a dolphin or two jumping in the wake of the boat, adults $26, children 3–12 $17. Departure times for the 90-minute cruise vary seasonally, 727-441-1790.

Find out what you get when you cross palm trees with kilts in the Scottish-influenced town of Dunedin, five miles north of Clearwater on the Gulf. Its Main Street is lined with the bungalows and Cracker-style homes of the early settlers, now converted to retail stores. The 100 gift shops exhibit local artistry, antique treasures, and Scottish collectibles.

The Scottish American Society hosts annual festivals and weekly Friday night parties called Ceilidhs (pronouced Kaleys) to celebrate the town’s heritage. The first Friday of the month is Tartan night; Scots attend in traditional garb and music accompanies highland dancers, Fri 7–10 p.m., $4, adults only (bring your own alcohol), 917 Louden Ave.

Caladesi Island is ranked as having the one of the finest beaches in the United States. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.

The beaches on Dunedin’s undisturbed barrier islands preserve the natural beauty of the coast, serving as a safe habitat for more than 200 plant species and an abundance of birds, some endangered. On Honeymoon Island four-legged visitors can chase sand crabs on the pet beach, while humans explore the island vegetation along nature trails. Picnic pavilions, bathhouses and a concessions building makes for a comfortable visit. The island is accessible by car via the Honeymoon Causeway at the westernmost portion of State Route 586. Admission is $8 per carload up to 8 people, or $4 for an individual, 8 a.m.–sunset, 727-469-5942.

If you want a more isolated beach experience, visit Caladesi Island, ranked one of the top ten beaches in America by Dr. Beach. Accessible only by ferry, it is ideal for beachcombing and snorkeling without the interruption of road or water traffic. The island’s dedication to preservation has kept the environment much like it was when the Europeans first arrived, allowing visitors to experience for themselves what the Spanish explorers found so attractive. A three-mile trail leads through the island’s interior; shelters and a snack bar are available, free with admission to Honeymoon Island, 8 a.m.–sunset, 727-469-5918. The Caladesi Island Ferry departs Honeymoon Island every hour 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m., roundtrip adults $14, children 6–12 $7, 727-734-5263.

Where to Stay

Start the day at the edge of the Old Tampa Bay with a yoga class at dawn, or snooze through the heat of the afternoon in a hammock swaying between two palm trees at the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa. From the splash pool to the carafe in each room, all water is from De Soto’s legendary mineral springs. Salon and spa services use the water in their mudpacks and body treatments. Though kids under 16 can’t use the spa, mom can still enjoy herself; babysitting services are available and children are welcome in the outdoor splash pool. Soft beige and earth tones decorate the 172 rooms and suites; all offer views of the spa’s expansive lawns and Tampa Bay, some from private balconies, rooms $130–$369, 105 Bayshore Dr., Safety Harbor, 727-726-1161 or 888-237-8772.

For a more intimate lodging experience, the Meranova Guest Inn in Dunedin offers eight uniquely styled rooms and suites, each with a private entrance. Complimentary brandy and chocolates and fresh flowers decorating the efficiency kitchen infuse romance into your escape. Antiques and collectibles from around the world create themes ranging from Southwest to Asian to Plantation. Each suite has at least one bedroom and an efficiency kitchen; some have six rooms. Breakfast is made to order from 8–10 a.m. and delivered wherever you choose on the grounds, rooms and suites $175–$215 (ages 14 and up only), 458 Virginia Ln., 727-733-9248.

Accommodations can be found starting at about $55 per night; for other options, call the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 727-464-7200 or 877-352-3224.

Where to Eat

Green Springs Bistro is the place to experience the flavor of Safety Harbor. Paintings by local artists decorate the earthen walls of this restored 1930s wood-frame house. Adults enjoy listening to the solo musician playing in the lounge, while the hostess offers puzzles and crayons to the kids. Light lunch selections like the Roasted Chicken Breast Sandwich won’t weigh you down; it is made with red onion, roma tomatoes, lettuce, and herb mayonnaise on their own in-house bread, $9. The Mahi Sandwich includes fish prepared either blackened, garlic seared, or jerk seasoned, topped with garlic mayonnaise and roma tomatoes, $10. For dinner, try the roasted Hanger Steak, coffee-rubbed with an A-1 demiglaze, buttermilk smashed red potatoes, and roasted vegetables, $30, Tue–Sat 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. and 5:30–9:30 p.m., closed Sun–Mon, reservations recommended, 156 Fourth Ave. N, Safety Harbor, 727-669-6762.

Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill is an open-air restaurant with seating on the white-sand beach providing a great view of sunsets on the Gulf of Mexico.. Photo courtesy of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area CVB.

Enjoy a gulf coast sunset on Clearwater Beach at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. Live music draws diners in from the beach, creating a dine-as-you-are atmosphere where bathing suits are considered appropriate attire. A mixture of ocean-inspired Mexican, Jamaican, and Floridian dishes dominate the menu. Frenchy’s own fleet of commercial fishing boats brings dinner fresh from the Gulf. You can’t go wrong with the house favorite, Baked Stuffed Grouper, Florida grouper filled with crabmeat stuffing and topped with a Dijon caper hollandaise sauce, $19. Or spice it up a notch with the Caribbean Jerk Shrimp, with large shrimp grilled in Jamaican spices, $16. Entrées are served with a salad and two sides, 11 a.m.–midnight (Thu–Sat until 1 a.m.), 7 Rockaway St., Clearwater Beach, 727-446-4844.

Crabby Bill’s—named for the owner’s specialty, not his temperament—is the perfect place to stop after fishing on Pier 60. For $8 a head (fish head that is) they will serve up your catch with French fries and coleslaw. If the fish is large enough for more than one person to dine, then it’s $8 per platter. Just hand your catch over to your server and request it blackened, grilled, or fried. If the fish weren’t biting your line, try Bill’s favorite catch: blue crabs, steamed, fried, or sautéed with oil and garlic, market price, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. (Fri–Sat until 11 p.m.), 37 Causeway Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727-210-1313.

Transportation

Florida’s Beach communities are easily explored on foot if you limit your visit to one area, so a taxi ride from the airport may be all the transportation you need. Clearwater Yellow Cab charges $2.25 for pick-up and $2.20 each mile, 727-222-2222.

To travel between beach communities, a rental car is your most convenient choice. Enterprise rentals start at $72 per day and recommend you book online to maximize savings, 727-524-1239. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus system covers the peninsula, and can get you to your destination for $3, or $5 for an unlimited day-pass, 727-540-1900 or 727-540-1800.

The Pinellas Trail extends from Tarpon Springs, north of Clearwater, south to St. Petersburg, so you could even bike the peninsula. The trail is open during daylight hours. For an audio guide or to view the trail guidebook available online. You can rent bikes, tandem bikes, and child trailers from a handful of shops located conveniently near the trail; a comprehensive list is available online.

On Clearwater Beach, the Jolly Trolley will take you to all beach attractions along North Beach, South Beach and Sand Key Roads for only $2.25 per ride, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. (Fri–Sat until 11:30 p.m.), 727-445-1200.

Although Florida’s Beach has transformed from a Spanish entry point for the New World to a modern vacation spot, much of its original beauty remains. The Indians have all but disappeared and air travel has replaced sea voyages, but pirate ships still sail the coast and Safety Harbor still touts its healing mineral springs. Old World traditions are celebrated on the Pinellas Peninsula. If you’re looking for a vacation spot that everyone can enjoy, and the kids start pulling you in three different directions, fly to Florida’s Beach where historic family fun awaits, no matter which direction you choose.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.On a hook of land separating the Gulf of Mexico from Old Tampa Bay is a cluster of towns where you can find a refreshing alternative to the typical Florida theme park vacation. Pinellas Peninsula, known as Florida’s Beach for the white sand beaches on its 20 barrier islands, is dotted with communities that offer different and interesting ways to experience the coastline. Three of these towns, Clearwater, Dunedin, and Safety Harbor, are within a 20-minute drive of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. Together, they create a family destination steeped in history, nature, and beach-going fun—a welcome change for those wanting to steer away from life-sized cartoon characters and hair-raising rollercoaster rides.

In Florida’s Beach, you can create your own storybook tale. On a pirate ship excursion in the Gulf, watch dolphins jump in the wake of your ship. At the edge of the Bay in Safety Harbor, explore ancient Indian mounds, then cool off at a spa where you can sample spring waters the Indians believed had healing powers. In the unspoiled environment of Dunedin’s beaches, which are top-ranked for nature preservation, you can imagine the days of Spanish explorers discovering the New World. Each community offers a different perspective of Florida’s history, with the chance to partake in a new adventure every day.

Flying There

St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport (PIE) is 9 nm southwest of Tampa International Airport (TPA), underneath the 1,200-foot floor of Class B airspace. It is on the Miami sectional, but the Tampa area is so close to the north edge of the map that the Tampa Class B is also depicted in an inset on the Jacksonville sectional.

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Topics: US Travel, Travel

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