Going for my first walk on the white sand of Clearwater Beach, Florida, felt like a rebirth.
I'd survived the pandemic, been fully vaccinated, and reconnected with my parents in person.
Now, it was time for a few days of R&R at one of the best beaches in the United States.
Clearwater Beach is located on a barrier island off the western coast of Florida, a half-hour west of Tampa Bay and north of St. Petersburg.
In mid-May, when I visited, the Clearwater Beach weather was ideal. Highs were in the 80s, with lots of sun and wisps of white clouds across the otherwise blue skies.
I picked Clearwater Beach for its accolades in recent years and easy access to the Tampa International Airport, which offers direct flights to Austin on Southwest Airlines.
I fly this route often enough that it made sense to get a Southwest credit card so I could earn points for free flights.
Choosing where to stay, on the other hand, was a more difficult decision. Clearwater Beach is pricier than I expected.
Clearwater Beach Travel Guide
Where to Stay
I began by searching for Airbnbs in Clearwater Beach, only to find the cheapest options available were still expensive for what you get.
On the other hand, the big hotels were $400+ per night, which there was no way I was going to pay. For that price, I'd rather fly to Mexico for the weekend.
Sta ‘n Pla Motel
I settled on a one-bedroom apartment in the Sta ‘n Pla Motel two blocks from the beach. Including fees, it came out to $200 per night.
Thankfully, I had $80 in Airbnb credit, bringing the cost down to $160 per night, or $320 total.
Still a lot, but I'd been waiting 17 months to see a beach and didn't lose too much sleep over it. Besides, I had a trick up my sleeve to end the trip on a high note.
Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach
The last night of my Florida trip would be spent in a Gulf view room at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach resort, a $500+ value I received for significantly less.
A few years earlier, while at the Austin Kite Festival in Zilker Park, I was approached by a woman signing up people to attend a Wyndham timeshare presentation.
The reward for attending was 30,000 points which could be redeemed at any of Wyndham's locations.
I signed up, earned the points in exchange for a few hours of my time (during which I did not buy a timeshare), and waited for a good opportunity to use them.
That opportunity came in the form of a night at their premiere Clearwater beach resort. It would be my first time staying at a Wyndham property.
The points were enough for a standard room, which I booked. I later received an email offering the chance to upgrade to a Gulf view room for $60, based on availability.
I signed up and was happy to learn at check-in that I'd received the upgrade. As you can see from my balcony view above, the scenery was spectacular.
Staying at the resort afforded me access to the pool, though I didn't use it for more than a quick dip.
I did, however, enjoy a happy hour cocktail and salad with chicken for dinner at the pool bar.
The morning of my departure, I sat in one of the resort's shaded lounge chairs on the beach. I left mid-morning before anyone came by to charge me.
My stay at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater was well worth the time I spent listening to the timeshare presentation.
Where to Eat
When it comes to Clearwater Beach restaurants, I made a few discoveries. First and foremost, there's Columbia Restaurant, which is technically just south across a bridge on Sand Key.
Columbia is a family-owned and operated Spanish restaurant that dates back 105 years. The original location is in Tampa Bay.
I had the chicken and plantains, a mojito, and a terrific view of the sparkling blue waters outside.
I sat inside due to the heat; however, they have a large outdoor deck and a dock with jet-skis!
It was the ideal spot for a leisurely lunch catching up with an old friend.
We had chips and salsa and guacamole to start, and I ordered the fish tacos as the main course. Shannon and I last shared Mexican food in Oaxaca five years earlier.
I appreciated being able to linger as long as we liked on the restaurant's deck without pressure to pay and leave.
As mentioned above, I also had dinner one night at Wyndham's pool bar. Another night, I ate at Shor American Seafood Grill at the Hyatt Regency Beach Resort.
I picked it for the convenient location and Gulf view. The grilled avocado and salmon dishes were excellent, too.
Things to Do
If all you want to do is hang at the beach, I can't blame you. That was my focus after a year and a half in landlocked Austin, TX. However, there are plenty of activities available, too.
Hang out on Clearwater Beach
Let's start with the white sandy beach and calm, clear Gulf waters. It's a legit world-class beach, even if it doesn't sound as exotic as a Thai beach half a world away.
I went for walks on the beach in the mornings and left my footprints in the freshly groomed sand.
In the afternoons, the beaches were packed with families, couples, and groups of friends. And it was a diverse crowd, from babies to retirees, representing many different races, too.
On one walk, I noticed the music being played went from Guns ‘n Roses to reggaeton to electronica.
The vacationers were in a generally upbeat mood. It was the largest concentration of people I'd been around since 2019, and I felt comfortable and safe (both being outside as well as fully vaccinated).
Each evening, I made sure to watch the sunset, first from the beach and the next night from my balcony at the Wyndham.
As fair-skinned as I am, I am better able to enjoy beaches in the early mornings and late afternoons when the risk of burning is lower.
Anyone who goes for a walk along Clearwater Beach will see and eventually run into Pier 60.
This wooden pier offers visitors the chance to walk out over the water and get another perspective on the beach, both to the north and south.
Fishing from the pier is allowed, and there plenty of people fishing when I walked out on it.
There's a $2 charge if you want to walk to the far end of the pier, which I recommend. If you're lucky, you may spot some dolphins!
Want to increase your odds of seeing wild dolphins at play? Book one of the many boat tours in Clearwater.
It goes without saying there are numerous watersports to enjoy in Clearwater Beach.
Banana boat rides, jet-skiing, parasailing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are the most popular activities.
Explore Nearby Beaches and Islands
If you'd like to escape the crowds on Clearwater Beach, many other beaches on nearby islands are worth exploring.
Having a car, either your own or a rental helps here as rideshare prices can be costly during the summer months.
- Sand Key Park and Beach – a few minutes drive south of Clearwater Beach.
- Caladesi Island State Park – at the north end of the same island as Clearwater Beach. Accessible via foot or boat.
- Honeymoon Island State Park – an island just north of Caladesi Island, accessible by boat or car (via the Dunedin Causeway).
Overall, my experience at Clearwater Beach surpassed my expectations. The white sand and warm Gulf waters are vacation-worthy.
Finding affordable accommodation may be a challenge, so consider visiting during shoulder seasons (spring or fall).
When it comes to weird and oddball behavior, Florida is often the butt of jokes in the US. But, it's also the state that undeniably offers some of our best beaches. Clearwater Beach is one of them.