It was my parents’ 50th anniversary in August, and despite the family getting together for a lovely meal at Blue by Eric Ripert, I still felt we should mark the occasion with a trip of some sort.
Having stayed in Clearwater Beach in Florida for just one night previously, and keen to explore it further, I suggested we travel there for a long weekend. Cayman Airways has direct flights to Tampa at a civilized hour almost every day of the week, and from Tampa, Clearwater is a short 45-minute drive away.
Getting away from it all
We flew out on a Friday in the late morning. The only real hardship was the fact that Hungry Horse in the departure lounge was completely out of beef patties. That is what you get for booking a flight not long after the plane to Jamaica has left.
We treated ourselves to business class and wow, what a business class it was! This was the first time we had seen the newest jet in the Cayman Airways fleet, and I’d never experienced leg room like it. Business class leg room on other airlines, such as American Airlines and Delta is almost like what economy used to be back in the good old days; this was luxury in comparison.
Not only was there a great deal of space, but the meal we were served would not have been out of place in a transatlantic business class cabin on a major airline.
Honestly, if Cayman Airways is getting more of these planes with that kind of seat configuration, I’ll be booking business class to Denver every weekend! But I digress ….
We arrived in Tampa airport, which had no lines at immigration, and even if there had been people waiting, it was a far cry from the Grand Central Station-atmosphere at Miami International.
Unfortunately, our joy at the empty arrivals hall was short-lived, as the border agent wrestled with his computer. Nothing, it seemed, was working, from the fingerprint scanner to the passport thingamabob. Information Technology was called in to assist as we stood there, watching our suitcases appear on the carousel from afar.
Luckily, my friend Lynne who was accompanying us on the trip is Canadian, so she had made it through quickly and grabbed a couple of carts. Unluckily for her, we had bags aplenty that she had to deal with solo.
Finally, we got through immigration and with all the bags already accounted for, we made our way through customs to the main terminal.
When I had visited Tampa a year prior, it was just a hop across the road to the car rental depot. Suddenly, everything had changed. Much like Miami, there was now a train from the terminal to a shiny new car hire outlying building. Rather than having everyone make the journey with me, I offered to run ahead and then pick them up once I had the car.
The new car rental facility is quite a distance on the train, but it is worth the trip. If you have not visited Tampa in a while, prepare to be dazzled.
I grabbed the large SUV, perfect for hauling lots of shopping, and picked up my parents and Lynne. We were on our way to Clearwater Beach!
Driving the Memorial Causeway
A lot of the drive to Clearwater and the area itself reminded us of the drive to Key West. There are similar buildings – bars that were built to give the ramshackle vibe – and lots of seafood joints. A couple of things that struck us as we went along was how low the road was at points in relation to the water. It would not take much of a storm to flood the highway.
After passing numerous motorbike riders, a few motels that could have used a lick of paint, and Joe’s Crab Shack, we could see the line of hotels in the distance signaling the location of Clearwater Beach.
I had booked us into the Opal Sands Resort, where I had stayed before. Part of a small chain of upscale hotels, the Opal Sands resides at the southern end of Clearwater Beach. All the rooms face the Gulf of Mexico and it is nicely located for walks to restaurants and other points of interest.
Opal Sands Resort
August was a good time to visit as, like Cayman, it was slower season there and the rooms were fairly reasonably priced. There is a $25 resort fee per day, which is not too bad when you look at what you can pay elsewhere.
One of the perks I really love about staying at this place is the courtesy Bentley with driver that you can book for nights out. He will take you where you want to go (within reasonable distance; Busch Gardens is probably out of the question) and will pick you up later and bring you back to the hotel. For the second time, I did not get around to booking the car, so I will have to go back to Clearwater just for that.
Another perk is the complimentary communal pantry on each floor. This is regularly stocked with fresh fruit, cookies, bottled water and, my favorite, individual bags of ice. The only issue is that the cookies are really good, so guests have been known to visit each floor, pilfering cookies from other pantries.
Nature lovers can see a lot from those resort balconies. There are pelicans, manatees and even dolphins if you are lucky enough to spot one. My advice would be to take some binoculars when you go.
That evening, Lynne and I went across the road to Salty’s Island Bar & Grille. We had dined here on a previous trip and liked the food and casual atmosphere.
I’ll give you a tip: Even if you do not see fried green tomatoes on the menu, you can still ask for them. I love their fried green tomatoes, which they also use as croutons on their yummy Caesar salad.
Salty’s serves up crab legs, burgers and lots of other comfort food, and one of its other draws is its bucket of rum punch that should keep you going all through your meal.
You can either sit downstairs at street level and people watch or go upstairs to the deck for a more panoramic view. They sometimes have live music in the evenings which is really nice as it is not overbearing loud.
Mum and Dad went for their anniversary dinner at Sea-Guini, the Opal Sands’ in-house fine dining restaurant. By all accounts, it was a fabulous meal, and the setting is lovely – all picture windows and lights.
The next morning, Lynne got up bright and early to walk to McDonald’s for breakfast. Hey, when you do not have it easily available back home, you miss it. There is no substitute for that shiny, crisp hash brown patty.
It was about half a mile down the road, which took her along the boardwalk past the vast beach, punctuated by the odd lifeguard tower. The beach in Clearwater is much nicer than Miami – it more resembles the beaches in Cayman, although the water is nowhere near as clear.
Once Lynne had finished her breakfast, she decided to give the bready remnants to the seagulls in the area. Big mistake. Anyone who has seen the film “Finding Nemo” will remember the seagulls chirping “mine, mine, mine, mine ….” Well, film became reality as she made her way to a sand dune. Aware that some visiting rube was about to share comestibles with them, the large birds divebombed her. One managed to get a piece of bread, which should have been the end of the story, but as it flew up the others chased it, forcing it to drop its prize which got caught by another gull. The Luftwaffe had nothing on these creatures.
Hard Rock Hotel
Later that day, we decided to drive to Tampa and visit the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. We had been to the one in Hollywood, Florida, a number of times, but never this one. Just like its sister property, it was bonkers expensive to actually stay there, so we would stop by, try out some of the slot machines, have some dinner and head back to Opal Sands.
Unfortunately, the huge center bar was under renovation and we were there on a busy night. I guess we did not look like big gamblers, as the servers were nowhere to be found. In the end, I offered to go and get the drinks and walked past hundreds of slot machines to finally find a bar at the opposite end of the room. I’ll never make it in the service industry, because as I tried to carry four drinks back to where everyone was, I ended up with a mix of rum and Bloody Mary all over my chest.
I had booked us dinner at the Council Oak. This is the jewel in the crown for both the Hollywood and Tampa resorts – a high-end steakhouse with the price tags to match.
We had always had a great experience at the Hollywood one, so this seemed like a no-brainer.
It all started off well, and then went downhill as our server appeared to lose the plot. Some steaks arrived while two of us had no plates, some side orders had been missed and when we did cut the steaks, we could not have been blamed if we had subsequently asked for a buzz saw.
The server was all apologies and the manager swiftly followed, offering a substantial discount for the meal. Which brings me to another point – always let someone know if you are not happy with your food or service. You do not have to be horrible about it, but be honest. Restaurants want to know.
I should have mentioned that we had toyed with the idea of going to a Monster Trucks show, which happened to be scheduled for Tampa that weekend. I’ve always wanted to see those insane vehicles up close. The only thing that really stopped us was the parking availability – the nearest lot was a mile away from the stadium; oh yes, and reading others reviews which stated that it was “the loudest event you’ll ever attend in your life.” It possibly could have rivaled the hotel fire alarm that went off in error in the early hours of Sunday morning. Why a recorded message blasted from the speaker in your hotel room at seven squillion decibels has to keep shouting “MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!” over and over again is beyond me. You had my attention the first time, believe me. Happy anniversary, Mum and Dad!
We did some shopping in Tampa, which is home to some great malls and your staple Target, Wal-Mart and other stores, but really it was nice to just stay in our Clearwater Beach area. It is a great strolling place and must be absolutely delightful in the cooler winter months.
We were booked to fly back on the Monday afternoon (don’t you love afternoon flights over really early morning?) so I dropped everyone at the airport before returning the car, which was very easy – signage everywhere, thank goodness.
Our flight was a bit delayed out of Tampa, but thanks to business class on Cayman Airways, we had access to the American Airlines lounge. Yay!
Three heavy bags of duty-free later, and we were on the plane, ready to head home.
It was a fabulous weekend, and so different from the usual travel to Miami. The flight is easy, and the drive to Clearwater Beach is a very pleasant one. I highly recommend you give it a try for a change; I think the climate will suit you.