CLEARWATER BEACH, FL., August 27, 2012 — Tampa may be home to this year’s Republican Convention, but the powerful poopahs of the Republican Senatorial Committee have booked themselves just across the bay at what’s widely considered the best address in the area, Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach.
Although Clearwater Beach is only a twenty-minute drive from Tampa, it shares none of her infamous gloominess and rainy clime. Clearwater Beach is graced with blue skies and bright sun.
This pristine beach has prompted myriad writers — from magazines to brochures to postcards — to enthuse about her sugar white beaches.
Here, the Gulf gives her irresistible come hither most profoundly in the early morning when the beach is empty and at night when the only signs of human life are the distant lights of international cargo ships plying the water.
My five-year-old daughter and I recently found our way to the Sandpearl, a resort that has ushered in an era of luxury in Clearwater Beach. The lobby sets the tone with a blessedly kitsch-free nautical theme (think bell jars with still life arrangements of starfish, sand and shells). Dark woods, serious draperies and handsome onyx chess sets define the space. Although the style is sophisticated, the Sandpearl hasn’t overlooked its fun-loving locale. Take, for instance, the revamped 19th century piano that has been updated (via hidden computer) as a player piano. An empty bench for an invisible player set out before the piano solicited roars of laughter from Maxine.
There are 203 rooms, most of which are sunny and bright. Bathrooms are swathed in marble and granite. The best rooms overlook the pool and face the beach, and private balconies draw guests to gaze at the ocean.
For longer stays and bigger families, there are 50 suites. We checked into a two-bedroom suite that spanned more than 2,500 feet.
My daughter’s bedroom had a pool view, two queen beds, and a walk-in closet so big that it could have been a third bedroom.
My master, tucked on the opposite side of the condo, had a king bed, a sofa and sitting area and a desk. My bath masqueraded as a mini spa with soft lighting, an enormous soaking tub and marble shower. The balcony off my bedroom proved a perfect spot for reading the newspaper over coffee each morning.
Our kitchen, gleaming with shiny granite countertops and stainless everything, was roomy enough for me to cook while Maxine washed her seashells at the sink without bumping into each other.
For those visitors who can’t secure a waterfront room, splurge on a poolside cabana, which can be rented for between $200-$300 per day. These aren’t your grandmothers’ cabanas. Banish the thought of windowless cinderblock cells. Sandpearl’s cabanas are full-fledged rooms that make lounge chair dwellers (like me) drool. There’s no better pool perch than this, thanks to a furnished patio with chairs, a pair of sofas, comfy upholstered chairs and a big screen TV.
The poolside restaurant, Tate Island Grill, which serves simple grub like grouper sandwiches with Caribbean-inspired slaw for adults and kid standards like chicken fingers, delivers to cabanas and chairs alike.
But the restaurant that Floridians make a trek to is Caretta on the Gulf, a handsome beachfront space on the second storey of the hotel where serious design is matched by the quality of the food.
House-cut steaks make it a mecca for meat eaters, but Caretta also serves sushi. Normally a restaurant spanning both disciplines succeeds at neither. This is the exception. Occasionally, the kitchen will meld its two expertise into one outstanding dish. When I visited, a steak and lobster roll was featured on the menu. This combination of lightly vinegared rice, nori, succulent tender steak tender atop a pillow of lobster, was swoon worthy.
Plan to wile a way a few peaceful hours in the Sandpearl Spa. There are scrubs, massages, water therapies and facials, many of which tap the ocean for powerful ingredients. Factor in time to linger before and after your treatment in the co-ed Jacuzzi or the steam room, both calm, low-lighted spaces that are the essence of relaxation.
While I escaped to the spa, my daughter headed to kids’ club, the antithesis of the stick-‘em-and leave-‘em glorified babysitting services many parents have grown accustomed to. For Maxine, an only child who is loath to participate in anything kid-centered, this was the first program she has ever agreed to stay at. The club tends towards marine-themed activities from watching “Dolphin’s Tale” to creating ocean-inspired crafts, like bottled sand art. In the evening, kids in the club learned to hula and played tag among the dunes.
Of course, most of us head to Florida to spend as much time as possible outdoors and on the beach. Our afternoons were spent trolling the beach for shells and exploring the many tidal pools left behind as the ocean retreated.
Pier 60, Clearwater Beach’s local gathering place, is within easy strolling distance of the Sandpearl. With viewfinders, a dusty souvenir shop selling postcards, ice cream and shark teeth, this is a retro throwback that will prompt waves of nostalgia for a bygone era.
The town of Clearwater Beach is right outside the front door of the Sandpearl. Meander along Mandalay Avenue, the main drag, past cafes, vendors selling kites and a bevy of T-shirts shops. Stop in at Surf Style, where you can surf indoors or do as we chickens did and watch surfers take to the artificial waves.
Thanks to the blockbuster film “Dolphin Tale”, Clearwater Beach is now most famous for being the home of Winter, the tailless dolphin, who lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), which us about a mile from the Sandpearl. While Winter is the big draw, a visit to the CMA also puts visitors in contact with dozens of other rescued marine animals, like an orphaned otter and a three-legged sea turtle.
There’s no need to rent a car while staying at Sandpearl. A free trolley runs all day through Clearwater Beach or you can catch a ride from Florida Free Rides. (The cost for the latter is simply the driver’s tip.)
Plan to end your day at Sandpearl. It is hard to imagine of a better way to spend an evening on the Gulf than to gather around a campfire on the beach for s’mores. This isn’t just fun for kids, but it’s also a great way for adults to nurse a cocktail and get to know other guests.
One evening as we gazed out over the ocean, a pod of dolphin frolicked just yards away from us, so perfectly positioned that my daughter wondered if the Sandpearl hadn’t “planted” the wild pod.
Every night back in our suite, we instinctively headed to the balcony to listen to the ebb and the flow of the tide and watch the stars pop and sparkle above the ocean.
The Sandpearl has mastered the delivery of the perfect beach vacation by setting the stage for visitors to fall into the unique rhythms of life on the Gulf.
No wonder Senator John Cornyn and other top Republicans have staked out the Sandpearl as their nest during this year’s convention.
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