You’ll be surprised at the free things to do in Clearwater . . . even during a pandemic.
I chose Clearwater after an exhaustive search of beach towns on the West Coast of Florida due to its proximity to white beaches, blue waters and isolated state parks. Whether I drove to Honeymoon Beach, took a ferry to Cadesi State Park or bicycled to Sand Key, I had endless options to explore over my 10-day getaway.
The slogan for Clearwater is “Bright and Beautiful, Bay to Beach.”
Trip Advisor readers voted it the number one beach in America in 2018.
USA Today named it a Top 10 Beach in America.
I humbly submit my own moniker—Clearwater Calm: Serenity Now.
In a locale that lies 999 miles from Washington, DC, I traded the exasperating non-stop prattle of politicians on the airwaves for the soothing sound of waves crashing on the beach. Not surprisingly, the latter was meditational for this city gal.
Plus escaping to Florida allowed me to test what so many people—young and old, millennial and Boomer, family and single—are discovering during this pandemic. If you don’t have to report to work at an office, you can work anywhere … including a beach paradise like Clearwater.
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Free Things to Do in Clearwater
So with a defined budget as well as rock-strong resolve to see America, I booked my 10-day working vacation. I would find at least 10 free things to do in Clearwater, Florida.
Since I will not get on a plane until post-vaccine, I had no choice but a two-day road trip. I drove out of my DC condo at 7 am on January 1. I am committed to meet my 2021 New Year’s resolutions—travel, explore and discover new places in my own country … while staying safe.
After days spent reading reviews and comparing features for my temporary beach home, I booked my 1-bedroom AirBNB bungalow in Clearwater. This was my January getaway with two Siamese cats and my work laptop. My motto: Cats like to travel too … although they do yowl a lot. Check out Traveling Cat.
I arrived on January 2 at 2:45 pm. After I unpacked my car and let my cats out of their carriers, I raced to explore my neighborhood. The house is situation one block from the bay so I wandered down to a gazebo to watch the boats ride by. The Causeway Bridge looms in the distance. Here is my Top 10 Fun Things to Do in Clearwater.
Watch the Sun Set Every Night
A Clearwater Beach sunset looks like a Matisse painting. Picture a canvas painted dove grey with impressionistic rose, coral and lavender oils swirls. Like a find the hidden object in the picture, I could obsessively study the mysteries I see hidden in the sky. I play this game all 10 nights during my Clearwater vacation. Watching the sunset is free to observe from any bench, bridge or beach. (A cocktail or club soda with a splash of lime is optional!)
Celebrating Clearwater’s sunsets is one of my first and most lasting impressions of this city. But I would soon come to learn that even in the dead of winter Clearwater offers a multitude of pleasures: tropical sunshine, sapphire blue water, soft white beaches and abundant wildlife. And by the way, they all constitute free things to do in Clearwater, Florida.
Get Up to See the Sun Rise (at least once)
Now I think most my readers will balk at setting the alarm to 6 a.m. on their vacation. But I regularly wake up at 5 a.m. (thanks to my feline alarm clocks – Henry & Eliot). So it was not at all difficult to watch the sun rise on 10 successive days in Clearwater.
And I chose the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge as “my perch” to watch dawn paint the winter sky in shades of peach, rose and pale yellow. And like the migrating black birds that fly above my head, I let my imagination roam wild. Sunrises are the beginnings that herald possibilities for the day ahead.
Watch Black Bird Ballet
Anyone who reads my blog know that I am a nature—loving gal. I will always choose hiking in woods, climbing mountains or walking on the beach over the quotidian tourist pursuits, such as shopping.
But my most awe-inspiring discovery has been as amateur anornithologist. Birds love Florida. I marvel every morning while I watch them fly in synchrony across the Causeway Bridge, then split into two groups, one that turns left toward the Bay, the other right toward the Gulf, whirl in looping circles, then fly back together.
This ballet of the black birds mesmerizes me. I try to videotape it but the images seem so small looking through the lens of my iPhone compared to throwing my head back to gaze up in wonder.
Since these black birds fly too high in the sky for me to see identifying marks, I cannot tell they are the red-winged blackbird. But Florida Hikes is a great source to identify birds seen in Florida during my stay.
“Florida is a prime destination for migratory birds, which is why so many birders flock to Florida, too.”
Walk the Causeway Bridge
For 10 straight days, I walked the Causeway fixed span bridge at daybreak. Built in 2001, this gleaming white structure seems to rise like a pelican in flight. Its curving silhouette can be seen from a far distance. There are four lanes.
The bridge is 2,540-feet long, with 74-feet vertical clearance over the intracoastal waterway. Midway there is a bump out. Standing there you can imagine yourself at the helm of a cruise ship. Directly below pleasure boats bob in the harbor. High-rise condominiums face the bridge on both sides.
On a balmy Saturday afternoon, the temperature registering a toasty 79 degree, I walk the bridge for the first time. It is a circus, a playground, a boulevard bridge. Young and old cross over on foot, bike and skate. The energy of this people mover elates me. And always the water gleams and sparkles below the bridge. Clearwater Beach looks like a coastal citadel looming in the distance.
Explore Clearwater’s Oldest Neighborhood
My Airbnb is located on Lime Street. This simple 2-story beach bungalow is surrounded by mansions.
It turns out that I am staying in the historic Harbor Oaks neighborhood. This 107-year-old enclave is Clearwater’s original and oldest planned development. The neighborhood borders the Intracoastal Waterway, located off of Fort Harrison Dr. just south of Rt. 60 in Clearwater.
Reminiscent (in my mind) of Chevy Chase, Maryland, Harbor Oaks probably started out as a vacation escape. Tampa Bay Towns described it as a great spot for winter homes for wealthy Northerners.
“The houses are of many architectural styles because, not unlike St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast, they were built over a number of years. Harbor Oaks was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.”—Tampa Bay Times
Many of the palatial homes—selling for as high as $14 million—loom hidden behind brick walls. The curving Druid Street is probably home to the wealthiest people in Clearwater.
In 2013, residents celebrated the 100-year anniversary of “Preserve Harbor Oaks.” Flags denoting the celebration wave in the air.
Bicycle on the Pinellas Trail
Stretching 54 miles from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail is a bicyclist’s dream. Information of this “rail to trail” nationally acclaimed destination features maps and links to key supporting organizations.
This linear trail was created along a portion of an abandoned railroad corridor. (History Fact: The first train on Orange Belt Railway arrived in St. Petersburg in 1888.)
Nearly one century later, after the Florida Department of Transportation purchased the railway right-of-land, the first 5-mile stretch of the Pinellas Trail debuts in 1990. It stretches from Taylor Park to Seminole City Park.
Whether bicycling, jogging, skating or walking, the Trail offers a “slow travel” way to see this part of Old Florida. It’s another example of outdoor free things to do in Clearwater, Florida. . This protected green space is managed by Pinellas County Parks & Conservation Resources.
Walk in North Beach
Clearwater Beach is known as Spring Break Capital but it is also home to 7,714 residents. The city includes hotels, high-rise condos, beachfront homes and simple bungalows.
If you don’t want to hang in the crowded South Beach near Pier 60, I suggest you turn right (not left) coming across the Causeway Bridge. You can enjoy North Beach’s soft white sand beaches and the sea.
I walked for hours along this wide path, occasionally passing other walkers and joggers. Even though it was January, I found families nestled on a blankets. Toddlers energetically built sand castles.
I completely lost myself in a dreamy sort of meditation. The soothing sound of the water plus the rush of the wind echoed in my head.
Visit Pier 60
Every beach town needs its boardwalk and Clearwater Beach is no exception. You must see Pier 60. I chose to visit at daybreak when the bridge was deserted. I made a video of the sunrise.
The 1,080-foot fishing pier is an outdoor shopping mall, fishing spot and people place. Children love the well-equipped playground. Pier 60 offers a recreational park, with a bait house, telescopes and six covered pavilions.
You can purchase anything at the Bait House, including fishing tackle, T-shirts, souvenirs, drinks and food. If you want to fish, rods are available to rent.
At night, tourists flock to see “Sunsets at Pier 60.” During the “bewitching hours,” the nautical sunset transforms the blue sky by alchemy into a black canvas of warm pastels colors—orange, rose, pink and yellow swirls. It never gets old watching Nature’s free light show. The disappearance of the Sun leads to a “Sunset State of Mind.”
But there are also a variety of crafts and entertainment available from 6 – 9 p.m. each night.
Check Out Nearby Islands
If you traveled to Florida in a car, then visiting nearby islands will constitute free things to do in Clearwater, Florida.
Honeymoon Island State Park offers four miles of undeveloped beaches. This barrier island is located off of Dunedin. Expect crowds on the weekend.
Cadesi Island State Park also counts among free things to do in Clearwater, Florida.
“Caladesi Island offers one of the few untouched pristine beaches in Florida, which is why it’s regularly recognized as one of the world’s best. It’s a short ferry ride from Honeymoon Island State Park or accessible by kayak or personal boat.” (VisitClearwaterFlorida.com)
Sand Key is a 95-acre county park that offers picnic pavilions, bathhouses and one of the area’s only rock jetties.
Pass-A-Grille is a retro island near St. Peter’s Beach. It is a must see!
Clearwater is located in Pinellas County, just across the bay from Tampa. Closeby, cities like Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Largo and cities like St. Petersburg and Tampa offer fun day excursions with plenty of activities, attractions and things to see, providing the perfect complement to a Clearwater vacation.
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