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What To Do In Clearwater

By Melissa Klurman

With miles of sugar-white sand along the aqua waters of the Gulf of Mexico, laid-back Clearwater would already have been a natural for a family beach vacation. However, add in a bit of movie star magic - in this case from Clearwater's most famous resident, Winter, the prosthetic tail-wearing star of Dolphin Tale --- and you have the ticket to a truly blockbuster-worthy Florida family vacation. Adding to its allure, Clearwater has a sunset festival every night of the year, great places to eat and stay, and boating and biking galore. If you're trying to figure out what to do in Clearwater on your next family vacation, dive on in.

What To Do

Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Imagine that as a kid you could have met Lassie, or Benji, or Flipper. Although that wasn't an option then, today in Clearwater your kids can meet their modern-day animal movie star equivalent: Winter, star of Dolphin Tale. This amazing "bionic" dolphin was rescued by the aquarium after getting stuck in a crabbing net as a baby and defied the odds to not only survive without her tail, but to thrive with an artificial one.

The aquarium is renowned for its program of "rescue, rehabilitation, and release" of injured sea creatures and when you're here, in addition to Winter, you'll see a range of rescued creatures ranging from bottlenose dolphins to sea turtles to otters. The unique facility was once a water treatment plant (so you can add "reuse and recycle" to the aquariums list of impressive "R"s), and the raised cylindrical tanks make it easy to see the aquariums permanent dolphin guests including Panama, Hope, and superstar Winter. (Just how popular is Winter? The aquariums web address is www.seewinter.com if that gives you any hint.)

Animal interactions, for ages 7 and up, are a particular high-point here. The one-on-one encounters include a "backstage tour" of the facility and an intimate poolside encounter with a resident dolphin and its trainer for the less than the cost of a group encounter in a tropical resort dolphin program.

Moving forward, a $12 million dollar expansion is planned for this ready-for-its-closeup facility, including stadium seating for animal shows and larger pools for the animals.

Beaches - With 28 miles of beaches along the laid-back Gulf of Mexico, Clearwater is a perfectly suited to a family beach vacation. Although the award-winning beaches comprised of soft sand and clear surf are abundant everywhere you look, there are a few spots that stand out, including Caladesi Island State Park and Sand Key Park, both anointed as among the top beaches in the country by "Dr. Beach," Dr. Stephen Leatherman.

Beach Walk - If you haven't been to Clearwater in a while, you're in for a pleasant surprise. A massive $30 million project created a meandering, palm tree-lined biking and walking path that runs along the main stretch of Clearwater beach. It's the perfect spot to try out a rental bike or even a multiple-person surrey, a fun biking option for families (available at the Hyatt, see below). If you decide to continue your car-free family vacation in Clearwater, be sure to utilize the Jolly Trolly, a convenient, inexpensive shuttle that follows the beach walk and runs the length of Clearwater Beach.

Sunset Festival at Pier 60 - Watching the sun set over the gulf is a favorite evening pastime in Clearwater, so much so that the town created a nightly Sunset Festival. The free event starts two hours before the "green flash" of the setting sun and continues for two hours after, and includes jugglers, magicians, clowns, and vendors. If it's Saturday or Sunday, your family can also settle in to watch a free movie on the beach after the sun set festivities.

Boating - Boats for every water interest are available Clearwater's marina, including a high-speed ride on the aptly named Sea Screamer. However, with young kids in tow, your don't miss option is Captain Memo's Pirate Ship, a family fun adventure on the Gulf of Mexico complete with games, water pistol fights, and refreshments.

Where to Eat

Frenchy's - This restaurant for local grouper is a must in Clearwater; the South Beach Café location (Frenchy's has five different dining spots) is directly across from the beach with lots of open air seating. The kids menu here includes tempura fried grouper bites that children gobble up.

Where to Stay

Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa - All the rooms at this modern, new hotel are suites with large balconies and full, envy-inducing kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances (they even have dishwashers, score!). Even better, more than half of the reasonably-priced 250 suites are 1- and 2-bedroom configurations with multiple bathrooms, ideal for family travel.

Attentive child care center is available at the compact but inviting Hyatt Kids club (fee), where staff (with your approval) will take the kids on walking outings to the beach and nearby playground. Evening sessions include movies, crafts, and dinner so you can spend a grown up night on the town. Pier House is a great, grown-ups option.

If You Go:

Melissa Klurman is an award-winning travel writer and mom to Aidan, 8, a fan of both airplane food and miniature hotel soaps, who thinks, after meeting "mearachol serviver" Winter, that he might like to be a marine biologist some day.

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