- Business Advocacy
Look! It’s Hulk Hogan! Well … almost. It was a life-like statue of Hogan outside his boutique, Hogan’s Beach Shop, on Mandalay Avenue in Clearwater Beach, Florida. But it could have been him.
“Hogan frequents the Sandpearl Resort across the street,” the store manager told me, as I perused his merchandise from championship wrestling belt replicas to posters and hoodies. “I’m staying at the Sandpearl!” I exclaimed. I kept an eye out for Hogan at the resort’s AAA 4-diamond restaurant, Caretta on the Gulf, and at its ocean-front Tate Island Grill. But Hogan never appeared.
No worries. I experienced so many wonderful things that not seeing the celebrity wrestler makes an excellent excuse for a return trip.
This was my first visit to Clearwater Beach — a bustling barrier island 22 miles west of Tampa on the Gulf Coast. I was as enthralled with the white sandy beaches, mangrove-fringed lagoons, and dreamy sunsets as were the 19th century fun-in-the-sun-seekers, who arrived in 1897 at the new Belleview Inn — the first hotel to open on Florida’s west coast. The venerable property is still there and grander than ever, thanks to a meticulous restoration and expansion completed in December 2018.
Of course, Clearwater has grown over the years. Its dozens of hotels include the region’s three finest: the Belleview Inn, and the Sandpearl Resort and Opal Sands Resort, both of which I experienced and am happy to recommend; plus water tours, sports and fishing; nightly sunset celebrations, shops, restaurants; and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), which is world renowned for its marine rescue, rehabilitation, and release (when possible) program. Clearwater Beach was named No. 1 Beach in America by the 2018 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards.
Turns out Hogan isn’t the only celebrity in town. And not all of them are human.
Perhaps the most beloved celeb is Winter the Dolphin, who lives at the CMA. She starred in the 2011 movie A Dolphin Tale also starring Morgan Freeman, which chronicled her rescue and recovery by the CMA after she lost her tail flukes and was filmed at the CMA. I took the behind-the-scenes tour and was thrilled to see Winter up close and heartened to learn about the good work it’s doing from rescuing tiny seahorses and helping repopulate Ridley sea turtles on the East Coast to having a marine rescue van at the ready 24/7.
Healthy tail flukes enabled the wild dolphins to splash and play in the glistening waters of Clearwater Bay, much to my delight and others on the Encounters With Dolphins tour on its Little Toot tugboat-like vessel. “There are 120 dolphin in the bay,” the captain announced, “and all of them have names. One was a CMA rescue, released back into the wild.” Phones snapped and video rolled as the friendly mammals entertained us — and themselves. “We guarantee dolphin sightings or a free tour,” the captain continued. I was impressed when my seatmate told me he drove from Orlando, 95 miles away, just to take this tour. It’s that highly recommended, he said. I also was impressed when the captain pointed out Hulk Hogan’s mansion among the many elegant waterfront homes.
Seashells dangling in the trees, finding two shiny red conch shells in the undisturbed sand, and floating in the turquoise waters, were highlights of my morning sail to Caladesi Island State Park. After a scenic sail across the harbor, Paddle Out Adventures’ pontoon tour boat anchored, and the captain lowered kayaks so we could paddle through the mangroves to the deserted beaches. Caladesi is accessible only by boat and is one of the few still untouched islands on Florida’s gulf coast. Visitors who do get there, have for years, hung seashells on the surfside vegetation to honor its natural beauty. In keeping with tradition, before we left, I hung a seashell — no, not the conch shells, I kept those — on a sea apple tree.
Glorious sunsets make every night worth celebrating. The official sunset celebration happens nightly on Pier 60, with artisans, street performers, and flocks of photogenic seabirds. But anywhere with an ocean view is wonderful. I also celebrated at the Sandpearl Resort’s beach fire pits and the oceanfront palapa-topped Sandbar at the Opal Sands Resort. The sun had set by the time I enjoyed Neapolitan-style pasta and fresh-from-the-sea local Hogfish, both house specialties, at the Opal Sands’ fine dining Sea-Guini restaurant. I even made my own Neapolitan-style pizza — courtesy of the Sea-Guini chef’s group pizza-making classes.
I also followed the locals to the award-winning Marina Cantina for margaritas and seafood enchiladas overlooking the yachts in Clearwater Marina.
My favorite find — much to my heart’s delight — was the Freaky Tiki Surf Shack. It’s been a Clearwater Beach fixture since 1976! And is renowned for locally designed and made tiki-themed apparel and gifts and décor. I love all things tiki. Now that I’m home, my Freaky Tiki hoodie brings back fond memories of Clearwater Beach and my need to return to see Hulk Hogan and another sunset.