Clearwater Beach is a barrier island off a peninsula, so it takes some bridge-hopping to reach it.
But three miles of powdery white beach and abundant family attractions await in this reawakening old shore town. Mom 'n' pop hotels, shops, restaurants and attractions have kept that cluttered,
Old Florida feel intact and affordable even as three luxury resorts and a $30 million Beach Walk brick promenade are being unveiled. Nearby you'll find 32 miles of Gulf beaches on eight barrier islands plus St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.
*Age-appropriate: Its compactness, easy beach access, family fare and Jolly Trolley streetcars make this an accommodating place for kids of all ages.
*Too much fun: This narrow island offers a grand beach and fun-packed fishing pier on one side, and the Intracoastal Waterway with a busy marina on the other. Lifeguards serve from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Cabanas and sun umbrellas are rented. The marina offers boat rental and charters, jet skis, dolphin cruises, sailing and parasailing.
*Best adventure: Captain Memo Pirate Cruise sails for two hours from the marina. Kids join a mutinous motley crew armed with water guns. Landlubber adults hang out on the Poop Deck with a steel-drum band and complimentary wine, beer and champagne. A cash bar serves the bottle-o'-rum crowd (captainmemo .com).
*Keep 'em happy: Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a rescue, rehabilitation and research laboratory offering close encounters with dolphins, sea rays and turtles. The superstar is Winter, a bottlenose dolphin rescued from a crab trap. Winter's tail fin was amputated, but science came to the rescue with a prosthetic fin that works swimmingly. Sea Life Safari Eco-Boat Tours introduce kids to marine biology (cmaquarium.org).
*Timing is everything: The Gulf of Mexico generally has warmer waters than the Atlantic Ocean, but cool days are common in winter months. Spring is prime time, but the beach is always open. Be aware of hurricane season June through November. Check for red-tide and rip-current alerts before you go.
*Avoid the crowds: Accessible only by private boat or ferry, Caladesi Island State Park lies just a mile off Clearwater Beach, encompassing six serene islands of 650 acres. You'll be dazzled by one of the world's best beaches, kayak tours of mangrove tunnels, and three-mile walks through a variety of ecosystems where gopher tortoises, armadillos, ospreys and herons dwell. "Breakfast With A Ranger" tours are offered. A marina has a snack bar and gift shop. The Caladesi Connection Ferry runs from Honeymoon Island State Park (floridastate parks.org/caladesiisland).
*Can't miss: The party starts two hours before sunset on Pier 60 for bungee swings, shark slides, jugglers, acrobats, musicians, crafters, artists and vendors. The pier has a children's playground, snack shop, bait-and-tackle shop, covered pavilions and restrooms -- not to mention grand views from a pelican's perspective (sunsetsatpier60.com).
*Bargains: The Palm Pavilion Inn sits just off the beach at the north end of the island next to the landmark Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill. Twenty-nine rooms priced from $100-$195 per night, depending on season (palmpavilion.com).
Barefoot Bay Resort and Marina sits just off the bridge on the Intracoastal. Rates range from $72-$230 nightly, depending on season (barefootbayresort.com).
Affordable family fare restaurants include the Palm Pavilion Grill, Crabby Bills and Frenchy's Rockaway Grill.
*Inside track: "One of the really cool things here is the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. The harbor master runs a great sailing school, kids' camps and one of the best programs in the country for physically challenged sailors," says Ken Hamilton, whose family has owned the Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill for four decades (clearwater communitysailing.org).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun