Florida 2012 – day 4 – Clearwater Beach

So, our third proper day in Florida. What theme park should we do today?

How about… none?

You see, Florida does have other things to do, which a lot of people miss – even us. Whilst it does seem that a lot of the state is flat and marshy swampland, there are cities, national parks and beaches. On all the trips we’ve done to Florida before we’ve visited the theme park for the vast majority of the time, then for the rest of the time relaxed around the pool at the villa, visited International Drive or the Florida Mall.

Before coming out we’d decided to look at visiting a few beaches, and first on the list is Clearwater Beach – head west down the I4 towards Tampa and keep going (well, obviously the directions are a bit more complex than that). So into the car we go!

It doesn’t start.

This is not a very good start to our day. In fact it’s not a very good thing to happen at all, let alone just on this day. We kind of need the car to get to all the theme parks and beaches and places. Not to mention that the car hire company probably won’t look upon us that kindly if we bring it back not working (but then how would we bring it back if it’s not working?).

Turns out that we’d not turned the headlights off when we came back the previous night. Our car at home will turn off the lights automatically when the ignition is off – and I think all the cars we’ve had have done this. However, this car dims them – which was why we hadn’t noticed them still on – and left them on overnight. As such, the battery is flat as a pancake.

Thankfully a local resident is working on his car opposite our villa. He looks pretty handy and agrees to give us a jump-start. So, opening up the bonnet later (no, the rental company never suspected a thing – bwahahaha) and a quick jump-start later and we’re on our way. I really should’ve got that guy something to say thanks.

So, finally, we’re off. Well, I say finally, but it only took a few minutes. The drive to Tampa isn’t bad – between an hour and an hour and a half, in light traffic. Well, we consider it light – the Americans probably think it’s hectic.

But along the way, there’s three things which catch my eye – not necessarily in this order.

The first is a billboard, advertising for people to bring their friends to live and work in Florida, and giving a contact number and website. It’s all sponsored by the state of Florida themselves and has attractive people with happy smiley faces wearing minimal clothing in a jacuzzi. Fair enough. I do wonder whether I should note the details down and give it a whirl, but the process of getting into America is allegedly tough as nails.

The second is a strange factory by the road, that churns out… houses! Yep, in case you didn’t know, in America houses can be made to specification in a factory, then shipped and installed in their owner’s land. There’s actually quite a sizeable industry, and you can even move your house if you so choose (for a cost of course). On previous travels with my parents around the states we have come across houses being transported down the freeways. You can even come along and tour the factory, see what pieces can be made and mix and match your house together. It’s like the Pick ‘n’ Mix from Woolworths – just with a house.

The third is another billboard, which reads “Obama supports abortion and gay marriage. Do you?”

Yes, yes I do. Thank you for this message, Mr Obama. Had I been able to vote in America, I would surely vote for you.

But wait – it’s not from Obama and his Democrats – it’s from the evil Romney (boo, hiss) and his cohorts of evil, the Republicans!

Now firstly, I’ll address the message content itself. Gay marriage is the easy one and… well, why not? I’m not gay, but I do know people who are. As far as I know they pay their taxes, have jobs and are generally good people. As far as I know, they don’t ritually kill puppies every Thursday, and I don’t think a gay wedding goes along the lines of wedding, reception, sodomise any available virgins. So why not? It does me no harm.

Abortion – trickier. There was an argument that a Republican apparently put forward which says that a raped woman who falls pregnant should still be grateful for the child, and in fact enjoyed the rape. Which is complete and utter bull. Along with knowing some gay people (I do hope that terminology isn’t offending anyone), I do also know some victims of rape. But this is getting beside the point. Women get accidentally pregnant quite a lot of the time, due to rape, failing contraceptives or lack of education. While abortion is a safety net, people do need to be educated better regarding sex and for rape to, just, not happen. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need abortion because there would be no unwanted pregnancies, and I think that’s something that Republicans, or generally those who think abortion is wrong, miss. They want to remove the safety net without ensuring that everything else is safe.

Okay, I’ve waffled on way too long about my opinion. Needless to say, we’re in America and it’s nearly election day! This gives us all sorts of things to see and take amusement at, and we find that the billboards at the side of the road tend to advertise one of three things – fast food, political parties to vote for (at least they sometimes mention their good points, rather than slating the opposition), and lawyers or hospitals. We even see signs which advertise nearby hospitals, complete with their current live wait times for ER admission (3 minutes seemed to be the average – I don’t think they’d fit our local hospital’s A&E wait time on the billboard).

After a time we get to the end of the I4, take the relevant turn-off and find ourselves heading out on a causeway and then into Clearwater itself. Clearwater seems a nice enough place – or at least I think it’s some suburb of Tampa. Keep going and come out onto another causeway, which is a fair bit longer, leading to Clearwater Beach. Now surely this is nice enough to put some photos of our drive over onto.

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We’d read up a few bits on Clearwater Beach beforehand, obviously. There’s a recent film called Dolphin Tale which was filmed here, and the star of it, a dolphin called Winter, actually lives in an aquarium here. The movie is based on actual events and is apparently mostly filmed in and around Clearwater and the aquarium.

But we’re not here for that, though it is on our possible things-to-do list. We’re here for the beach!

We park up at about lunchtime, finding a car park that is practically on the beach, and look for places to eat. There are a few, including a few hotels (if you fancy hotel food), but we plump to eating at a place called Crabby’s Bar. Nice enough outdoor place, so we go upstairs, take our seats and look through the menu.

Honestly can’t remember what my wife had, but I had a nice, very cheap (like $3) clam chowder – a pretty good fish soup with lots of crackers on the outside to dip in and eat. Crackers in America tend to be quite small and come in packs of about three, but they normally supply a few packs. In any case, an excellent accompanyment.

Heading out of Crabby’s, we find some small changing public toilets that are also commonly used as changing rooms, get changed and head out to the beach. It really is a marvellous day, the sun is shining, the skies are clear (well, not quite, but the sun is shining so we don’t care) and the weather is nice and warm. There’s not really that much I can write about a beach, other than that it was pretty relaxing and we had fun having a swim and seeing how far we could be pushed towards the shore by jumping into the waves.

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After a few hours we decide to get changed (I can never get changed after going to the beach without feeling like I’ve still got sand all over me) and, after dumping things back at the car, go for a walk along the promenade towards the pier.

Pier 60 then, as it is known, is probably Clearwater Beach’s focal point. A long wooden pier, it juts out into the ocean by a fair distance. It does cost a bit of money (a dollar or something like that) if you want to walk to the end, and we do that but on a later date. But it does have a nice shop just before it, a playground for the kids and a few other bits and bobs, this being the middle of the day.

We do stop in here to get some drinks, and then head out and explore the general area some more.

Just off the causeway from where we came in we find a small dock area, with lots of cruises coming in and out. These are dolphin spotting excursions, and we’ve actually seen one of them before – a pirate ship going past from when we were at the beach. Some of these are themed – there is the afore-mentioned pirate ship, one that looks like a shark and so on.

But we decide – what the hey, we may as well go out on one. There’s one actually boarding now, it doesn’t cost much and it’s something to do that we’ve never done before. So we pay our dues and get aboard one that is actually pretty bland-looking, which apparently takes about an hour and a half.

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First, this is one where you are free to meander around the boat, so most people (including us) go up to the top level for a better view. The boat takes us into an area where there are lots of houses owned by various celebrities, including (from what I recall) one owned by Hulk Hogan, and one that Sylvester Stallone was building for his mum. They do look very nice, pretty, and expensive.

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After a time we head out towards the area in front of the pier, the boat churning up a wake, and some dolphins come into view and play behind the boat as we create a fair number of waves. As we head back, the staff allow us to feed a huge swarm of gulls with bread, which then proceed to land on us.

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Returning to shore, we’ve picked up a tourist map of Clearwater Beach which has a few locations on it, one of them being a chinese restaurant. Located outside of the main tourist area (but still only a short distance away), we head there for dinner – with mine being a very nice chicken and broccoli dish. Honestly can’t remember what it was, but I really must see if my local takeaway has anything similar next time I order from it.

Afterwards, we head back to the pier which has now become quite a hive of activity. In the evenings Pier 60 comes into it’s own and as darkness falls, local people open stalls along it’s length and various street acts perform. As it is still nice and warm it is the ideal way to spend the last part of the day, watching escape artists and jugglers perform, local photographers selling their pictures of the area, and various people selling home-made trinkets. On a nearby green an inflatable projection screen is being set up – on select days of the week a movie is shown free for anyone who cares to watch, including old family favourites (I think Jumanji was going to be shown that evening, but we didn’t watch it) and recent films such as Avengers (or, to us UK people, Avengers Assemble).

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We head for a pleasant walk back down the promenade towards the car, having had a good relaxing day, and head back to the villa. The area is a very nice one, not too touristy like one of the others we visit later (which is just full of high-rise hotels) but a more active one with more to do than sunbathe (of which I’ve never seen the appeal). As far as beach areas go this is probably the nicest one I’ve visited.

Previous – day 3 (Aquatica)

Next – day 5 (SeaWorld and Downtown Disney)

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