Adventure For All Ages in St. Petersburg and Clearwater

By: Janet Fusco

No matter how young or old the kids are, you'll find activities for everyone in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.

My grandparents' faces smile out from grainy black-and-white home movies from the 40s, their tailored suits strangely juxtaposed with swaying palm trees.

"Where are they?" I want to know.

"St. Petersburg," my mother tells me. It was so long ago that she has no other memories about it to share.

"What did they do while they were in St. Pete?" I ask my uncle, who's older and might remember more. "Where did they stay?"

I imagine my grandmother, a striking brunette, and my physician grandfather, a Winston Churchill look-alike, standing in the lobby of the plush Vinoy (now the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club) in downtown St. Petersburg. Once every winter, my grandparents left their brood of five in Massachusetts to enjoy a well-deserved Florida getaway.

My uncle can't offer any other details from the home movies, but he tells me a story about the time in 1954 when he and two friends from the service drove down from Valdosta, GA, in a black, four-door Chevrolet and spent a glorious weekend getting sunburned at St. Pete Beach. They stayed with a friend they'd met in the Air Force Band (my uncle played trumpet and French horn) and he still remembers picking grapefruits and oranges off the trees in the backyard and slicing them open for breakfast. The "boys" had to leave in the middle of the night to make it back in time for duty, my uncle says, but it was worth it.

A good deal of time has passed since then, but this area still draws my family back, most recently for a long weekend at Clearwater Beach. From our hotel balcony overlooking Sand Key Pass and the blue-green Gulf of Mexico, it's easy to put aside our everyday realities: daily deadlines, homework, laundry, home maintenance, sibling rivalry, the upkeep on an aging cat.

Instead, the kids and I concentrate on relaxing and enjoying each other's company. We walk down to the water's edge to watch a small fleet of sailboats - 30 or more - move southwesterly in the breeze. With sand between our toes and the sun shining down on our faces, it's easy to feel that life is always going to be this simple, this satisfying. I realize that when you don't have time for a vacation, you probably need one the most.

Reality intrudes, of course, even on our beach getaway. But this time, it's just the challenge of how to balance what my son, Andrew, age 9, wants to do with what his sister, Grace, age 6, would like. Andrew has spotted WaveRunners on the beach and can hardly wait to ride on one. Grace doesn't want any part of it. Turns out our dilemma is no dilemma at all. We're staying at one of many area lodging properties that offers kids' activities. Grace can have her face painted and enjoy an ice cream sundae party while Andrew and I are out jumping waves.

"I'm so glad we came on this vacation," Andrew says, then asks me 12 times to go faster. Driving the WaveRunner is a lot easier than I thought it would be, and a lot of fun. Plus I get rave reviews from my favorite backseat driver.

When it's time for you to make your own escape to one of Florida's best family beach destinations, here are some ideas to help you gear the fun to your own children's ages and temperaments.

Fun With Preschoolers

With 35 miles of soft, white sands and typically calm surf, you can't go wrong with preschoolers on the beaches of St. Petersburg/Clearwater. From the dunes and sea oats of quiet Pass-A-Grille Beach to the action-packed sands of Clearwater Beach, this is what family vacations are all about. (In fact, Dr. Beach rated Fort De Soto Park "America's #1 Beach," Caladesi Island as #4, and Clearwater Beach as the #1 beach in the Gulf area for 2005.)

Build a sandcastle, splash in the shallows, watch tiny coquina clams dig their way into the sand at the water's edge and take a mental snapshot of your kids at this wonderful age, when the simplest things bring them joy.

When you want a break from the beach, explore St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront. A winding pathway meanders all along this scenic area. Here, your little ones can stretch their legs as they watch sea birds soar, sailboats bob at anchor and fish jump. Pack a picnic lunch or order take-out from a nearby restaurant, then people-watch or play catch in the sunshine.

If you'd like to have a romantic dinner out with your spouse, or spend some one-on-one time with an older child, consider lodgings that offer a kids' program, as we did. Many area resorts offer programs year 'round, including the Don CeSar Beach Resort, the TradeWinds Island Resorts and the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort. Other local hotels and resorts offer programs seasonally, particularly in the summer months. Programs are typically geared for preschoolers to elementary-aged students.

Entertaining Elementary-Aged Kids

Children are fascinated by the natural world at this age, and John's Pass Village & Boardwalk in Madeira Beach and the Clearwater Municipal Marina on Clearwater Beach are great "jumping off" spots for nature exploration. Both offer dolphin-watching, shelling and boat trips to Ft. DeSoto Park.

On our weekend away, Andrew, Grace and I took a "Sealife Safari" aboard the Island Explorer, a stable pontoon boat departing from the Clearwater Marina. Joe Malo, a marine biologist aboard from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, talked about local birdlife, including the pelicans, cormorants, black skimmers and American oystercatchers we saw. Not five feet from our boat, perched atop a piling, an osprey devoured a fish that was bigger than itself. Malo told some interesting stories, including one about an injured leatherback turtle rescued a few years back. At 880 pounds, the turtle was too big to take into the Aquarium - so the local hospital treated it in its emergency room. Near the end of our "safari," Malo hauled in a net called an otter trawl and Andrew and Grace had a chance to look at and, in some cases, touch our catch. Andrew held an interesting little invertebrate called a tunicate, also known as a sea squirt. We soon saw why.

For kids ages four or five and older, Captain Memo's Original Pirate Cruise is an absolute can't-miss activity. As we climbed onboard the big red pirate ship, Andrew and Grace were issued a pirate hat and a firearm (okay, a water pistol). After announcements ("You're not in school. That means you don't have to raise your hand and you can be as loud as you want!"), a water gun fight, some pirate yarns and the taking of the pirate oath (a promise not to tell the location of the treasure on pain of "eatin' worms and walkin' the plank"), our sunset cruise ended with a very lively dance party on the deck. The kids loved it.

Make sure you save some time to explore the Pier 60 area, with its giant inflatable slides, bungee-harness rides and huge playground. A sunset celebration with live entertainment takes place here every night that the whole family will enjoy.

Action for 'Tweens and Teens

Much of the area along the beaches, and particularly Clearwater Beach, is pedestrian-friendly. There are plenty of places to shop, dine out and find activities, all within easy walking distance - or free trolley service - of area hotels. This, along with a very active beach scene, makes St. Petersburg/Clearwater a terrific destination for older kids. There's always a volleyball game going on and a parade of people to watch, not to mention parasail rides, Jet Ski and WaveRunner rentals and high-speed boat rides such as Sea Screamer and Sea Thriller. It's sure to be a hit with your 'tweens and teens.

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Marty February 18, 2014 11:34 AM
looking for pontoon rentals in central beach area