Seven Bits of Beach Heaven

    By Laura Spinale

    These seven St. Pete/Clearwater communities are diverse, endearing and - best of all - on the water.

    In St. Petersburg/Clearwater, you'll have the chance to see a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, the luxury of kicking back at a beachfront restaurant, and the space to enjoy building sandcastles with the kids. These are the broad parameters. Within those, you'll find a collection of waterfront communities that offer their own distinctive feel – from buzzing beach activity to blessed quiet among Old Florida cottages. Here's a look at a few of my favorites, from north to south.

    1) Dunedin

    Scottish heritage is on parade here – witness the annual Dunedin Highland Games and Military Tattoo. But you don't need an organized celebration to enjoy this city.

    Start your tour in Dunedin's famously walkable downtown, where antiques stores, galleries and eateries abound. Then stroll through Edgewater Park and watch the boats bobbing in Dunedin's municipal marina. Just across Clearwater Harbor, some of the most remarkable shoreline in the area beckons beach lovers. Honeymoon Island (accessible by car via the Dunedin Causeway) serves up a four-mile beach along with pine flat woods and nature trails. From here, hop the hourly ferry to Caladesi Island. Accessible only by boat, this three-mile undeveloped barrier island was voted America's #1 beach by coastal expert Dr. Beach in 2008. The sense of tranquility here is absolute. Angling, kayaking, swimming and birding are all popular pastimes.

    2) Clearwater Beach

    Visit Clearwater Beach if you want an archetypal beach town experience. Seafood shacks, beach bars, pizza parlors and souvenir shops abound, along with a wide variety of accommodations. The beach is the main attraction, of course – there's everything from swimming and sunbathing to volleyball and watersports, plus modern beach facilities. The island's Jolley Trolley will get you around. In the evenings, catch the nightly Sunset Festivals on Pier 60. From one hour before sunset until one hour or longer after, you'll find artists and artisans hawking everything from shell crafts to silver jewelry. Street performers also strut their stuff: think clowns, contortionists and the like.

    3) Redington Shores

    If you want to remove yourself from the bustle of Clearwater Beach, consider staying in Redington Shores, about 11 miles south on Gulf Boulevard (the area's main beach thoroughfare). This quiet, largely residential area serves up a mile-long shoreline, popular for shelling. The calm Gulf waters are also ideal for kids. Accommodations range from motel rooms to vacation rental homes and condos. Anglers and those seeking sea views head to the Redington Long Pier, which spans 1,500 feet into the Gulf. It's $12 to cast from here, or $9 for children 10 and under, and $3 for pedestrians.

    4) Treasure Island

    Treasure Island is more laidback, more Old Florida, than Clearwater Beach. Here you'll find a three-mile shoreline bordered by wide beaches, and a quaint, kitschy, even retro feel. (Sunset Beach, on the southern end of Treasure Island, has a unique vibe that's popular with Europeans and gay-friendly.)

    For shopping, head to Gulf Boulevard, where you can find a plethora of beachy shops. If the whole atmosphere is feeling a little Key West-ish, and you like that, know that one of the Southernmost City's favorite bars – Sloppy Joe's – has opened a watering hole here in the Bilmar Beach Resort. Families shouldn't miss a visit to the nautically themed John's Pass Village and Boardwalk, just over the bridge into neighboring Madeira Beach. Grab an ice cream cone and stroll the shop- and restaurant-lined boardwalk, a jumping off point for dolphin sightseeing tours and other excursions.

    5) St. Pete Beach

    Enjoy a stay at the Loews Don CeSar Beach Resort, known as the "pink palace." Its iconic Moorish/Mediterranean architecture has stood sentinel over the island for decades. The resort offers a full-service spa, restaurants (including the AAA Four Diamond-rated Maritana Grille) and a lush pool area with two pools fit for kings and queens. The town itself offers plenty of beach town atmosphere – thousands of hotels rooms and scads of shops and restaurants. Fishing and snorkeling charters launch from the sands.

    6) Pass-A-Grille

    At the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach, you'll find the region known as Pass-A-Grille. Dubbed the "no high-rise beach," it's dotted with charming cottages and Florida architecture interesting enough to have landed the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Explore Pass-A-Grille's quaint shops and myriad restaurants, which offer everything from grouper sandwiches to tapas. As enchanting as the region is, those who want to party hardy should visit other towns.

    7) Tierra Verde

    People visit Tierra Verde for two main reasons: Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key State Park. Fort De Soto, built during the time of the Spanish American War, is a series of five interconnected islands covering more than 1,100 acres. Ranked by Trip Advisor as the #1 beach in North America, it offers white-sand swim areas, boat launches, campgrounds and fishing piers. Kids love exploring the abandoned fort and the park's Quartermaster Storehouse Museum, and spotting local wildlife. Boats leave from Fort De Soto for snorkeling and fishing expeditions to Egmont Key State Park, where a working lighthouse, dating from 1858, still stands.

    For more information on planning your beach getaway to the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area, call Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater at 877-352-3224 or go to