Saturday, July 4, 2015

Warmth, golf, baseball: That's Clearwater

Lenny's, a favorite for major-league breakfast, is walking distance from the Phillies' Bright House Field.
Lenny's, a favorite for major-league breakfast, is walking distance from the Phillies' Bright House Field. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It's hardly startling to learn that the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards composed the iconic guitar riff that so memorably opens "Satisfaction" while a guest at the old Jack Tar Harrison Hotel.

If you can't get no satisfaction in this sunset-rich Gulf Coast beach resort, 15 miles west of Tampa, then you must really be on a losing streak, hey, hey, hey.

"Anything you can associate with a vacation, you can do here," says Ebe Bower, the Chamber of Commerce's vice president for tourism. "In the winter, it's baseball, baseball, baseball. And any time of year it's beach, beach, beach."

True. True. True.

Whether you're lured here by games (baseball), golf, grouper or the Gulf, the odds are you're going to leave contented and eager to return. According to the Chamber of Commerce, 87 percent of visitors return, and 47 percent vow to come back the next year.

While some major-league baseball teams switch spring-training sites as regularly as they change managers, the world-champion Phillies have been anchored here since 1948. The sunny days, breezy nights, and temperatures in the mid-70s from November through April make for ideal baseball conditions.

There's a similar loyalty among the one million tourists who each winter and early spring pack the hotels and condominiums in Clearwater, Clearwater Beach and Sand Key - the city's three water-separated communities.

Most arrive with a familiar agenda of the bars, restaurants and attractions they've visited and hope to get to again - a hearty, caloric breakfast, with complimentary Danish basket, at Lenny's; golf at the 40 public and private courses in Pinellas County; some sun on the sparkling beaches, consistently ranked among America's best; a Phillies game at amenities-laden Bright House Field; spicy wings and waitress-watching at the original Hooters; and grouper burgers, she-crab soup and cold beer at any of the restaurant-bars in the popular Frenchy's chain.

Even the controversial Church of Scientology has found satisfaction in Clearwater. The white-uniformed Scientologists are ubiquitous in the city's old downtown, their spiritual headquarters located in the same recently restored hotel where Richards met his wah-wahing muse in May 1965.

Asked why he enjoys Clearwater so much, Chris Wheeler, the longtime Phillies broadcaster, says:  "How about we start with three things I really love - and they are all in one place: warm weather, golf courses and baseball."

Originally home to the Tocobaga Indians, Clearwater got its name from the sparkling freshwater streams along its shoreline. In the 1830s, during the Seminole Wars, the U.S. Army built Fort Harrison on a bluff overlooking the harbor. Slow growth followed over the next century, until World War II changed things forever.

Difficult as it might be to imagine today, when massive tourism and its infrastructure and traffic can be overwhelming, Clearwater wasn't always a popular spot for vacationers and retirees.

Separated from Tampa and St. Petersburg by wide swaths of water, the town's population was barely 10,000 people in 1940. During World War II, however, Clearwater was home to a major U.S. Army training facility for troops bound for battle. Exposed to the area's warm climate and azure waters, those servicemen have been returning ever since to settle down, vacation, retire and reminisce.

They came in such numbers that by 2000, Clearwater's population had ballooned to 110,000. That boom also created demand and development in Clearwater Beach, a New Jersey-like resort community just across the Intracoastal Waterway from the downtown, and farther west in Sand Key.

A narrow barrier island that the military had used for target practice during the war, Sand Key occupies a less-than-mile-wide strip between the Intracoastal and the Gulf. It has become the resort of choice for upscale tourists, though many are also being lured by Clearwater Beach's Sand Pearl Resort and its $400-a-night waterfront.

Sand Key's tony restaurants and coral-colored high-rise condominiums that line its white-sand beaches afford the best vantage points for the spectacular Gulf sunsets. Restaurants and attractions are springing up constantly to meet constant growth.

In Clearwater Beach, Jimmy's Fish House & Iguana Bar has become a popular dining and drinking spot, joining traditional favorites such as Bob Heilman's Beachcomber and the four Frenchy's properties – the original bar (popular with spring-training sportswriters and, occasionally, ballplayers), the Rockaway Grill (its waterfront setting makes it my favorite), and the Saltwater and South Beach Cafes.

Nearby, there's great Italian food at Villa Gallace, fresh seafood at unpretentious Guppy's, both in Indian Rocks Beach, and wonderful steaks and seafood at E&E Stakeout in Belleair Bluffs.

Between baseball and the sunset, try Ken Hamilton's Palm Pavilion for beachfront drinks and entertainment.

One of the area's more interesting new attractions is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, just off the causeway between Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. The facility's star attraction is Winter, a dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail after losing hers in a boating accident.

For those who don't mind changing out of their bathing suits and golf shoes, Ruth Eckerd Hall brings cultural, theatrical and musical treats to the area.

Increasingly, Clearwater also has become a convenient jumping-off point for nearby vacation destinations, such as Busch Gardens and the New York Yankees' Legends Field spring-training facility in Tampa, or the Salvador Dali Museum and Derby Downs in St. Pete. Even Disney World is located just 90 minutes east in Orlando, an easy trip on Interstate 4.

It's likely that even now, 44 years later, when he's stranded somewhere between rock- and-roll and retirement, Keith Richards would continue to find satisfaction in Clearwater.

That's what I say. Hey, hey, hey.


Phils' Spring-Training Home

US Airways and Southwest Airlines fly nonstop to Tampa from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $178.

More information

To find places to stay and dine and things to do, check:

Clearwater Chamber of Commerce

www.visitclearwaterflorida.com
1-888-425-3279

St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

www.floridasbeach.com
1-877-352-3224

Visit Florida

http://visitflorida.com/Clearwater; 850-488-5607


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.
Inquirer Staff Writer
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