My husband and I are 10.
OK, so in reality, you might need to add 40 or so to that number, but we sure feel like kids at the moment. We just ran back to our beach chairs after playing in the Gulf Coast surf, barely needing to towel off under the toasty midday sun.
Our first-ever trip to Florida’s St. Petersburg/Clearwater area as an empty-nest couple has been so jam-packed with this kind of fun it almost feels like we should have kids with us. Almost.
While I’ve always considered the Sunshine State a super place for family travel – which, indeed, it is – I’ve learned this week that it’s also a fantastic spot for folks like my husband and I whose brood have flown the nest, or for anyone who wants to kickstart the fun factor in their lives and feel like a kid again.
Of course, we could have chosen Florida’s bounty of amusement parks and other attractions to inject some excitement into our mid-lives. But after a long Canadian winter, we wanted to focus on relaxation via the beaches of St. Pete/Clearwater; with a reported average of 361 days of sunshine annually, it seemed a good pick.
Development had exploded since my earlier trips, especially in Clearwater, whose sandy shores were named #1 in the United States in 2019, the third time in four years. Despite the crowds, we had a riot playing tourist on a day trip to Clearwater, zipping in and out of surf shops and T-shirt joints before ditching our sandals on the beach. Shades on, we strolled the fine white sand, peppered with blue cabanas and people of all ages soaking up the sun and clear waters. At Pier 60, we detoured to check out the barrage of vendor booths, the most stressful decision in our day being whether to pose for a goofy caricature sketch or choose a trinket to buy as a keepsake.
We made some other day trips during our nine-day stay, but we spent the majority of our time near our home base, the Residence Inn Treasure Island, a Marriott property. Hubby is a frequent business traveller, so the fact he had some Marriott points made this a wise selection. We also liked the property’s location on beautiful Treasure Island Beach, about 17 kilometres from Clearwater Beach, five from St. Pete Beach and three from Madeira Beach. (No shortage of beach options!)
The Residence Inn could not have been more ideal. Our gorgeous one-bedroom suite featured a full kitchen, spacious living room and private balcony with an oceanfront view. Sipping tea and coffee from the sunny deck as we watched waves lap the shoreline was beyond heavenly and became our post-complimentary-breakfast ritual. (Also a regular event: Chatting about how/when we could skip winter and retire to the vicinity.)
Other daily activities included a stroll along the Treasure Island Beachtrail, which starts at the County Park Beach Access at 104th Avenue and ends at the Residence Inn. The Beachtrail – a double-wide paved walkway that parallels the beach for about a mile – was popular but not overcrowded, frequented by walkers, runners, parents pushing strollers and the occasional bicyclist out for a leisurely cruise. We loved that it connected to several hotels and beach bars fronted by Gulf Boulevard, and also made access easy to Publix, a grocery chain where we’d often pick up meal items, snacks and adult beverages.
Some of those beverages (cans are permitted on Treasure Island Beach) may have been consumed during lazy afternoons by the hotel pool or, more likely, on the beach. You can rent loungers and cabanas, but we opted to buy a couple of beach chairs at a local store when we arrived and tote them from our hotel room to the sand.
As for the beach itself, we found it very clean, safe and perfect for long walks – it extends almost five kilometres. And since the shoreline is wide, there is lots of room to set up one’s ‘spot’ and never feel like a canned sardine. Day after glorious day, we swam, read, strolled, jumped in the waves, napped and generally recharged. After dinner, we often returned to catch a spectacular sunset.
While we sometimes made dinner in our hotel room kitchen, we certainly weren’t chained to the place. We ventured out to many eateries, including some at nearby John’s Pass, a fishing village transformed into a top tourist attraction. Along with restaurants, you’ll find shops galore at ‘The Pass’ as well as businesses offering everything from jet skis rentals to dolphin watching tours.
But back to the food (because who doesn’t love food), we had excellent meals and service throughout our trip with favourite stops including the Conch Republic Grill in North Redington Beach where we enjoyed outstanding seafood pasta and a friendly vibe. (Plus, my piña colada was massive and oh-so-delicious.)
Another top pick was Caddy’s, a casual beachfront restaurant in Treasure Island. We loved that you could dine on the sand, under a private cabana, inside the dining room/bar or upstairs on the deck, which is where we plopped ourselves. As a spirited live band played on the floor below and the sun made a spectacular descent over the horizon, we feasted on tasty grilled grouper, lip-smacking ribs and cold brews.
Florida’s Gulf Coast was the perfect antidote to this empty-nester’s Canadian winter and already has me dreaming of a return visit. If you go, bring shades, a hat and sunscreen. Pack any stress you might have, too. You’ll head home with a happier heart and a rejuvenated soul.
By Cathy Donaldson
CATHY DONALDSON is a writer who has worn many hats: newspaper reporter, communications consultant, memoir author, mental health advocate and travel writer/photographer. She lived in Nova Scotia, Quebec and B.C. before setting down roots with her family in Moncton, N.B. While Cathy now works full-time in communications, she uses her spare time to travel and share stories/photos about her adventures. She has contributed to numerous media outlets in Canada and the US, including the Boston Globe, CBC Radio, the Halifax Chronicle Herald and the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. She is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick and the Travel Media Association of Canada. Stay in touch with Cathy on Twitter or Instagram @CathyKDonaldson.