10 reasons you need to relax in Clearwater, Fla. after a theme park vacation

You don't need a fast pass to enjoy one of Florida's best beaches

By Lois Alter Mark,

Let’s face it. Visiting theme parks may be fun but it’s definitely not relaxing. In fact, after a few days trying to see and do everything at the Florida giants, you need a vacation more than ever. 

Luckily, Oz is within driving distance. 

Less than two hours from Disney, Epcot and Universal in Orlando, and only an hour from Busch Gardens in TampaClearwater is the perfect place to head after you’ve overdosed on rides, characters and junk food.

It’s repeatedly named Florida’s best beach, and it’s filled with natural beauty, fresh seafood and people who aren’t in a rush. 

Do yourself a favor and take a couple of days to unwind in Clearwater. Here are ten things to do that will also clear your head. 

Relax on Clearwater Beach

The pure white sugar sand is one reason Clearwater is named one of Florida's best beaches — Photo courtesy of Visit Clearwater

Even if you do nothing else in Clearwater besides sit on the beach, you'll still feel like you had the best vacation. 

The pure white sand is so special, world-class sand sculptors head there every year to create masterpieces for the annual Sugar Sand Festival, named for the beach’s renowned qualities. But, hey, no pressure. Simply rent a cabana and park yourself for the day. You don’t have to build anything – except maybe a tan. 

Visit Winter and Hope at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Dolphins Winter and Hope attract thousands of visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium each year — Photo courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

CMA’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate and release, and nothing makes that more clear than their famous residents. Visitors come to be empowered by Winter and Hope, the real-life stars of the Dolphin Tale movies, and their own stories – and the ways in which they relate to Winter and her prosthetic tail – are moving and inspiring. 

Watch the animals’ restaurant-quality meals being prepared in the kitchen and check out the sea turtles recuperating in their "hospital" pools. Sign up to be notified when one is about to be set free so you can watch the emotional release and truly understand the words quoted by Morgan Freeman’s character in the movie: "Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken." 

See bottlenose dolphins on The Tropics Boat Tours

Dolphin sightings are guaranteed on The Tropics Boat Tours — Photo courtesy of The Tropics Boat Tours

Winter and Hope can’t return to the ocean because their personal situations make it impossible for them to survive there, but you can see lots of wild dolphins swimming in their natural habitat thanks to The Tropics Boat Tours

The two-hour ride takes you from Clearwater Bay to the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphin sightings are guaranteed so, if for some reason the bottlenose beauties aren’t out playing, you can come back for free. 

Chill out in the Wyndham Grand

Enjoy the view from your patio at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach — Photo courtesy of Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach

With gorgeous views of the water or the marina from almost every room, the Wyndham Grand is an ideal home base. Rooms have a light and airy coastal feel, and most even have a balcony or terrace in case you don’t feel like crossing the street to the beach. 

Be sure to enjoy a meal at Ocean Hai, the Wyndham Grand’s signature restaurant and the only one in Clearwater serving Asian-fusion cuisine. Indulge in Executive Chef Sean Ragan’s Omakase tasting menu or simply order the delicious lobster fried rice, which totally lives up to the restaurant’s Hai standard. 

Rejuvenate at the Spa at Sandpearl

Experience serenity at the Spa at Sandpearl — Photo courtesy of Sandpearl Luxury Resort

After braving the theme park crowds, you deserve a little zen time. Get yourself over to the award-winning Spa at Sandpearl, where you’ll be in good hands. Literally. 

Take a sauna and a dip in the soothing hot tub, then settle in for the aptly-named Signature Perfect Massage, which is customized just for you. When the therapist asks, "Swedish? Deep tissue? Hot stone? Aromatherapy?" simply answer, "Yes." 

Feel like a local at Palm Pavilion

Sunset is a magical time at Palm Pavilion — Photo courtesy of Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill and Bar

Tired of hearing "It’s a Small World" on repeat? Pull up a chair at Palm Pavilion, where the live jazz is as tasty as the coconut shrimp and Palm Rum Runners.  

The oldest operating beach pavilion in Florida, this beachside grill and bar is a Clearwater landmark – and it’s where the locals hang out, especially at sunset. No one puts on airs here. And some guests don’t put on much more than a bathing suit.

Admire the Chihuly Collection

The Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center is breathtaking — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark

If you’re craving a little culture, take a ride to the Morean Arts Center in nearby St. Petersburg to admire the Chihuly Collection. 

Dale Chihuly is the master of glass sculpture, and you might've taken selfies under his breathtaking Fiori di Como, which hangs over the lobby of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. There are so many gorgeous pieces here, and you can even watch a glassblowing demonstration to get a sense of what a huge accomplishment his stunning installations actually are.

Explore the Dali Museum

Sentimental Colloquy by Salvador Dali, 1944, oil and India ink on canvas — Photo courtesy of Worldwide rights ©Salvador Dalí. Fundació Gala - Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017/ In the USA ©Salvador Dalí Museum, Inc. St. Petersburg, FL 2017

Salvador Dali once said, "I am not strange. I am just not normal," and that’s something to consider as you explore the life and art of the celebrated surrealist in this fascinating museum. 

The Dali Museum, also in St. Petersburg, boasts a collection of over 2,000 of the artist’s works, including paintings, drawings, prints, photos and documents. With an app that takes you on a self-guided tour (don’t forget your earbuds!) and a Dreams of Dali virtual reality experience, this is no stuffy museum – it's more like Dali-wood. 

Dine in style at Bob Heilman’s Beachcomber

Bob Heilman's Beachcomber has been a Clearwater tradition for seven decades — Photo courtesy of Bob Heilman's Beachcomber

Say goodbye to the theme parks’ plastic souvenir cups and meals-in-a-bucket, and make yourself at home at this white-tablecloth restaurant where the style is casual, the service is impeccable and the steaks and seafood are top-notch. 

A Clearwater tradition since 1948, the family-owned Beachcomber is a favorite because of its Mad Men vibe and delicious, fresh food. You'll only be mad if you forego the famous Heilman hot fudge on your dessert. 

End the day at Pier 60

Pier 60 is a great place to end a day in Clearwater — Photo courtesy of Pier 60

Sunsets are so magnificent in Clearwater that there’s a Daily Festival at Pier 60 to honor them every single day of the year except Christmas. 

From two hours before sunset until two hours after, artists, crafters and street performers gather to showcase and share their wares and talents. Then, at dusk, the Sunset Theater presents a free movie on the giant inflatable screen on the beach. Bring a blanket, buy some popcorn from the concession stand and celebrate another day in paradise.