aka, How I Ate My Way Across Clearwater, FL
02.04.2010 - 05.04.2010
I knew I had made a mistake as we sat idling on the bridge that crosses between Clearwater and Clearwater Beach. The heat of the pavement rose in waves around our little rental car as we moved slowly forward, inch by excruciating inch. The sun blazed in through the windshield as my stomach turned from a delicate grumble to a full on growl, reminding me that the time for lunch had come and gone about an hour ago.
We were in Clearwater, FL for a long weekend for no other reasons than the simple facts that Allegiant Air had a dirt cheap fare and we were dying to see the sun. Although our accommodations were actually in Indian Rocks Beach, a few miles down the road, I thought a lunch at Frenchy’s Rockaway on Clearwater Beach would be a fun start to the trip.
My vision: landing around noon, we’d grab our rental car and breeze across the bridge to the Gulf. We pull up to a hopping beach grill, down a few frosty frozen drinks and pop in some crunchy fried shrimp as we wasted a couple of hours listening to the music and the waves and watching the golden bodies as they glistened on the beach…..
HONK!! HONK!!!! I was pulled out of my sweet reverie by the blasting of car horns. I was pretty sure that my stomach had started consuming itself since we’d spent the last hour trying to drive 10 miles. I sat there wishing I had bought that $7 granola bar on the plane and trying to crane my neck up to see how much farther.
“Are we there yet? How much farther is it? Are we there yet?” I whined as Matt gave me a look that reminded me that the trip across town and over to crowded Clearwater Beach (as opposed to a direct shot over to Indian Rocks Beach from the airport) was my idea. I shut up pretty quickly and started digging around in my purse for an old piece of gum that I could swallow to fool my stomach into thinking I was eating.
After what seemed an eternity…a long, hot, hungry, boring eternity…..we made it to Clearwater Beach. No, we did not breeze into a beach grill. We hunted for 15 minutes for a non-existent parking space before finally giving up and paying some stranger $10 to park in an overgrown field about 5 blocks away. We changed our clothes in our tiny rental car (Don’t ever try to change from jeans to a bathing suit in a Kia Rio, by the way. You don’t need to know why. Just don’t.) and trudged, hot and tired to Frenchy’s Rockaway on Clearwater Beach.
All was forgiven when we sat our tired butts on two colorful barstools and ordered up a frozen drink. The breeze blew in deliciously from the ocean just feet away and lifted our spirits. Kids were playing volleyball on the beach and the smells of fried fish and french fries drifted by.
In no time, we were seated at an outdoor table just inches from the sand. A frozen key lime colada, a basket of buffalo shrimp, and a fried grouper sandwich reset my vacation button and within minutes, I was in vacation mode. No, I did not turn around and stare at the pants of the guy behind me. Did not.
After lunch, we took a walk down Clearwater Beach and I immediately recognized that I had made a good choice by not staying here. Clearwater Beach is your typical Florida beach, crowded with high rise hotels and literally body to body on the beach. We could barely walk down the beach without stepping on someone’s beach towel. This was not my scene.
It was a bright, wonderfully noisy, colorful beach town, if you like that sort of thing. I am more of a quaint, sleepy, laid back kind of girl. Give me a beach bum haven over a resort any day.
Full and relaxed, we said our “goodbyes” to Clearwater Beach and vowed never to return. We headed down the beach toward Indian Rocks Beach.
What a difference 6 miles can make.
Indian Rocks Beach was like the sleepy little beach towns my parents used to take me to as a kid. No big hotels, but lots of cute little mom and pop places lined the street. Kids rode by on bicycles and people walked by licking giant drippy ice cream cones. Cottages with handmade signs of seashells and pebbles hung happily beneath candy colored mailboxes. THIS was my scene.
We found Sun Tiki Cottages with ease: a collection of 4 little beach cottages on the ocean side of Gulf Blvd., walking distance to everything. I used the key code that had been sent to me by email and we checked ourselves in to Castaway Cottage. A white wooden gate and privacy fence opened up to reveal a gorgeous private tropical patio filled with mature palm trees, flowers, outdoor furniture and a grill. We followed the little sidewalk to our front door and found an adorable cottage, with a kitchenette and den as well as bedroom with an amazingly comfy king bed and a nice large bathroom. It was perfection. The best part? A step outside took us directly to the beach. They even provided our own set of beach chairs, umbrella, and beach towels.
The first order of business was to get our toes in the sand. We took a long walk on the beach and enjoyed a simply gorgeous sunset before heading inside to clean up for dinner.
Sunsets at Indian Rocks Beach are an amazing event. The sun sits suspended for what seems like forever, a golden ball hovering just above the horizon, gliding lazily through a sky filled with fire until it rests just above the water….and then….so quickly you’ll miss it if you blink….it disappears into the sea leaving nothing behind but a few burning embers at the edges of the clouds.
Upon several recommendations, we had a reservation at Salt Rock Grill in Indian Rocks Beach for dinner. Despite the fact that our reservation wasn’t until 9:15 p.m., the place was still PACKED. I consider that a good sign. When we walked in, I saw this monster staring up at me from the fresh meat case:
1 ¼ pounds of Caribbean Lobster tail….can you say, “Mine?” I didn’t even need to see the menu. Dinner was absolutely wonderful. The bread came with a wonderful olive oil dipping sauce that was filled with herbs and cracked pepper. My lobster was GIGANTIC and came with their Twice Rocked Potatoes, a twist on a stuffed baked potato. Wonderful food and wine and a gracious server made it a memorable evening.
I woke up with one thing on my mind. DOUGHNUTS. What did you think I was going to say?
Food addict that I am, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the many, many things we were within walking distance to was Lighthouse Doughnuts. Nothing beats a morning beach stroll, so we headed that way. We got to Lighthouse and patiently waited in line. It’s a small place and everyone apparently wants to eat there. The line moved quickly though and within minutes, we were making our choices. Not just standard fare here, we ordered up a half dozen of their wonderfully unique flavors: a key lime, a PB&J, a coconut, double chocolate, frosted cake, and an apple fritter.
I might have enjoyed them a little too much.
We took our time walking back along the beach and listened to the waves….looked for interesting shells…..and watched the kids laugh and do what kids do on the beach: dig holes. Why is that? Have you ever noticed that within 4 feet of every kid on the beach is a big hole?
We grabbed our beach chairs and spent the rest of the morning lounging in the sun.
When the doughnuts had worn off, we walked across the street to PJs Oyster Bar.
I knew I liked the place immediately when we walked in and there were dozens of rolls of paper towels suspended from the ceilings and dollar bills covered every available wall surface. You can never have too many paper towels.
We couldn’t decide what to eat, and all that laziness had made us very hungry, so we got a little bit of everything: some gumbo, some fried shrimp, oysters on the half shell, smoked trout dip, and a couple of frozen mango daiquiris.
After lunch, we headed over to "Beauty and the Beach," a local art show at the park. The air was filled with the smells of kettle corn and hot dogs and music blared from the band on the stage. Artists had colorful booths set up with everything from handmade jewelry to paintings. We tried to walk off all that food, but all we did was make ourselves sleepy.
Lazy from the sun, the doughnuts, the rum, the art show, and all that fried seafood….we decided it was a perfect time for a nap. It is my opinion that there is no better nap than one taken in a super soft bed with the a/c blowing quietly after spending a few hours on the beach.
Rested and refreshed, we headed to Tarpon Springs, located on the other side of Clearwater, because I had read that they had a “Greek Festival” night on the first Saturday of every month and well….it was the first Saturday. On the way there, I saw this place and we had to stop:
Pie is happiness.
We simply couldn’t decide on a flavor, so we got four. At least that was our excuse. We had key lime, coconut cream, peanut butter, and strawberry rhubarb and two cold glasses of milk. It was like being at grandma’s house only there were palm trees outside and I didn’t have to wash my hands before I ate.
Then it was on to Tarpon Springs.
In the late 1800’s, a sponge factory was established in tiny Tarpon Springs. Over the next few years, experienced divers were brought from Greece to increase the sponge harvests. By 1905, over 500 Greek sponge divers were at work using 50 boats. The sponge divers created a need at the docks for places for the boat crews to eat. As news of the industry grew, people began coming to the docks to see the sponges.
Shops opened so people could buy the sponges and other souvenirs. The Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks today are a neat place to buy some sponges and sample some Greek food.
Well….we didn’t find the Greek Festival. No festival. Nada. Nothing. We did, however, find the Sawgrass Tiki Bar…home of the 100 oz. margarita. Hey, you take what you can get.
After a fishbowl full of mango margarita, we headed to Mykonos restaurant to sample some Greek eats.
We started off with a Greek salad, topped with kalamata olives, feta cheese, and peperoncini and drenched in a delicious vinaigrette. We got a combination platter that had Pastitsio, ground beef and noodles mixed with grated cheese and baked in a creamy sauce, Dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with beef, rice, and herbs and topped with a lemon sauce, Mousaka, beef and eggplant baked in a creamy cheese sauce, and a Gyro, sliced lamb and beef cooked slowly on a vertical spit. We also got an order of Keftedes, pan fried Greek meatballs with greek herbs. After OD’ing completely on meat and cheese, we rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and headed back to Indian Rocks Beach where we could sleep away the calories in that big, soft bed.
Another perfectly sunny day greeted us as we took and early morning stroll on the beach. We opted for breakfast at the cottage and hit the beach for the morning, before it got too hot. It got hot FAST, so we packed it in at lunchtime and walked down to the Kooky Coconut for lunch.
Kooky Coconut was a cute little beachy place (that we learned after the fact will let you use their beach chairs if you eat there….) that serves up some great sandwiches and some pretty serious ice cream. I grabbed a big, juicy burger. I am not sure there is anything that tastes better than a post-beach burger.
Matt’s Cuban sandwich came in a close second though.
The real winner here, though, had to be the ice cream. I ordered a scoop of something that had butterscotch, heath bars, brownies, and oreos in it when the guy said, “Do you want another scoop? You can get something different?”
“Well…as a matter of fact….I think I do….”
That is how I ended up with a styrofoam bowl containing a mountain of ice cream. Best $4 I ever spent.
For the afternoon we were meeting up with a friend that I hadn’t seen in YEARS who lived in Tampa. We spent the afternoon at the Undertow…a really cool beach bar that was down at St. Pete beach, just a few miles south of Indian Rocks Beach. If I had known this place was here, I’d have spent ALL DAY!!! It was perfect.
Inside was a very shady beach bar, indoor areas and covered outdoor areas. The indoor area had a supercool bar counter that had water running through the middle of it. We opted for the outdoor covered bar and sat at a high table and soaked it all in. We had some frozen Rum Runners and before we knew it, we were stretched out in the sun in their beach chairs. We made dinner easy by grabbing burgers and fries. It might have been the heat….it might have been the fact that I had a few rum runners…..it might have been the sand and sun….but I swear, that was the best hamburger I had ever eaten.
We said our goodbyes to my friend and called it a night.
I woke up and found a potato in my purse. Yes, a potato. I quickly hid what I was certain was evidence of something I had done the previous afternoon that involved rum and the type of silliness that ensues when two old girlfriends get together. This is what a few rum runners at the Undertow will get you, my friends. You wake up and find a strange potato in your purse.
We had some time to kill before we needed to be at the airport, so we grabbed breakfast and headed down to the John’s Pass Fishing Village. I knew there were some shops there and we thought we’d look around for an hour or two before grabbing lunch and heading to the airport.
As we drove down Gulf Blvd., I saw a place called "Mahuffers." It's sign proudly proclaimed it the "Wurst Place on the Beech" with lousy food and warm beer. I had to stop.
I was sincerely sorry I had missed this place and that it wasn't open.
Frankly, I wish I had skipped John’s Pass. I think warm beer at Mahuffer's would have been better. Unless you like really cheap, tacky tourist shops, go somewhere else.
On our way to the airport, we stopped at Crabby Bill’s for lunch.
They must have known I was coming, because they had a 1 lb. Caribbean Lobster tail with a side of fried shrimp. Everything was fantastic and when I was sure I couldn’t hold another bite, we headed back to the airport.
As we headed inside, I turned for one last glimpse of the clear blue sky, the friendly waving palm trees, and the seagulls circling overhead. It was time to conclude what I was now affectionately calling, “Vicki’s Eating Tour of Clearwater, FL.”
Bet you’re hungry now.
I have a potato if you want it.