On a recent trip to Florida, I presumed I would be bathed in never-ending sunlight in the ‘Sunshine State.’
As an Irish person, when you come from the land of drizzle and well-watered green fields, holidays are for sunshine.
But it was hurricane season, and showers came swiftly.
This should have irritated me, but rain could not dampen the views in St Pete/Clearwater on the Mexican Gulf, one of the most beautiful areas in Florida state.
The trip started off swimmingly thanks to Aer Lingus and US pre-clearance at Dublin airport. This saves the hassle of immigration on the other side, meaning once you leave the plane, all you have to do is collect your bags.
Passengers in the UK can avail of the service by flying into Dublin airport from the UK before they head to the US. The ease of travel is superb and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants zero stress when they land.
On board, I watched some Succession with a few glasses of wine – and delicious plane food – and arrived to Orlando relaxed and ready for all St Pete/Clearwater had to offer.
Our first stop was Clearwater and a stay in the spacious Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach. Each room has a view of the water, and the hotel is only metres away from an award-winning beach, making it perfect for seaside lovers.
The sand is without a doubt the softest I have ever felt in my life. Despite it raining for the majority of our stay, a trip to the beach each day was a necessity.
Being in the outdoors is key to the Floridian experience and when the heavens closed for a brief moment, I took a trip to Honeymoon Island State Park. This is the state’s most visited park and it’s easy to see why.
There are acres of nature to explore, and it also has direct access to Caladesi Island by ferry. A secluded hideaway surrounded by mangroves, visit Caladesi for a beautiful beach and stunning walkways.
Unfortunately, it rained on my visit, but I sat drinking a beer and eating a packet of Lays under shelter while watching the water.
In the evenings, Clearwater’s pier becomes a colourful haven. Sunsets at Pier 60 operates year-round from two hours before until two hours after sunset, weather permitting.
The nightly sunset celebration features artisans and street performers. Walking the pier is a beautiful way to get a good look at the Clearwater strip which has a fine selection of bars with live entertainment.
My top pick is 3 Daughters Brewing. The local brewery is a great find for any beer lovers and its entertainment is top-grade. On the night I visited, the performer was a former The Voice US contestant.
The next stop of my trip took me to St. Petersburg. A 35-minute drive from Clearwater, its nickname is the ‘Sunshine City.’
Shockingly, it once again rained for the majority of my stay, but St. Petes has a distinctive atmosphere that precipitation cannot dampen.
Although a busy hub, it has a surfing town feel. It’s relaxed but has a thriving food and drinks scene, and while the the beaches are an obvious pull, arts and culture is never too far away.
The Don CeSar was my home while there and it dominates the skyline. Pink and dramatically perched atop wind-swept dunes with expansive water views in every direction, you can’t miss it.
It has three restaurants on site. The Rowe Bar and serves one of the best steaks I have ever eaten.
There is a growing cuisine scene in St. Pete’s with local produce a big part of this. A foodie highlight is The Dewey at The Berkeley Beach Club. The menu is re-imagined beach cuisine with a destination driven wine list, and craft cocktails that belong at a beach bar.
It’s a creative interpretation with entrees such as cornmeal crusted soft shell crab. If you do pay a visit, make sure to the try the market fish served with Peruvian corn red shrimp macque choux, creole tomato broth, pickedled okra relish and microgreens.
Plus, its owner Maryann Ferenc is a vivacious host and an absolute tonic.
Meanwhile, St. Petes mixes art and the outdoors extremely well and The Dali Museum is home to the largest collection of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s works outside of Spain.
Combining mind-bending architecture with an extensive permanent collection of Dali art, it’s an easy to digest gallery that will pique your interest, even if art isn’t on your list of most favourite things. I visited on the sunniest day of my trip but it’s ideal for a rainy day excursion.
The museum is also a short walk from the St. Pete Pier Area. Opened in July 2020 following a decade-long development, it’s the southeast coast’s largest waterfront playground.
It is now an all-encompassing entertainment district with a picturesque urban beach area, a unique children’s playground, great dining and pop up markets.
However, the highlight of my visit to St. Pete had to be a private guided wildlife and history tour at Fort De Soto Park.
De Soto is a Spanish-America War era fort and as a history buff I was in love. The park covers five islands and 1,136 acres on the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay.
We were shown around the park on electric bikes by our brilliant guide Andrea from Bay E-Bikes, who not only taught us about history but told us in great detail about the eco-system of the area.
The tour takes three hours but it’s an excursion you never want to end. The scenery is picture perfect and for much of it, you’re in complete peace and quiet.
And did it rain? On that day, thankfully not, but it wouldn’t have mattered.
Florida may be the ‘Sunshine State’ but even in the rain, it shines.
Manchester to Orlando
Aer Lingus operates daily non-stop flights from Manchester to Orlando, Florida, with economy fares starting from £254 each way and Business Class from £2150 return, taxes and charges included.
For more information visit aerlingus.com.
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