When working out what we would see in the Tampa Bay area we decided that City Pass would be the most affordable option. For $129 per adult I was able to visit ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the Tropics Boat tour, and The Florida Aquarium.
From St. Petersburg we drove up the Gulf Coast. Most of the beach communities were much less developed than the Atlantic side destinations, and there seemed to be lots of options for local shopping and dining. Traffic and crowds picked up considerably as we entered the Clearwater Beach area.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium was made famous in 2011 with the film Dolphin Tale. While sadly the film’s star, a dolphin named Winter, died in 2019, the attention has enabled the aquarium to do incredible work for animal rescue and rehabilitation. Staff and volunteers talk about enrichment activities that are meant to engage the animals that were deemed unreleasable, including sea turtles, dolphins, and river otters.
We were lucky to visit just before the closing of the Legends from the Deep exhibition. The fourth-floor exhibits connected “creepy” real-life sea creatures to those from legends and to modern-day threats to ocean wildlife.
With a short window for lunch before our 2pm boat tour reservation we decided to grab lunch from the Aquarium cafe. The outside seating provided Bayfront views and we timed it to enjoy the afternoon Resident Dolphin Talk while we dined.
Clearwater Boat Tour
From the Aquarium we walked about 15 minutes to the landing for the Tropics Boat tour. Traffic is notoriously bad along this stretch with parking hard to come by on the gulf side of the bridge, so our all-day parking pass in the Aquarium garage was helpful. The 1 ½ hour boat tour was a hybrid booze-cruise and dolphin-watching tour. Midday attendance and the inclusion of the City Pass ticket seemed to attract mostly families to our timeslot. The guides also explained points of interest, from the only dance club on the island to Tom Cruise and John Travolta’s residences (more on that later). The guides also included geographic and ecological information and told cheesy jokes, so really there was something for every type of tourist.
Dolphin sightings were “guaranteed”, and ¾ of the way into the tour I heard our guide explain that if they didn’t see any all of the ticket holders could return anytime for another cruise. Luckily they sighted a pod and we watched as they played in the wake of another tour boat.
Sand Key Beach
Gulf of Mexico Beaches
After a quick return to the Aquarium, we drove through the extremely busy Clearwater beach area to the Sand Key beach. Low tide and low crowds made it a great place to seashell hunt.
A Break from the Beach
We attempted to then return to Clearwater beach for dinner, but lines for restaurants were 20 people deep. A quick search on OpenTable found us Clear Sky restaurant in downtown Clearwater. The entire block was blocked to traffic for the small stretch of restaurants, with sunset views of the bay in the distance at the west end of the street. We were happy to have the reprieve from the beach crowds. We were struck by the endless blocks of similarly designed buildings and finally realized that Clearwater is the east coast headquarters of the Church of Scientology (hence the Cruise/Travolta connection to the city).
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