My one and only vacation out of my home state of North Carolina during 2020 was to the St. Petersburg area of Florida, which you can read about here: A Brief Overview of St. Petersburg, Florida- Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Eat, and here More Things to Do in St. Petersburg, Florida. If you didn’t read the posts and don’t want to, St. Petersburg is on the western part of Florida where the Gulf of Mexico is, hence cities here are often referred to as “on the Gulf side.” Last year I primarily stayed in St. Petersburg but I knew I would be back to explore more of the area because I loved it so much here.
When I was trying to figure out where to go for my daughter’s spring break in 2021, I considered Portland, Oregon and the coast of Oregon, different islands in the Caribbean, Savannah, Georgia, and some other places but ultimately I knew Florida was the best choice given the circumstances. I knew I could get a cheap, direct flight to Tampa, Florida with Delta, who I also knew was still blocking off middle seats. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I also knew I wanted to go back to see some of the cities just north of St. Petersburg, including Clearwater and Tampa. For reference, here is a map of that part of Florida:
See where all of the blue marks are? Those are all places I labeled in my Google map that I used last year and this year. The big cluster includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Bradenton. Just north of the cluster is Crystal River.
So the plan for this year was to start off in the Clearwater area including Safety Harbor and stay a few nights, drive almost 2 hours north to Crystal River and spend one night and much of the next day, then drive south to Tampa and stay a few nights. Last year I had wanted to go to Clearwater and go to the beach there as well but there just wasn’t enough time. This year, I made it a priority and was glad I did.
I’ll start with Clearwater here. First I should note that there’s Clearwater the city and Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is on a barrier island with soft, white powdery sand and packed with restaurants, hotels, and shops. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where they rehabilitate injured dolphins and sea turtles is on the barrier island as well. Clearwater the city spans the entire east-to-west portion of this part of Florida, so there is the intercoastal waterway that eventually becomes the Gulf of Mexico on the west side and Old Tampa Bay on the east side. In other words, you’re never far from water views in Clearwater.
Restaurants in Clearwater
One restaurant we loved in Clearwater is Shnookums BBQ, just on the edge of Clearwater bordering Belleair. Belleair is full of mansions overlooking the water and has a tiny unmarked park called Hallett Park. I got our BBQ to go and drove the short distance to Hallett Park, where we ate dinner overlooking the water and cityscape. It was an absolutely perfect evening. If you enjoy Vietnamese food, Pho Bowl Clearwater (in an unassuming strip mall) is some of the best Vietnamese I’ve ever had.
Parks in Clearwater
Now to the part about peacocks. One afternoon, we were walking around Kapok Park and decided to walk over to Moccasin Lake Nature Park, only to find out the nature park was closed on Mondays. However, in the neighborhood beside the nature park, I spotted several peacocks in front of someone’s house. The male was in full display mode showing his feathers off and slowly walking around while several females just lounged in the front yard. I had seen peacocks before but always in parks in Hawaii and never just in front of some random person’s house.
We later went back to Moccasin Lake Nature Park on a day they were open and saw the peacocks inside the park. One peacock was sitting on top of a fence, which is when I learned they must hop the fence to go back and forth between the park and neighborhood. There were many trails with beautiful big trees and lots of shade. We walked to a pond and saw several turtles in the water. There is also an indoor area where you can touch or hold the animals they have chosen specifically for this. On the day we were there, they had two different snakes and a snapping turtle. My daughter held both of the snakes and we both got a science lesson from the very chatty and friendly worker there.
The population of Clearwater is around 115,000, which isn’t a huge city by any means but by comparison, Safety Harbor with around 17,000 people is a much smaller, quieter town. We stayed in a hotel in Safety Harbor and it was great but if you want close and easy access to a beach, I recommend staying in Clearwater instead. What you do get in Safety Harbor is a cute little downtown area with some amazing restaurants and a few waterside parks.
Restaurants in Safety Harbor
If you’re a big coffee fan like my daughter is, you’ll love Cafe Vino Tinto, a coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. There is a small outdoor seating area and everything we had from breakfast burritos and biscuits to Thin Mint Lattes, Chai Tea Lattes, S’mores Lattes, and London Fogs were all delicious. The Sandwich on Main has amazing sandwiches, some made with homemade Portuguese bread. As a huge fan of real Hawaiian shave ice, imagine my excitement to discover a place that comes pretty close to what you usually can only find in Hawaii, Sno Beach. I had dragonfruit mojito and my daughter had rose shave ice, both with sweet cream over. Another restaurant that was excellent is Water Oak Grill, a seafood restaurant where my daughter had soft shell crab for the first time and loved it. My shrimp and grits were every bit as good as I’ve had in Charleston, SC, which is saying a lot because they set the bar there.
Parks in Safety Harbor
Safety Harbor may be a small town but it has several great parks, like Safety Harbor Waterfront Park, Philippe Park, Mullet Creek Park, and also not really a park but Safety Harbor Pier. Now for the part about dolphins. In the nearby town of Oldsmar is Mobbly Bayou Beach Park. We went here one morning after it had rained the night before, thinking we could possibly spend some time at the beach.
When we saw how tiny and soaked the sandy beach at Mobbly Bayou Beach Park was, we decided to just walk around. I heard a strange noise coming from the water so we went to get a closer look, just in time to see a dolphin jump out of the water. Then I saw more dolphins, all playing in the water, spinning and flipping around. In all, I counted four dolphins, which we watched with delight for several minutes before they retreated further away from us. There is a trail system at the park, so we walked around on the trails for about an hour before we headed back.
Day Trip to Tarpon Springs
Just a short 30 minute drive from Clearwater lies Tarpon Springs with its downtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tarpon Springs is probably best known for its historic sponge docks and Greek influence. The city was first settled by Greek sponge divers in the early 1900’s.
My first impression was that the area was much bigger than I expected and immensely more touristy than I thought it would be. We went into Tarpon Springs Sea Sponge Factory and discovered all of the different sizes and shapes of sponges as well as soaps and other skin products. There were dozens of other shops selling sponges and soaps in addition to the usual kitschy touristy items. After a while they all seemed to blur together.
There is no shortage of Greek and Mediterranean restaurants but I knew I wanted to stop at Hella’s since it’s known to be one of the best in Tarpon Springs. It was super busy and like a mad house but I guess there’s a method to their madness because the pastries we got were crazy good. After sitting to enjoy our afternoon desserts, we decided we had had enough of Tarpon Springs and drove back to Clearwater.
A couple of things we did not do but I heard are worth checking out are: Tarpon Springs Aquarium and Animal Sanctuary, taking a cruise around the area, Safford House Museum (a restored Victorian mansion with tours), and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church with stained glass and a Grecian marble altar.
The main reason to drive 2 hours to Crystal River was to swim with manatees but the area has some other fun activities that I’ll also go over later. Although Crystal River isn’t the only place in Florida to see manatees, it was the closest for us coming from Clearwater. Manatees are migratory animals and spend their winters from November through March in the warmer waters of Florida.
Our time in Florida was during the last week of March and first few days of April so I knew we would be at the tail-end of the migration, meaning we might not see a single manatee. I booked our snorkeling trip to swim with manatees through Bird’s Underwater (technically Famous Bird’s Underwater Manatee Dive Center) for the first trip of the day at 6:30 am, knowing we would be more likely to see manatees during the early morning hours rather than later in the day on either their 11 am or 2 pm tours. We had driven to Crystal River the day before and spent the night there so we would only be a 5 minute drive from the dive center.
We left with two groups of other people so there were 6 people on the pontoon boat plus our guide and captain besides us, but there was plenty of room for everyone to stay relatively distanced from one another. The boat ride was relatively short, which is a good thing because my daughter tends to get motion sickness, but she was fine the entire time.
We were warned by our guide on the boat ride out that visibility had been extremely poor the past four days and in reality we might not be able to see any manatees or if so the water might be cloudy and murky. Great. However, when we got to a spot where a manatee had been seen by another tour group, we all zipped up our wet suits (that we had put on prior to boarding the boat), pulled down our snorkel masks (my daughter and I had brought our own, which given COVID seemed like an even better purchase than I realized when I bought them before the pandemic), and gently eased into the water.
The water was crystal clear! We could all easily see the gentle giant as it glided along the bottom of the Three Sisters Springs, munching on sea grass and reinforcing its nickname “sea cow.” Honestly, I could have stayed in the water watching this manatee all day. It was extremely calming and relaxing. I was glad to have the wet suit because even though the water is a constant 72 degrees and may seem warm, I was chilly at times because I was gently gliding in the water, not swimming. We all watched a video on proper and improper treatment of manatees before boarding the boat and one of the things they covered was not to swim near a manatee because you could accidentally kick it. Instead of having snorkeling fins, we all crossed our feet at our ankles, bent our knees, and using a pool noodle, used our arms and hands to gently move around.
We also saw some fish but other than manatees there wasn’t much in this part of the water, which was fine with me. We ended up spending a total of three hours with Bird’s Underwater, including getting wet suits, watching the video, snorkeling, and going to and from the springs in the boat. I was more tired than I realized when I got back into the boat and was told we had to head back to the dive shop.
Parks in and around Crystal River
After we had gone back to the hotel, showered, gotten dressed and checked out, we went to Crystal River Archaeological State Park. At the park we saw remnants of a prehistoric ceremonial center, burial mounds, and remains from the area’s earliest settlement. Admission was just a few dollars (I think $3) that I left in an envelope at a stand in the parking lot. Crystal River Preserve State Park is right beside the archaeological park, but we didn’t go there.
Just about 20 minutes south of Crystal River in Homosassa is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. We picked up sandwiches from a grocery store and ate lunch in the park overlooking the crystal clear water, but there is a cafe onsite where you can buy sandwiches and other snacks and drinks. This park has several rescued animals such as flamingos, bald eagles, a 61-year-old hippo that we saw pooping in the water (much to the delight of the young boys near us), a black bear, foxes, alligators, and manatees.
The manatees at this park have free-range to swim in the spring or make their way to a river that feeds into Homosassa Bay and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. There is also a rehabilitation center just for manatees if they are sick or injured. I’ve been to many different zoos, aquariums, and other places where they have rescued animals but this was one of the coolest.
After we left Homosassa Springs, I drove back down to Tampa which took about an hour and a half. I think I’ll end here and pick up on another post solely on Tampa, since it deserves a post of its’ own.
Have you been to Clearwater or this part of Florida? Have you swam with manatees? Ever wanted to? Please share!