Friday, February 29, 2008

Clearwater Beach begins to open my eyes to the possibilities

There's a strong boating culture along the Tampa Bay area beaches, more so than is apparent in Brevard County, on the east coast. Many sailboats just sit on the beach, waiting for the next time their owners will take them out.

This was the day before the 50-degree weather pounced onto the Clearwater Beach area. There was nobody out in bikinis when that happened.


I've often expressed disdain for the artificiality and tourist-catering conglomeration that is Orlando and most of South Florida. The Tampa Bay area used to be included on my blacklist. Emphases on the past tense.

I headed to Clearwater Beach this weekend to see a friend and to see for myself the supposed pristine white sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. The trip made me eat my words. In the brief taste I got of the bay area, I saw profound cultures and tasteful development, which is something I cannot say for Orlando.

The bay area beach communities are denser but aesthetically pleasing. Several of them have restricted commercial development - limiting gas stations, high-rise condos, Wal-Marts and Publix supermarkets.

My friend Russ has a small house with direct bayside frontage, perfect for boating. His in-ground pool looks over a spectacular vista of birds, sailboats and aqua green water from the gulf. He showed me around his neighborhood of north Clearwater Beach. While his home is more than 80 years old, others are modern mansions that have replaced historic buildings. Russ says he's glad he doesn't have to bother with the upkeep of such a large house.

But while some new buildings of the wealthy have proliferated, many land lots still are filled with the original homes, from back when there wasn't a bridge connecting the mainland to the barrier island that is Clearwater Beach.

Russ showed me the historic Don Ce Sar hotel, where he has enjoyed many great meals. I tried to snap a photo of the pink building, but it was difficult from the car. He whipped the car around, drove over the curb and a lawn, then stopped, so I could snap a few shots. It was the best vehicular maneuvering I've been involved in to get a photo.

Amid our road touring, we twice (in two days) stopped at local restaurants that specialize in seafood. The first was Frenchy's, home of the famous grouper sandwich, it boasts. The Gulf Coast is widely known for its tasty and often imitated grouper. Trying it was at the top of my priority list for the weekend, so I was glad Russ had the same idea.

My first sandwich was stuffed with Cajun-style grouper. The spices were great but didn't overpower the fish, which was moist and tasted nothing like fish. It almost seemed sweet.

But I think the second grouper sandwich of the weekend was the best, mostly because it was the simplest.

The Palm Pavilion is a beachside eatery that caters to beachgoers coming off the white sand for a beer and some fish to munch on. But not on Tuesday: Temperatures were uncharacteristically in the low 50s. The parking lot is usually overflowing, but it wasn't even 10 percent full. The lot closest to the restaurant usually is closed off, but Russ and I parked there because he knows the owner.

The main part of the dining room was unheated, but some hard-core tourists stubbornly sat there drinking pitchers of beer, determined to prevent the weather from ruining their vacations. But my blood has thinned since moving to Florida, so Russ and I chose the heated part.

The fish sandwich was again moist, and it warmed me. My tastes have matured since I was young. I once only would eat fish when it was fried. And even then, I smothered it with ketchup. Not this time. I added nothing, and at the time, I couldn't imagine anything better in the world than a grouper sandwich.

The other great eating experience I had was in Tarpon Springs, a small heavily Greek community north of the bay. It's best known for sponge diving. Shops peddling baklava and gyros line the streets. No doubt, they cater to tourists. But they don't involve Mickey Mouse, so they're all right in my book.

Russ, his wife Marian and I stopped at a waterside restaurant near a small boat that advertised three-hour, twice-daily fishing trips for $30. The walls of the dining room were glass and the ceiling was metal that leaked with the torrents falling from the sky.

Russ ordered our drinks. Our waiter spoke broken English. And of the three drinks Russ ordered, the waiter delivered each to the wrong recipient. Russ then ordered appetizer after appetizer. "This way, you can try everything," he said. Again, I liked his thinking.

First, a staple of Greek eating, bread and hummus. Nice and garlicky.

Second, phyllo dough stuffed with cheese and spinach. Fatty and sinful.

Third, grilled calamari. This is another example of my newfound culinary maturity. I never could have imagined eating squid any way other than fried. But this was cooked with olive and had a distinct grilled flavor. Not even slightly fishy or chewy. One of the best dishes I've had in some time.

Fourth, shrimp in some Alfredo-like sauce. Of course, that was good.

Fifth, a little Greek salad for good measure. The olives still had pits. Loved it.

Sixth and finally, mussels in marinara sauce. Believe it or not, it was my first time eating mussels.

My Clearwater trip was a first time for many things, but it definitely won't be the last. There so much more of Florida I must discover before I judge it.

The 50-degree weather probably had something to do with that the beach chairs were empty.

Russ' house is smaller compared with something others in the area. But that's what I liked about it. Still original. It even survived 18 inches of water during a flood in the early 1990s.

When I lived in Maine, I lived on the water, so I can appreciate a real view of the water. In most of Florida, commercial apartments advertise a "view of the lake." Whenever I showed up to view the apartment, I found out that the "lake" was actually a muddy retention pond. Ripoff.

Birds seemed to like the dog. Russ' poodle, Bailey, would chase them away.

Russ down at the bay in downtown St. Petersburg, a lovely town.

Russ showed my the Bill Jackson sporting goods store, where they sold ski equipment and offered kayaking lessons. It reminded my of L.L. Bean back at home in Maine. But of course, no matter where you go, the canoes are always made by Old Town in Old Town, Maine.

"Florida's Best Newspaper"? Who made you, St. Pete Times, the king of Florida journalism? You look pretty lonely here. Man, FLORIDA TODAY doesn't get the credit it deserves.

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