washingtonpost.com
Falling for the Beach

Sunday, September 11, 2005

WHAT: An autumn beach fling to Fort De Soto and Caladesi Island parks in Florida's Pinellas County, home to Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The area is a relatively inexpensive 2-hour-20-minute plane ride from the D.C. area.

WHY GO: Former University of Maryland professor Stephen P. Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, named the parks' Gulf of Mexico beaches among America's Top 5 earlier this year. Leatherman ( http://www.drbeach.org/ ) has rated U.S. beaches since 1991. Need more reasons? The kids are back in school, and room rates are at their lowest for the year.

BY THE NUMBERS: In September, the gulf temperature averages 83 degrees; daytime lows and highs are 73 to 89. In October, the water is generally 77 degrees, the air 65 to 84.

WHAT'S THERE: Leatherman's No. 1 choice, Fort De Soto Park's North Beach, is just southwest of St. Petersburg. The park has "something for everyone," says Leatherman, with 1,100 acres of "great fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, bird-watching, camping." There are also bike rentals, accessible trails and a snack bar. Free admission; bridge toll 85 cents. Details: 727-582-2267, http://www.pinellascounty.org/ (click on "visitor," then "county parks").

Caladesi Island State Park was No. 4 on Leatherman's list (the other three: Ocraroke Island, N.C., and beaches in Kauai and Maui). The park is accessible by ferry (727-734-5263; $8) from Honeymoon Island, just north of Clearwater Beach and west of Dunedin. At Honeymoon, which connects to the mainland, entrance fees are $5 a car. The park boasts uncrowded white sand plus a three-mile nature/history trail, kayak trail, boat rentals, picnic shelters and snack bar. Details: 727-469-5918, http://www.floridastateparks.org/ .

GETTING THERE: Round-trip air starts at about $123 from the D.C. area to Tampa, about a 45-minute drive to both beaches.

WHERE TO STAY: Lodging options range from spa resorts and beach hotels to bed-and-breakfasts and condos.

The Sheraton Sand Key Resort (1160 Gulf Blvd., 800-456-7263, http://www.sheratonsandkey.com/ ) in Clearwater Beach has a spa and fronts 13 acres of gulf sand. Rates from $198 per night double. Grielens Green Gables Bed & Breakfast (1040 Sunset Point Rd., Clearwater, 727-442-8722, http://www.greengables.us/ ) has three "Old Florida"-style rooms and a cottage apartment. Rates from $115. The Safety Harbor Resort and Spa (105 N. Bayshore Dr., 888-237-8772, http://www.safetyharborspa.com/ ) in Safety Harbor has spa and fitness space, spring-fed pools, and golf and tennis academies. Rates from $104.

In St. Pete's historic district, Dickens House (335 Eighth Ave. NE, 800-381-2022, http://www.dickenshouse.com/ ) is a restored 1912 Craftsman with five rooms. Rates from $105. Nearby, the Renaissance Vinoy (501 Fifth Ave. NE, 888-303-4430, http://www.vinoyrenaissanceresort.com/ ) includes a marina, golf and tennis. Rates from $219.

WHERE TO EAT: In Clearwater Beach, Bobby's Bistro & Wine Bar (447 Mandalay Ave.) has a wine list two feet long and entrees from $10, while the Island Way Grill (20 Island Way) is a magnificent art-glass-filled restaurant with innovative Asian-influenced cuisine (entrees from $9.95). For a more casual meal, go to the nearby Palm Pavilion Grill & Bar (10 Bay Esplanade), which is right on the sand and has good grouper sandwiches ($7.99).

Columbia serves Cuban- and Spanish-influenced cuisine in Clearwater Beach (1241 Gulf Blvd.) and on the Pier in St. Pete; entrees from $16.95. St. Pete is also home to the original Bonefish Grill (5901 Fourth St.), renowned for its cedar-plank salmon with chorizo; entrees from $13.80. Nearby, Redwoods (247 Central Ave.) serves an ambitious modern-American menu in a white-tablecloth setting; entrees from $22.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS:

· The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (249 Windward Passage, 727-441-1790, http://www.cmaquarium.org;/ $9) has exhibits on the animals it rescues and rehabilitates -- particularly sea turtles, dolphins and river otters.

· The Florida Botanical Gardens (12175 125th St. N., Largo, 727-582-2200, http://www.flbg.org;/ free) features palm trees, roses, topiary and native species.

· The Salvador Dali Museum (1003 Third St. S., 727-823-3767, http://www.salvadordalimuseum.org/ ; $14) in St. Pete has one of the world's most comprehensive collection of the artist's works.

INFORMATION: St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-352-3224, http://www.floridasbeach.com/ .

-- Ellen Ryan

© 2005 The Washington Post Company