The Beginning of the Story, Tuesday 2/24/09
We arrived after a mostly pleasant plane ride–at least as far as such things go these days. What made it pleasant was the fact that it wasn’t full, so we actually got to spread out a bit. There were more kids than we’d ever seen on a plane before, and when the pressure changed, they started howling. The ride from Tampa airport in our Pontiac G6 rental was considerably longer time-wise than we anticipated. It seems that the traffic lights are timed to be red for anyone heading towards the beaches. Terri was famished, so I pulled into a mall and we arrived at the “Celebrity Deli”. Although we didn’t realize it until the staff frowned at us, we had come through the door 2 minutes before closing. But they served us some delightful (and enormous) sandwiches, so Terri’s mood lightened and we headed across the causeway and onto Indian Rocks Beach, our first Tampa Bay home.
Our first hotel (of two) is the Holiday Inn Harbourside. (Yes, they do put that “u” in. Pretension.) The rooms are more than spacious. Ours came with 2 queen beds, a kitchenette including range, microwave and fridge, and a very nice bathroom setup. Two closets! The grounds are lovely. There is a huge resort-style pool for kids with slides and such. Beach volleyball. The hotel sits on a narrow barrier island between a canal and the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately for the hotel, it is huge and practically empty.
Terri and I walk to the beach, about two blocks. We head south for a distance of about a mile and a half before heading back on the canal side of the island. It is a lovely, sunny day. The beach is inhabited mostly by sea gulls of several species, although we also see cormorants diving for fish. Lots of shells, and every few hundred feet we find impressive sized domes of some sort of jelly fish that had the bad fortune to be stranded by the tides.
On the canal side of the island the walk back is marred by the total lack of pedestrian accommodation. A car blasts its horn at me in irritation at the fact that I am walking too close to the pavement. But the restaurants and bars are getting into gear, and although the hotel doesn’t seem to be doing good business, the seasonal and year-round residents are in evidence.
Back to the hotel to consider dinner options. Although there appear to be many upscale restaurants, Terri and I have come for a relaxed, beach-oriented time, so I’m in shorts and she’s in jeans. Luckily, we noticed one Mexican restaurant that seems in line with our expectations, Los Mexicanos. Seems to be part of a small chain or maybe just three restaurants owned by the same family. Terri ordered tortilla soup, guacamole salad and a burrito. I ordered the fajitas. The salsa better resembled V8 juice than what we’re used to, but the chips were salt-free and obviously home made and after a while, the salsa grew on me. Terri’s tortilla soup was enormous, enough for a meal in itself. My fajitas were excellent, and possibly the largest portion I’ve ever seen. The add-ons were all fresh and very well done. Given the prices in other restaurants we’d seen, Los Mexicanos deserves some sort of award for best value in the Clearwater region.
We’ve made our 10,000 steps, so time to slow down. Terri stayed in the room while I wandered over to the “Jimmy Buffet” style live music at our hotel. The musician is talented and doing covers of Johnny Cash, 60s, 70s and 80s rock, and even a Warren Zevon tune or two. I had a reasonably priced shot of Jameson and trundled off to a good night’s sleep.
First full vacation day, have to do something good! Although Terri and I aren’t “boat people” almost every vacation we seem to wind up taking a boat trip somewhere. So I suggested we spend our day at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and take the dolphin cruise out into Tampa Bay. The aquarium is very impressive. Not as original as Monterrey, nor as spectacular as Baltimore’s, but well worth the time. One impression is that they have many rays. The coral reef exhibit is extraordinarily well done, and they have one of the few facilities for growing coral and exporting colonies to other aquaria. There is a “Sea Dragon” exhibit of specimens from Australia that is truly breath-taking.
After lunch in the cafeteria–kosher hot dogs are available! (although Terri won’t touch them)–off we went on our 90 minute Tampa Bay cruise. The dolphins were so numerous that they had to cut out one part of the tour because we had spent so much time observing them. The tour guide was a retired gentleman doing volunteer duty and his knowledge of the area was quite impressive. Less so marine biology, but he made up for that by reading accurate information from cards in a manner that was less soporific than it could have been. It was pretty obvious where his heart was–tales of giant ship repair facilities, coal and gas industry, military bases, and glee at reporting that a house that had been demolished by an airplane crash had been completely rebuilt by the television show “Extreme Makeover”. But his knowledge of birds was also impressive, so we had a good introduction to the varieties found around the Bay.
After the tour, we decide to head to Tampa’s Ybor City. Instead of driving, we elect to take the streetcar. Its a real streetcar, not one of those gas powered buses decorated to look like a streetcar. Evidently Tampa didn’t make the same mistake as other municipalities and tear up their streetcar tracks. The streetcars themselves are new, immaculate, and comfortable. They do have one of the original streetcars, but its basically a museum piece. So not quite the historical wonder of the San Francisco system, but fun nevertheless.
Ybor City is the historic district of old Tampa. At one time it was the cigar capital of the US, and they still have many cigar shops and even places where cigars are hand-rolled while you wait. Neither Terri nor I smoke cigars, so this is mostly a matter of historical curiosity for us. We strolled most of the streets of the district. Its obvious that nothing much starts up until nightfall, but we elect an early evening anyway. We had a pleasant enough dinner at the Green Iguana followed by treats at the Marble Slab Creamery. From there it was back on the trolley to the Aquarium parking lot, and then the long drive back to the beach. We listened to some more Jimmy Buffet style music and crashed.
Breakfast the previous day had been more than forgettable, so Terri and I walked about a mile over the canal drawbridge to a restaurant that advertised the “best breakfast in town.” Maybe. They featured home made biscuits (not available because the oven wasn’t hot enough yet), and were out of numerous other things on the menu. We were the only people in the place, but the (very nice) server explained that they had been inundated for Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday and were pretty well depleted. So after an infelicitous start, the breakfast food they brought to our table was fresh, properly prepared and much better than I was beginning to fear. I don’t know good grits from bad, but these tasted good to me.
On the way back to the hotel we detoured to the Indian Rocks historical museum. There we were greeted by Bill Carter, a bear of a man with a lush southern accent. Among other things he told us that he was Bill Clinton’s pastor back in Arkansas when Clinton was a young man. I replied that it hadn’t stuck. He grinned and said, “Didn’t do any good at all!” Clinton, he related, made a beeline for the beautiful and talented pianist and was “banging her” throughout whatever period they were together. While this was definitely the high point of the visit, I thought the rest of the museum was interesting enough. Terri didn’t.
But I must say that our docent knew his stuff, at least as near as I can tell. Whether I was asking about the native peoples or the people who built Harbourside, he was a font of good information.
We plan a “down” afternoon–work, email, maybe a nap. Terri heads for Jimmy Buffetland with her laptop. I take a soak in the Jacuzzi. The hotel is starting to fill–a good thing, as you can start to doubt your sanity wandering around a huge, deserted resort…
A Little Bit later…
If I had had an idea of how wonderful the Dali museum would be, I would have tried to get there earlier. I hope we can get back to Tampa Bay for another visit to this terrific little museum. The first few galleries were devoted to the relationship of Dali to Freud. Whether you care about Dali, Freud or even neither, the exhibit is still fascinating! Dali first became enthralled with Freud after reading “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Given the dream-like quality of so many of Dali’s paintings, its no wonder that he was inspired by Freud. The exhibit notes that Freud knew of Dali’s art and disdained it for most of his later life. But in 1938, a year before Freud’s death, Dali met him and presented him with a painting. Freud wrote to a friend about being wrong about Dali’s work, but since he was close to death, he never prepared any sort of analysis of Dali or his work, something that would have made an interesting read.
The galleries continued with a number of remarkable Dali paintings, sketches, and sculptures. The last gallery devoted to Dali contains several floor-to-ceiling masterpieces. We were fortunate to get in on the docent’s interpretation of several of these, and the next time I visit, I’ll make sure I can be there for a full tour.
A Moon-Lit End to a Lovely Evening
Following the Dali visit, we headed for a restaurant called “Moon Under Water”. It turned out to be near another St Petersburg institution, their Museum of Fine Art–that will have to wait for another day. The restaurant takes its name from tales of the English “shanghai” system. According to the tale, unwitting pub crawlers could be pressed into service when they drank a mug of ale into which a recruiter had dropped a coin which contained the royal portrait. Bar keepers began using pewter mugs with glass bottoms so patrons could examine their drink and ensure that no coins had been dropped in. The appearance of such coin under the ale was said to have the appearance of a “moon under water.”
The restaurant is decorated in the style of an old English pub, and the food is Indian! The idea is supposed to be reminiscent of the colonial era, but whatever, the chef comes by his knowledge of food honestly. I had a fabulous vindaloo. I asked for it as hot as they would ever make it, and for a change I was not disappointed. The heat would have taken the roof off my mouth if it had been one degree hotter! It was accompanied by a lovely basmati rice, naan and a tomato and onion salad. And the price was remarkably reasonable–dinner for two including a decent round of Jameson’s was less than $50.
After that it was back to Harbourside for our last evening in that trusty old resort.
Transition day. We are here because Terri has a professional conference for the weekend, so its time to change locales for the conference. Breakfast was at a very pleasant hole-in-the-wall a few steps from the beach. Drive through doughnuts and coffee, but also terrific bagels and breakfast sandwiches–why did we have to discover this place our last day? Then we packed, went to our now-favorite Mexican joint for a tasty lunch, and traveled about 4 miles up the road from Indian Rocks Beach to Clearwater Beach.
What a difference! As you move up the road, the little canal we were used to at Harbourside turns into a miles-wide bay. Our new hotel, the Marriott Sand Key Resort is an L-shaped building about 10 stories tall. I couldn’t escape the bellhop, so we got the full welcome treatment. Our suite has a living room with sofa, armchair, large flat screen hi-def TV, and a small “kitchen” area. The bathroom and coat closet are in the middle, and then there is a bedroom with two queen sized beds. But while the room is very nice, its the views that set this place apart. Notice that I said “views” in the plural. The living room looks out on the Gulf, and the bedroom (with a private balcony) looks out on the bay. Both sides are utterly breathtaking.
The hotel has an attractive but athletically useless pool, decent jacuzzi, and very lovely grounds.
Terri’s conference is across the street at the Sheraton Sand Key resort, an even more opulent place which backs up onto the Gulf of Mexico.
Next door to the Sheraton is Sand Key Park. Beautiful beach access, and a pleasant enough trail from the street to the beach. The only odd thing is the enormous parking lot featuring row upon row of parking spaces with meters.
Terri headed off to the conference, I headed off to the pool and then a hike around the area.
We dined in an adequate nearby American-style restaurant. This was the best day of walking for me so far: 19,500 steps or about 9 miles.
Last Real Day, Saturday 2/28/09
Every vacation comes to this. While we don’t fly back to Michigan until Sunday 3/1 at 3pm, today is the last Real Day. In the case of this particular vacation, its a “Real Day” only for me since Terri is involved in her sessions at the conference.
My morning begins at Maggie Mae’s breakfast emporium–great place. Enthusiastic staff, quality food. Next, a hike. The Marriott bellman advised me that across the causeway in Clearwater Beach (proper, we are in the town, but on Sand Key) its a nice hike to the municipal beach and Pier 60. So off I went. Ultimately this turned into a 6.5 mile hike, but it was just a wonderful way to spend the morning. The only off-note was the 50 cent charge for getting to the end of the pier. Don’t know how much revenue that 50 cents generates, but its hard to believe that its worth the irritation I was seeing among the tourists. The weather was perfect-sunny, warm, brisk winds.
I met Terri for lunch and we opted for Lenny’s in Clearwater. The trip was supposed to take 20 minutes, but came in at about 35 owing to massive traffic heading for one of the Tampa area’s many professional baseball spring training games. Lenny’s is the area’s best known Jewish-style restaurant. They seem to specialize in breakfast, but we were there for lunch, so I opted for the traditional life-shortening pastrami/corn beef combo. It was served on decent if unspectacular Jewish rye. The accompanying potato pancake was terrific–much better than french fries. The service was fast and our waitress was enthusiastic. Lenny’s is filled with homespun (Jewish) humor. One sign proclaims “Why get ripped off elsewhere when you’re already here?” Terri had the chopped liver sandwich and commented that the place was well worth the trip.
On the way back she may have changed her mind. While the baseball games tacked 15 minutes onto the outward bound trip, the beach traffic added 30 minutes back. So the 20 minute return turned into an hour, and Terri wound up missing part of a session.
Since this was a true vacation day for me, I took a nap and then ventured out to the hotel hot tub. This time I found myself in hot water with the owner of a medical device company (Accu-Vein) located in Kansas City, Kansas and the owner of a high tech supply company from Minneapolis. Lots of conversation about the direction of the health industry, Obama, and hi tech. Accu-vein sounds interesting, although that’s possibly because the proprietor is one of those natural born salesmen. They sell a device which can find difficult to spot veins in infants, premies, (and as he referred to them) old and fat people. His corporate strategy is “shine and stick” (or something like that, I think it may have rhymed when he said it). Anyway, the idea is that a laser in the infra-red range can see veins that are relatively near the surface allowing med techs to easily obtain their blood draws.
Dinner was at a pleasant if unspectacular sports bar. I know Terri was disappointed because it was our last night, but I was happy because I’ve been getting too much good food down here. I’m terrified that the scale is going to show I put back all the weight I had dropped the prior month, and needless to say, I’ll soon be back on the straight and narrow.
On the positive side of all that, my pedometer shows that I hiked 10.25 miles today!
Farewell, Clearwater Beach! Sunday, 3/1/2009
Well, all good things must come to an end. We both had restless nights thinking about all the things we need to do back in Michigan. Terri was up at 4am and finished some sort of report. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
The morning brought the first weather front we’ve seen in our week here. Blustery winds, choppy surf along the beach, light rain. Although its no big deal, because of the way the hotel is shaped, the wind howls through and sitting in our room it sounds like a hurricane. As I write this, the sun has just poked through, so perhaps we’re passing through the eye of the storm. Just kidding.
My second breakfast at Maggie Mae’s, Terri’s first. Although we didn’t have to wait for a table at the hour we showed up, by the time we left the place was packed and there was a long line. Its the kind of place I’ve found in most places I’ve lived, and if I lived in Clearwater Beach, I’d be there every morning.
We’re all packed up and as soon as Terri’s last session ends we’ll be heading for the airport. I enjoyed this trip immensely and if the opportunity presents itself, I hope I can return here some day.