Good old fashioned road trips are officially back in high fashion thanks to this lingering pandemic. Due to safety concerns and many schools’ tight health restrictions, flying somewhere for spring break in 2021 is no longer a simple option for families—including mine. With mandatory COVID testing required by our school 5 days after returning, instead of earning airline points this year, we’ve been adding mucho miles to our SUV.
One area of Florida we hadn’t hit as a family yet? Tampa Bay—specifically Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg (St. Pete to the locals). My readers on ModernBocaMom.com have been devouring all of my Florida/road trip travel posts this year, so I was excited to visit (and share) a part of the state I hadn’t explored yet during Palm Beach County spring break.
On our long weekend itinerary? Dolphins, a little Dali and some hands-on discovery of Florida’s gulf coast!
Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club
With a few days of spring break to fill prior to our road trip, we had some homework to complete–well, at least the parents did. We were urged to watch the movie Dolphin Tale before heading out because our family would be staying at Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club in Clearwater Beach.
As it turns out, Winter is quite famous (my 7 year-old daughter was already aware of this). Years ago, her tail was caught in a crab trap, which stranded her on the beach, and she was subsequently rescued by neighboring Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA). Sadly, the damage to her tail was too great and she lost it. I don’t want to spoil the ending of the movie, but CMA was essentially able to have a special prosthetic tail made for Winter. Her unique story draws in thousands of people to see her each year, especially after the movies were made (yes, there is a Dolphin Tale 2!).
This dolphin is so popular that Winter’s Beach Club was launched. The resort, having an alliance with CMA, is not only family-friendly but eco-friendly as well. During our trip, we relaxed in the resort’s nautical surroundings which feature fun, ocean-inspired themes, not to mention one of Winter’s prosthetic tails on proud display in the lobby! Some rooms even have a balcony or small patio that overlook a stunning pool, pool bar and small, private beach with amazing views right outside.
Fun Fact: Winter’s Beach Club is the first CMA-certified hotel with measures to protect marine life including sea turtle safe lighting, no single-use plastics and special window treatments to reduce energy use. It’s also ocean-friendly through a partnership with local non-profit, Ocean Allies.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA)
Just down the street from the Beach Club is the actual home of Winter and her friends: Clearwater Marine Aquarium. And boy has it changed from the movies! While the original CMA hospital still stands (so you can geek out like we did), visiting is now a whole new experience with five times the guest space and the brand-new 1.5-million-gallon Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex, part of an $80 million expansion that just opened in 2020. The dolphin viewing area is MASSIVE.
Not only can you see Winter in real life, you’ll also be able to view Rufus the pelican and Hope (from Dolphin Tale 2) along with the other rescued dolphins from stunning underwater windows or the spacious, open-air Dolphin Terrace.
And if you want a craft beer, wine or specialty coffee—by all means! CMA just opened a beautiful new café complete with a top chef and indoor/outdoor seating areas. Not to mention a new, interactive (and large!) exhibit, Whales: Living with Giants. Here, guests are invited to experience the undersea world of magnificent gentle giants through educational multi-media exhibits, an undersea virtual reality experience, life-size whale gallery and interactive kid’s zone. We already want to go back!
The Dali Museum
From dolphins to Dali! For our next excursion, we drove the 45 minutes from Clearwater Beach to St. Pete to visit the famed Dali Museum, home to the largest collection of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s works outside of Spain. My Maine husband especially enjoyed “Lobster Telephone”. The museum’s mind-bending architecture itself is even a work of art, especially viewing it from the sculpture garden.
In addition to the Dali’s massive permanent collection, running through June 13, 2021 is the spectacular experience: Van Gogh Alive. Not to be confused with the similar exhibit coming to Miami, Van Gogh Alive is an immersive art installation that offers a different, yet exciting view of celebrated painter Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic genius. Between the classical music, thought-provoking artist quotes and perfect projections, visitors are in a literal cocoon of vibrant color, light and sound at this exhibit.
It’s almost as if you’re walking into Van Gogh’s paintings (several of them have been animated)! I especially appreciated his radiant “Sunflowers” and Paris scenes including “Starry Night.” It was an educational and inspiring experience for our whole family. I highly recommend it.
Great Exploration Children’s Museum
While our morning was devoted to art, our afternoon in St. Pete was dedicated to our daughter’s discovery of Great Explorations, Tampa Bay’s first children’s museum supporting a safe, hands-on practical learning environment. With the Boca Raton Children’s Museum shuttered for more than a year now, we were quite excited to see how others in Florida have been stimulating curiosity (safely) through curated learning experiences.
Set in one huge space, there were so many enticing areas to explore. From a towering sea shell structure that my daughter couldn’t wait to climb to an interactive hospital, art station, “Sand Shack” and weather reporting green screen, it is a museum mecca for kids. I can only hope something like this comes back to our area soon!
We explored, ate and enjoyed so much more of the gulf coast on this trip. I’ll plan to feature even more details of our visit to Clearwater and St. Petersburg on my blog, Modern Boca Mom.
Until then, see you on the open roads!
Disclosure: The author of this post and her family were hosted by Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater for travel review purposes.