Florida is famous for its treasure trove of family-oriented resorts and destinations, from luxury chain hotels to theme park resorts. However, with so many choices to dig through, it can be challenging for modern parents to find a place with the right mix of luxury, regional character and a real-world spin on “paradise” kids will be receptive to.
The 253-room Sandpearl Resort and Spa on Clearwater Beach is a real find on many levels for those preferring authenticity and originality in their travels. It also has the hallmarks of a locally owned property, from its warm, helpful staff to the placement of noted Florida artist Christopher Still’s evocative coastal canvases. The lagoon-style pool features clear beach views and access by day and family-friendly “Dive In” movies on some nights. It also doesn’t hurt it is an easy commute from both Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
While Camp Ridley, the resort’s wildlife and environment-focused kids’ program, will keep kids entertained and creative, parents can indulge in some “me time” at the award-winning Spa at Sandpearl, combining acclaimed face and body treatments with a vibe as welcoming as one’s favorite neighborhood day spa. The menu at Caretta, its fine dining restaurant, features several excellent dishes with grouper and other local fish. Rooms and suites all have that plush, wonderful “beach house” feel that’s an absolutely necessary component of a luxury beach vacation.
However, there’s more to this “pearl” when you get beyond that beautiful shell. Here, the walls do talk, through Christopher M. Still’s artwork, wall collages and other reclaimed and preserved elements of the Clearwater Beach Hotel that once occupied the same plot of land. Even before elementary school-age kids set foot in Camp Ridley, they’ll learn about the science behind the construction of the Sandpearl as well as a history lesson about the early days of Clearwater Beach.
A few times a week, the resort stages a tour, starting at a wall of a corridor connecting the main lobby and some of the banquet rooms. The display artfully ties together the steps the engineers and construction team took to make the Sandpearl the first Silver LEED-certified resort in Florida. The passage leading from the lobby to Caretta is decorated with a 90-photo timeline beginning with the arrival of Myrtle Scharrer Betz, who moved with her father, Henry, to Caladesi Island in the early 1900s. In 1921, the Clearwater Beach Hotel opened on that spot, and was operated and expanded by different families, thriving as rail travel, car and air travel brought more and more families to Betz’s former childhood playground.
Tate’s Island Grill, the casual poolside restaurant serving sandwiches, salads and finger foods, such as pulled pork nachos, coconut shrimp and mahi-mahi fish dip with pita (a local favorite), occupies one of the original buildings from the old Clearwater Beach Hotel. Gulf Side Suite, a standalone villa suite taking up one of the other original buildings, can be booked for a special family gathering.
Other nice perks at Sandpearl include free bike rentals, s’mores fire pits, outdoor yoga (for an extra fee) and free use of public transportation with the hotel room card key. There is also shuttle access to the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium, an operating sea animal hospital, rescue and rehabilitation facility that gained international attention through the Dolphin Tale movies starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and rescue dolphins Winter and Hope.
While educational signage and guides can be found at most big city aquariums, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium delivers an impactful, behind-the-scenes experience sure to provoke questions and conversations about how animals are impacted by global warming, commercial fishing and other environmental issues.