A PELICAN swoops towards the sea, brushing his yellow beak gracefully through the water. Dawn casts an orange-pink glow over the freshly churned sand.
It’s 7am and Clearwater beach is virtually empty, bar the birds and a few early risers who have come to stroll its three-mile stretch before the heat cranks up to a sizzling 33C.
These picture-perfect beaches overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where shallow waters are filled with wild dolphins, are exactly the reason I’d come to the western coast of Florida.
And as I watch the sky transform into a kaleidoscope of colours, I can’t help but feel sorry for the other holidaymakers who were on my flight, most of whom had headed for the whirling attractions of Disney World and Universal Studios, unaware of the talcum powder sands and turquoise waters of Tampa Bay.
From the balcony of my beach front bedroom at the Wyndham Grand Hotel, I can watch the sleepy sun set across the tree-lined paths of the peninsula and limitless ocean.
The entire hotel is surrounded by water — there’s the beach in front and sail boats docked in a calm bay behind.
And it’s not just holidaymakers that adore these waters either. Marine life flourishes here and you’d be hard pushed not to spot a dolphin or two out at sea.
For your best chance of catching the creatures in their natural habitat, book a boat tour — there’s plenty, all within a three-minute walk.
Work of art
I sailed with Little Toot and it was barely five minutes into the trip when I caught my first glimpse of a two-week-old dolphin, swimming through the shallow bay next to its mother. It’s further out at sea where the real fun happens, though.
Speeding through the water, a pod of four chase behind us, leaping up from the boat’s wash then diving back into the ocean with a massive splash.
“They do this just for fun,” our tour guide laughs.
People erupt into cheers with each acrobatic leap and twist — which seems to encourage the dolphins, clicking away merrily.
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If you’re keen to learn more about the animals that live in these waters, just up the road from Clearwater beach is the Marine Aquarium — a rehabilitation centre, where you can get up close with turtles, look at sharks and even stroke a stingray.
Wildlife isn’t the only benefit of being in a spot that’s enveloped by water either.
Most of the restaurants in Clearwater take full advantage of the plethora of crabs and seafood (especially Grouper, a meaty white fish) that swim on their doorstep.
Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill at the northern tip of the beach is THE place for hearty grub with a menu of loaded crab fries and grouper nuggets.
Or there’s Marina Cantina, a Mexican joint with live music that serves the same fish, only served in floury tacos and drizzled with tequila-based sauces.
If you want to try seafood in its simplest form, though, be sure to visit Ocean Hai, part of the Wyndham Grand, and its sushi-style menu of crab California rolls and superbly fresh sashimi.
A family could easily spend weeks flopping from hotel, to sunbed, to seafood restaurant and back again, but Clearwater is only part of what makes this area of Tampa so special.
About 20 miles south of here lies St Petersburg, Florida’s very own Brighton — a beach town with a thriving art culture that injects character and soul into every shop, cafe and hotel in the area.
Huge street-art murals embellish the walls of buildings, and hovering above a new £90million city pier is a net sculpture inspired by sea barnacles.
Even if art isn’t your thing, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of the paintings, the majority of which are modern and bright enough to liven up even the industrial-sized dustbins in the side alleyways.
The easiest (and certainly most fun) way to soak up the downtown region is on a St Pete Biking Tour — it provides the bikes, helmets, a water bottle and a couple of pre-paid snack breaks, so guests just need to bring themselves and a camera (trust me, you’ll want one).
You don’t need to be a skilled cyclist or especially fit to ride as the route is mainly off-road with stops every few minutes to admire the paintings.
With my mum, an art enthusiast, and a charming family from southern Alabama in tow, I pedalled through parks and graffitied alleyways following our guide Doug, who looked like a work of art himself with magnificent green hair, impressively coiffed into a mohawk.
Aside from the wacky artwork, it’s a really great way to get your bearings on the town, cycling past the baseball stadium and quirky bars.
And if it’s drinks you’re after, you’ll feel spoilt for choice. Those after a fancy tipple should head to sky-high Pier Teaki at the very edge of the pier, where fringed grass umbrellas shelter tables.
When you’re peckish, head downstairs to Teak that does a great caesar salad with blackened shrimp.
Or swing by Trophy Fish for live music as you tuck into sharing baskets of “fresh catch nuggets” and creamy hush puppies — doughy balls made with cornmeal, buttermilk and jalapenos.
If you haven’t yet had enough of the art, you can get even more from Fairgrounds, an interactive and playful museum with workshops, or the Salvador Dali museum.
Of course if you do want some tanning time, there’s plenty of sand to the east of here at St Pete’s beach.
That’s where all the main hotels sit too, including the freshly done up Saint Hotel at the northern tip of the beach which has a Mexican-style restaurant.
For something special, book a private beach set up from The Cabana Club — they will lay out an umbrella or cabana on any area of the beach with deck chairs, towels, a speaker, cool box, sun tan lotion and a bin for rubbish.
Or if you’re after a pool, you can buy day passes (from £20) to the entirely candyfloss pink historic Don CeSar Hotel which gives you access to the beach, restaurants and sunbeds aplenty.
Just remember to bring your own SPF lotion so you don’t turn the same shade as the hotel.
GETTING THERE: British Airways flies daily from Gatwick to Tampa with fares from £396 return. See ba.com/tampa.
STAYING THERE: Rooms at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach start from £303 a night.
OUT & ABOUT: Tickets to Clearwater Marine Aquarium cost from £30 per adult and £22.40 per child.
See cmaquarium.org. Little Toot dolphin tours cost from £21 per adult and £14.76 per child.
MORE INFO: Visitstpeteclearwater.com.
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