How to Plan a St. Petersburg & Clearwater Family Road Trip from South Florida

I recently wrote about our “good ol’ fashioned family road trip” to St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach, Florida in my column on Road trips are officially back in high fashion thanks to this lingering pandemic! One area of Florida we hadn’t hit as a family yet? Tampa Bay’s gulf coast area—specifically Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg (St. Pete to the locals). I was excited to visit a section of the state I hadn’t explored yet during spring break. On our long weekend St. Pete and Clearwater family road trip itinerary? Pirates, dolphins, a little Dali and some hands-on discovery of Florida’s gulf coast!

Read on to start planning your own family road trip…

Clearwater family road trip

How to Plan a St. Petersburg/Clearwater Family Road Trip from South Florida

How to Get There

It’s relatively easy. Pack up the family car and head north on Florida’s Turnpike! Then take SR-60 west, connect with I-4 to Tampa and then drive I-275 South. It’s not exactly a short drive (4.5 hours from Boca), but worth it. Alternatively you could take I-75 west across the state and then north to the Tampa Bay area.

Where to Stay

Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club

Before heading out, we had some homework to complete–well, at least the parents did. We were urged to watch the movie Dolphin Tale before embarking on our road trip because our family was invited to stay at Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club in Clearwater Beach.

Clearwater family road trip

Winter is quite famous! Years ago, her tail was caught in a crab trap stranding her on the beach, and she was 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!).

So, Winter’s Beach Club was imagined and 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!

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Clearwater family road trip
Winter’s Prosthetic Tale on display

Many of the rooms have a balcony or small patio that overlook a stunning pool, pool bar and small, private beach with amazing views right outside.

What to Do

Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA)

Just down the street from the Beach Club is the actual home of Winter and her friends: Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It sure has changed from the movies! While the original CMA hospital still stands, visiting is now a whole new experience with five times the guest space and a 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 HUGE.

Clearwater family road trip
Original CMA Marine Hospital (as seen in Dolphin Tale)
Clearwater family road trip
Ruth & J.O. Stone Dolphin Complex

Not only can you view Winter in real life, you’ll also be able to check out 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.

Clearwater family road trip
Winter the Dolphin!
Clearwater family road trip
One of the underwater viewing areas. The biggest!

Clearwater family road trip

Clearwater family road trip
Us with Hope!

And if you want a craft beer, wine or specialty coffee—go for it! CMA just opened a beautiful new café complete with a top chef and indoor/outdoor seating areas. The gift shop was pretty impressive as well.

Clearwater family road trip
Grab your souvenir photos!
Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise

If you have a hankering to see some dolphins in the actual wild, then be sure to book a voyage on Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise! We were invited aboard for a 2-hour morning dolphin cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.

Clearwater family road trip

Clearwater family road trip

Did you know this area is home to the largest pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins? Along with trying to spot dolphins, there were complimentary alcoholic and soft drinks for the adults and fun themed activities for the kids. I remember taking this cruise in college a few times and it’s just as fun now as it was back then.

Clearwater family road trip

The Dali Museum

Just 45 minutes from Clearwater Beach, make sure St. Petersburg is on your family’s itinerary, so you don’t miss out on the famed Dali Museum.

It’s home to the largest collection of Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s works outside of Spain. My Maine hubby especially enjoyed the “Lobster Telephone”.

The museum’s mind-bending architecture itself is even a work of art, especially viewing it from the sculpture garden. It’s a stunner!

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In addition to the Dali’s massive permanent collection, running through June 13, 2021 is the spectacular experience: Van Gogh Alive.

It 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! It was an educational and inspiring experience for our whole family. I highly recommend it.

Great Explorations Children’s Museum

It was so  much fun to witness 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 Children’s Museum shuttered for awhile now, we were quite excited to see how others in Florida have been stimulating curiosity (and safely doing it) 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 hope a youth-oriented museum like this one comes back to our area soon!

The NEW St. Petersburg Pier

If only Boca had something like the St. Petersburg Pier–wow!!! FUN FACT: The St. Pete Pier was recently named the #2 new attraction in the country by USA Today.

Located on 26 acres of Tampa Bay waterfront, there’s something for everyone on the pier. From playgrounds to restaurants to open air bars and a pop-up market, we had a blast walking from one end to the other. There’s even a trolley if you happen to get tired!

Opened in July 2020 following a decade-long development, St. Pete Pier is an all-encompassing entertainment district. It truly has something for everyone. Don’t miss it!

Dining on the Gulf Coast

Now that we’re on the topic of food, I always love it when bloggers round up their favorite dining spots from a trip. These came highly recommended to us from Visit St. Pete Clearwater and we managed to hit quite a few!

  • Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill in Clearwater – did you know that St. Pete/Clearwater is the Grouper Capitol of the world? We indulged in quite the delicious fresh caught grouper sandwiches just feet from the white sands of Clearwater Beach. It’s a staple in town!
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Clearwater family road trip
Grouper sandwiches at Frenchy’s!

Clearwater family road trip

  • Taco Bus in Clearwater – this Mexican restaurant literally serves tacos…out of a bus! You can dine in, but we ordered food to go to eat at our hotel and it was absolutely delicious. Highly recommend!

Clearwater family road trip

  • Bodega in St. Pete – located in the bustling Edge District, this restaurant is extremely popular with the locals and was slammed on the Saturday that we visited. Bodega’s committment to fresh, made-to-order food is in every bite. Renowned for the Cuban sandwich (which is what I ordered), a relaxed ambiance and fresh juice bar (yum!), it’s a favorite!

Their famous Cuban sandwich
  • Sushi Sho Rexley in St. Pete – this restaurant deserves a blog post all on its own. It’s not exactly what I’d describe as a family restaurant, but it’s certainly a mecca for the fresh fish obsessed! We happily indulged in a 14 course tasting menu. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. If you want to splash out, make sure you make reservations WELL in advance as seatings quickly book up.

We explored, ate and enjoyed so much more of the gulf coast on this Clearwater family road trip. And I’m sure we only scratched the surface on this visit. We look forward to heading back again someday!

Clearwater family road trip

When will you take your own St. Pete/Clearwater family road trip family road trip? Comment below!

Sponsored: Modern Boca Mom was hosted by Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater for blog review purposes. All opinions expressed in this blog post are my own. They are not influenced in any way by the sponsor. Any statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with provider. Please refer to this site’s Disclosure for more information. I have been given exclusive experiences, meals and a complimentary resort stay, but that does not impact my views or opinions.

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