A pelican hurtles out to sea, sweeping its yellow beak gracefully through the water. Dawn casts an orange-pink glow on the freshly beaten sand.
It’s 7 a.m. and Clearwater Beach is virtually empty except for the birds and a few early risers who have come to stroll its three miles before the heat reaches a sizzling 33C.
Those picture-perfect beaches overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where the shallow waters are filled with wild dolphins, are exactly why I came to Florida’s West Coast.
And as I watch the sky transform into a kaleidoscope of colors, I can’t help but feel sorry for the other vacationers who were on my flight, most of whom had headed for the whirlwind attractions of Disney World and Universal. Studios overlooking the talcum powder sands and turquoise waters of Tampa Bay.
From the balcony of my beach-facing room at the Wyndham Grand Hotel, I can watch the sleeping sun set over the tree-lined paths of the peninsula and the boundless ocean.
The entire hotel is surrounded by water — there’s the beach in front and sailboats moored in a calm bay behind.
And it’s not just vacationers who love these waters. Marine life thrives here and you would be hard pressed not to spot a dolphin or two at sea.
For the best chance of catching the creatures in their natural habitat, book a boat trip – there are plenty, all within a three-minute walk.
Work of art
I sailed with Little Toot and it was just five minutes into the trip when I first spotted a two-week-old dolphin, swimming in the shallow bay next to its mother. It’s farther out to sea that the real fun happens, however.
Speeding through the water, a group of four chase after us, jumping off the boat’s wave and then plunging into the ocean with a massive splash.
“They just do it for fun,” laughs our guide.
People erupt into cheers with every acrobatic leap and twist – which seems to encourage the dolphins to click happily.
If you want to learn more about the animals that live in these waters, just up the road from Clearwater Beach is the Marine Aquarium – a rehabilitation center, where you can get up close to turtles, watch sharks and even stroke a stingray.
Wildlife isn’t the only benefit of being somewhere surrounded by water, either.
Most restaurants in Clearwater take full advantage of the plethora of crabs and seafood (especially grouper, a meaty white fish) swimming at their doorstep.
Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill at the northern tip of the beach is THE hearty dining spot with a menu of loaded crab fries and grouper nuggets.
Or there’s Marina Cantina, a Mexican joint with live music that serves up the same fish, only served in floury tacos and drizzled with tequila-based sauces.
If you want to try seafood in its simplest form, be sure to visit Ocean Hai, part of the Wyndham Grand, and its sushi-style menu of California crab rolls and superbly fresh sashimi.
A family could easily spend weeks moving from hotel to tanning bed to seafood restaurant and back again, but Clearwater is just part of what makes this area of Tampa so special. .
About 20 miles south of here is St Petersburg, Brighton, Florida, a seaside town with a thriving arts culture that injects character and soul into every shop, cafe, and hotel in the area.
Huge street art murals adorn building walls, and hovering above a £90million new 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 brighten up even the industrial-sized bins in the side lanes.
The easiest (and certainly the most fun) way to soak up the downtown area is on a St Pete bike tour – it provides the bikes, helmets, a bottle of water and a few breaks prepaid snacks, so guests just need to bring themselves and a camera (trust me, you’ll want one).
You don’t need to be an experienced cyclist or particularly adept at riding as the route is mostly off-road with stops every few minutes to admire the paintings.
Accompanied by my art-loving mother and a lovely family from southern Alabama, I cycled through parks and graffiti walkways following our guide Doug, who looked like a work of art himself. art with gorgeous green hair, impressively styled in a mohawk.
Aside from the wacky artwork, it’s a great way to get your bearings in the city, passing the baseball stadium and quirky bars.
And if you’re looking for drinks, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Those looking for a fancy drink should head to the towering Pier Teaki, right at the edge of the pier, where fringed umbrellas shelter tables.
When you’re feeling peckish, head down to Teak, which does an excellent Caesar salad with blackened shrimp.
Or drop by Trophy Fish to listen to live music while sharing baskets of “fresh nuggets” and creamy hush puppies – mushy balls made with cornmeal, buttermilk and jalapenos.
If you can’t get enough of art yet, head to Fairgrounds, an interactive and fun museum with workshops, or the Salvador Dali Museum.
Of course, if you want to sunbathe, there’s plenty of sand east of here at St Pete’s Beach.
This is also where all the main hotels are located, including the freshly renovated Saint Hotel at the northern end of the beach which has a Mexican-style restaurant.
For something special, book a private beach set up by The Cabana Club – they’ll have an umbrella or cabana on any area of the beach with lounge chairs, towels, speaker, cooler, sunscreen and a trash can.
Or if you’re after a pool, you can buy day passes (from £20) to the historic Don CeSar Hotel, all cotton candy pink, which gives you access to the beach, restaurants and deckchairs in abundance.
Don’t forget to bring your own SPF lotion so you don’t get the same shade as the hotel.
GETTING THERE : British Airways offers daily flights 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.
See wyndhamhotels.com. Rooms at the Saint Hotel, St. Pete start from £166 a night. See thesainthotel.com.
OUTSIDE & SURROUNDINGS: Clearwater Marine Aquarium tickets 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.
See littletoot.us. Entrance to the Fairgrounds museum costs from £22.44. See fairgrounds.art.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit stpeteclearwater.com.