Once the sun reaches the Gulf of Mexico’s horizon, there is only a minute before it slips away for the night;, just one minute to watch it sink and disappear into a pool of color.
We are set up for this display with cocktails on the 12th floor of the Opal Sands Resort in Florida’s Clearwater Beach, standing on the patio of the palatial presidential suite, a group of travel and food writers following as the golden globe drops farther down the sky until the moment when at last it reaches the shimmery water. Then our cameras and phones click quickly to capture the cascade of color.
The next night we are on a schooner and the captain stops the boat so we can all watch the orange and lavender sky show. “I see a lot of dolphins and sunsets,” he says. “I never get tired of them.”
No doubt. With its mesmerizing sunsets, sugar-like sand and pelican fly-bys, it is impossible to tire of the natural world at Clearwater Beach. As the days get shorter and the thermometer settles into its winter disposition, Florida’s call becomes harder to ignore, too.
Of course, I answer it.
Clearwater Beach sits on a sliver-sized barrier island, just west of Clearwater. There are more families and it has less of the perpetual-spring-break feel of St. Pete Beach. Walking along its famous sugar sand to Pier 60, snippets of Spanish and Russian can be heard, along with the refrain from “Sweet Home Alabama.” The life guard stands are pastel, the two-seated beach cabanas bright blue barnacles.
The happiness is contagious: One man is belly down on a sand bar, cupping the gulf waters as they lap around him. The gulf is like nature’s original wave pool. Rhythmic and gentle, its white caps are barely a fringe compared to the Atlantic’s frothy and often churlish tides. And there are wood storks, serious-looking brown wood storks, and white pelicans, both of which turn out to be very good neighbors.
Opened in 2016, the Opal Sands is a modern and sleek crescent moon, with its rounded side facing the gulf so that each of the 230 rooms has a water view. The décor is meant to evoke the natural environment, and it does. The room where I stay has sand-colored walls, a pair of aqua-upholstered chairs dotted with a white coral pattern and marine-inspired artwork. The soothing effect is maintained throughout the property, as if the whole resort is just daring you not to answer a work email.
Along that line, there are bikes, old-school-with-a-basket bikes that can only be stopped with a quick back pedal, but which are perfect for tooling around the beach walk. I take one early one morning and sight see, spinning an easy five miles and all of them with a view.
Later I have an appointment at the resort’s spa. Workers are trimming the palm trees on Clearwater Beach on this day, so there is an ever-present mechanical buzz, but it’s a soft, inconsequential buzz from the spa’s wicker-like patio pod where I stretch out and ignore everything but the blue sky peeking through the slats. I am not a short woman, so my feet overhang into the sun. This is quite all right.
Inside, I get the spa’s signature treatment, which includes a dry brushing, followed by a scrub made with Italian volcano ash (tToday, at least, the argument thate everything is better in Italy cannot be swayed), and a deep tissue massage with both hot towels to soothe and hot rocks to ease sore muscles. Spa treatment ends with a glass of champagne; I am relaxed and rejuvenated.
A quick ride to nearby St. Petersburg brings us to Morean Art Center’s Hot Shop. Inside, it has the industrial feel of a car repair shop, except there are portable metal bleachers where tourists and others can wait for their turn to spin glass treasures. Our teacher, Matt Piepenbrok, wears a protective sleeve on his right arm and another on his left wrist. Tucked into his man bun is a clear glass hair pin with a glint of blue, an accessory he made himself.
On this day, we are making pumpkins, body first and stem second. Piepenbrok speeds through the instructions for our class; this is all right, though, for it becomes obvious what we are to do and when.
There is something satisfying about spinning a rod of molten glass into the bright bits that eventually color it. The glass globes are heated twice in the kiln, then spun and molded, and eventually released into a burlap-filled bowl with a quick smack of the smaller rod against the larger one. This, too, is strangely cathartic. Much about this process is, really. The six of us take turns rolling the glass, then dropping it into the mold, thwacking the rod with the smaller one until we have made one pumpkin for each of us.
The day of art continues with a trip to The Dalí Museum. The exhibit, “Dalí & Schiaparelli: In Daring Fashion,” highlights Salvador Dalí’s creative partnership with designer Elsa Schiaparelli and runs through Jan. 14. It offers a great number of photos of the two 20th cCentury creatives, as well as jewelry pieces, pocketbooks, Vogue covers and Schiaperelli’s “Twelve Rules for Women.” Of particular note is the lobster dress the duo designed for Wallis Simpson. If you miss this exhibit, a new one about Duchamp’s collaborations with Dalí opens Feb. 10.
Also noteworthy are the black and white photos of the artist with his wife and muse, Gala, which are part of the permanent collection. These 1960s-era snapshots are worth seeing for how evocative they are of the way they evoke their time, plus the behind-the-scenes (although sometimes curated) look they provide into the life of the Spanish artist. Fashionistas will appreciate the bohemian vibe Gala brought to Gidget-style cropped pants and her pompadour hairstyle.
Fish tacos are enjoying a moment, aren’t they? So frequently paired are they with “on the menu,” you might be tempted to skip over them at the Sand Bar, the Opal Sands’ beachside eatery. That would be a mistake. The grouper are fresh from the gulf and more flavorful than the trendy tacos on a Baltimore menu.
Upstairs and inside the resort is the Sea-Guini, whose name is a play on the seafood and Italian dishes the restaurant offers. Above the entrance is a color-changing metal sculpture of a fish (lLook closely — its scales are patterned after the shapes of local marine life.) and inside is a color-changing bubble wall. With its decor and menu, this is a big night out restaurant that doesn’t disappoint. I had the yellow snapper, a substitute that day for the hogfish on the menu, which was not fresh enough for the chef’s liking. The Mer Soleil Chardonnay was buttery and perfect, but the restaurant also offers a kiwi margarita worth trying and an Old Fashioned that draws all eyes for its smoke factor. Save room for dessert, in particular the custard-filled zeppoles, which are great for sharing, or the orange blossom cappuccino, which comes with a chocolate dipped biscotti and a sugar stick.
Other notable locals include Bobby’s Bistro & Wine Bar in Clearwater Beach, which has a three-foot long, double-sided wine menu, a good selection of pizzas and key lime pie made on site, so you can check that off your “while in Florida” list.
Salty’s Island Bar & Grille has an excellent selection of smoothies and Bustelo’s Cuban coffee, which is so much better than Starbucks, plus a range of breakfast favorites. We also tried the Apalachicola oysters at The Oyster Bar in St. Petersburg, another sea treasure worth trying.
In short, you won’t go hungry and the photos in your social media feed will look like your own personal Feast of the Seven Fishes.
I never can leave Florida without imagining my next trip back. It’s always the right mix of glitz and beach for me, with a little dash of the arts. My getaway to Opal Sands was no exception. Its vibe of relaxed luxury makes it the perfect place for a weekend getaway and one I would love to get back to soon.