This entire stretch of coast is one long beach, but because hotels, condominiums, and private homes occupy much of it, you may want to sun and swim at one of the public parks. The best are described below, but there's also the fine Pass-a-Grille Public Beach, on the southern end of St. Pete Beach, where you can watch the boats going in and out of Pass-a-Grille Channel and quench your thirst at the Hurricane restaurant. This and all other Pinellas County public beaches have metered parking lots, so bring a supply of quarters. There are public restrooms along the beach.
Sand Key Park, on the northern tip of Sand Key facing Clearwater Beach, sports a wide beach and gentle surf, and is relatively off the beaten path in this commercial area. It's a great place to go for a morning walk or jog. The park is open from 8am to dark and has restrooms. Admission is free, but the parking lot has meters. For more information, call tel. 727/464-3347.
Clearwater Public Beach (also known as Pier 60; www.pier60fishing.com) has beach volleyball, watersports rentals, lifeguards, restrooms, showers, and concessions. The swimming is excellent, and there's a fishing pier with a bait-and-tackle shop, plus a children's playground and a legendary nightly sunset celebration that features local merchants, musicians, and artists. There's a 50¢ walk-on admission fee. Daily fishing fees are $8 for adults, $6.75 for seniors, and $5.25 for children 5 to 15. Rod rental is $8. There's metered parking in lots across the street from the Clearwater Beach Marina, a prime base for boating, cruises, and other water activities. A less crowded spot in Clearwater Beach is at the Gulf end of Bay Esplanade.
Caladesi Island State Park -- Occupying a 3 1/2-mile-long island north of Clearwater Beach, Caladesi Island State Park boasts one of Florida's top beaches -- a lovely, relatively secluded stretch with fine, soft sand edged in sea grass and palmettos. Dolphins often cavort in the waters offshore. In the park is a nature trail, where you might see rattlesnakes, raccoons, armadillos, or rabbits. A concession stand, a ranger station, and bathhouses (with restrooms and showers) are available. Caladesi Island is accessible only by ferry from Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area, which is connected by Causeway Boulevard (Fla. 586) to Dunedin, north of Clearwater. As for the name, well, the pioneers called it Hog Island, but in 1939 when a New York developer built 50 palm-thatched bungalows for honeymooners, its name was forever changed for the better.
You'll first have to pay the admission to Honeymoon Island: $8 per vehicle with two to eight occupants, $4 per single-occupant vehicle, $2 for a pedestrian or bicyclist. Beginning daily at 10am, the ferry (tel. 727/734-5263) departs Honeymoon Island every hour. Round-trip rides cost $10 for adults, $6 for kids ages 4 to 12.
Neither Caladesi nor Honeymoon allows camping, but pets are permitted in the inland and on South Beach (bring a leash and use it at all times). The two parks are open daily from 8am to sunset and are administered by Gulf Islands Geopark, 1 Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, FL 34698 (tel. 727/469-5918; www.floridastateparks.org/caladesiisland and www.floridastateparks.org/honeymoonisland).
Fort DeSoto Park -- South of St. Pete Beach at the very mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort DeSoto Park encompasses all of Mullet Key, set aside by Pinellas County as a 900-acre bird, animal, and plant sanctuary. Besides the stunning white-sugar sand, it is best known for a Spanish-American War-era fort, which has a museum that's open daily from 9am to 4pm. Other diversions include fishing from piers (7am-11pm), large playgrounds for kids, and 4 miles of trails winding through the park for in-line skaters, bicyclists, and joggers. Park rangers conduct nature and history tours, and you can rent canoes and kayaks to explore the winding mangrove channels along the island's bay side. The park has changing rooms and restrooms as well.
Sitting by itself on a heavily forested island, the park's campground is one of Florida's most picturesque (many sites are beside the bay). It's such great camping that the 233 tent and RV sites usually are sold out, especially on weekends, so it's best to reserve well in advance. But there are a few catches: You must appear in person no more than 30 days in advance at the campground office, at 631 Chestnut St. in Clearwater, or at 150 5th St. N. in downtown St. Petersburg. You must pay when you make your reservation, in cash or by traveler's check (no credit cards or personal checks). And you must reserve for at least 2 nights, but you can stay no more than 14 nights in any 30-day period. Sites cost $30 to $41. All sites have water and electricity hookups.
Entry to the park is free. It's open daily from 8am to dusk, although campers and persons fishing from the piers can stay later. To get here, take the Pinellas Bayway (50¢ toll) east from St. Pete Beach and follow Florida 679 (35¢ toll) and the signs south to the park. For more information, contact the park at 3500 Pinellas Bayway, Tierra Verde, FL 33715 (tel. 727/582-2267; www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_DeSoto.htm).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.