The beach is a daytime destination. You pack up the kids and a cooler and camp out at Pass-a-Grille or Clearwater Beach until dinner. Or maybe you stick around through one of the impossibly picturesque sunsets. • But once the sun sinks into the shimmering horizon . . . then what? • Honestly, how often do most beachgoers hang around the coast after dark? • Well, this is spring break, people. Consider this your excuse to stick around Gulf Boulevard once the sun goes down. Let this be the week you go out for drinks, pizza, ice cream, even a little music by the seaside. Keep an eye out for James Franco, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, who are in town filming a movie called — you guessed it — Spring Breakers. • Because once the suntanning crowds evaporate, the fun can really get started. Times staff writers
Pier 60: going way past sunset
By day, Clearwater Beach is all tourists and greased-up college students in string bikinis baking in the sun. But what happens when everyone packs up and leaves?
At night, the beach transforms into a darkly romantic, peaceful place. It's breezy, void of oppressive heat, easier to navigate and find quiet mischief. The parking lot, with credit card pay stations that charge by the hour, empties out. Workers guard a giant bungee swing, waiting for stragglers to strap in for a $10 jump into the dark sky while Jimmy Buffett and Jack Johnson tracks play softly from the Pier 60 band shell.
You can travel the beach by walking along the secluded sand or hitting the sidewalk and stopping into the beach's cast of T-shirt shops, most of which have adopted a neon Jersey Shore vibe since the crazy guidos invaded the airspace.
Walking north, you'll see Surf Style, one of the bigger shirt shops with multiple locations along the beach. The doors are wide open, brimming with buy-two-get-one deals on hoodies, lifeguard bootie shorts and "I'M SEXY AND I KNOW IT" spring break 2012 T-shirts. At another Surf Style location just south of the Hyatt Aqualea Resort, you can spend $20 and climb into something called a FlowRider, a giant surf simulator.
The most jammed dinner location on the beach remains Frenchy's Rockaway Grill. On a weeknight, chances are better you'll get seated right away. Still, the patio is packed on a typical Wednesday, with a view to the deserted sand and volleyball nets where you can play while waiting for your She Crab soup or Super Grouper sandwich.
There's live music in the bar just about every night, from Jason Parker to the Mark Anthony Band to Dan Shipp. For a change of pace, head over to Frenchy's neighbor, the Palm Pavilion. They share a parking lot and a view. Or, just grab a bag of fast food and pull up a seat on the sand. At that hour, no one will pester you. Not even the seagulls.
Candy Kitchen: selling sweets by the seashore
At 8:30 on a recent Friday night, the line outside the Candy Kitchen stands 20 people deep. Cars from New York, Missouri and Ontario jam the parking lot. Veterans know better than to stand with the door open.
Only about a dozen people fit inside the pint-sized ice cream and candy shop along Gulf Boulevard in Madeira Beach. Admission is worth the wait and part of the experience.
Inside smells like sugar. Pop Rocks, fudge and classic soda bottles fill the place from floor to ceiling. People's signatures cover the walls.
Customers marvel at the massive Pez dispenser collection, the 24 flavors of Jelly Bellies and the 3-pound gummy worm. They wonder how in the world anyone eats (licks?) an XXXL jawbreaker. Diameter: 3 inches.
After a day in the hot sun, most people come for the ice cream, available in 29 flavors. The helpings are heaping, especially in the waffle cones.
The Candy Kitchen opened in 1950, serving homemade ice cream, fudge and nostalgic candies. It moved production off-site several years ago but continues to operate out of the same 600-square-foot building. More than a few people have called it a gingerbread house.
Check out the bathroom on the way out. Not surprisingly, it's a sugary feast for the eyes.
Pajano's: a slice of heaven
You can find pizza on just about every street corner in America. And yet for years, I've happily driven 20 miles out of my way whenever I've felt a craving for what I consider to be the most underrated — if not the out-and-out best — cheap pizza joint in Tampa Bay: Pajano's Pizza and Subs in Indian Rocks Beach.
The oldest eatery in Indian Rocks Beach (since 1971), Pajano's is a tiny place — only six tables after a recent facelift — with a claw game and one TV that's always tuned to the game of the night.
They call 'em pies here, and they serve 'em on cheap paper plates, the kind you eat from when you're too lazy to unload the dishwasher. It's spicy, it's greasy, and the just-crumbly-enough crust is sweet and spectacular. It gets cheese everywhere.
The location is part of the charm. Pizza just tastes so much better at the beach, doesn't it? Gulf Boulevard is dotted with cheap pizza joints, and everyone has their favorites — the Godfatherly Vito and Michael's in St. Pete Beach, Chicago-style deep-dishers Angelo's in Clearwater Beach, the modern Slyce in Indian Rocks Beach.
Pajano's is my pick. Pass the napkins.
Hours at Pajano's, 1305 Gulf Blvd., are 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Call (727) 595-8446 or visit pajanos.com.)
Loews Don CeSar Hotel: the Don comes alive
If you say you're planning a date night at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, a typical reaction might be: Oh-ho-ho, I know what that means, wink-wink . . .
But it's not like that, you see. For the past year or so, the Pink Palace has enlivened its upscale-nightlife atmosphere by redesigning its posh lobby, revamping its bar menu (we recommend the pricey but delightful Russian Steed) and adding live music.
Last year, the hotel quietly launched the Live from Loews music series, featuring intimate concerts by singer-songwriters right off the beach. The hotel is stepping up the series this summer, with the first show, by Gainesville singer-songwriter Chris McCarty, set for 7 p.m. Friday. A $25 ticket gets you two drinks and valet parking; a $45 VIP ticket includes four drinks plus a preshow meet and greet with drinks and appetizers.
Co-presented by Backline Music Group, the same local company that's bringing artists like Tonic and Sister Hazel to Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg this spring, the Live from Loews series can be a lovely way to while away the evening. At a preview party in February, guests chatted, networked and sipped elaborate custom cocktails as Ellis Paul played rustic, Celtic-tinged folk music beneath a sleek modern canopy near the pool.
Who knows? A couple of drinks, a little music, a moonlit stroll on the beach . . . maybe you'll want to get that room anyway.
Live from Loews lineup:
Here is the Don CeSar's music series so far. Prices vary by concert. For tickets and details, visit backlinemusicgroup.com.
• Friday: Chris McCarty
• April 14: Shawn Mullins
• May 26: Jason Reeves
• Sept. 29: Ellis Paul (with a family show Sept. 30)
Jolley Trolley: all aboard
There's something inherently fun about taking public transportation called the Jolley Trolley.
The red and yellow trolley runs up and down Clearwater Beach, stopping at every hot spot from the Brown Boxer to Shephard's Beach Resort. Use it at night to bar hop, go to dinner or soak up the sights. It's liberating not having to fight traffic or hunt for a parking space. Hop on, hop off whenever you want.
The trolley runs the entire stretch of Clearwater Beach, from the north end of Mandalay Avenue to Sand Key on the south, until midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 10 p.m. the rest of the week. It costs $2 per ride or $4.50 for a daily pass. Bring exact amount because the drivers don't make change or accept credit cards.
The name Jolley doesn't necessarily translate to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. There's no drinking on the trolley, although plenty of people ride drunk, especially during spring break. Get too rowdy, and the driver might kick you off. The driver also might dish about the area. Harry Connick Jr. supposedly rode the trolley while filming Dolphin Tale at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. He was a jolly good guy. Susan Thurston