For the formerly frozen refugees of colder climates here for the Frozen Four, Tampa Bay's world-famous beaches may all look alike. But just as every snowflake (or starfish) is unique, the many beaches here have their own personalities and vibes.
For party time: Head to Clearwater Beach by way of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, State Road 60. Parking can be tricky at on-street spots and city parking lots along the beach strip, so many visitors opt to pay for the private garages and restaurant valets. There's a nightly sunset party at Pier 60 with weekends bringing free movies on the beach, and volleyball nets stretch over powdery sand. Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (7 Rockaway St.) is famous for its she-crab soup, and there's usually a party scene at Shephard's (619 S Gulfview Blvd.).
For relaxing: Check out the shelly strip of sand with the relaxed vibe and minimal-wave water at Pass-a-Grille, off the Pinellas Bayway exit from Interstate 275 (and hang a left at the big pink Loews Don CeSar Hotel). A snack shack serves breakfast and lunch and also offers public bathrooms and outdoor showers. The roof of the historic Hurricane (809 Gulf Way) is ideal for sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, and just a few blocks east on this skinny island you'll find the Merry Pier (801 Pass-a-Grille Way) facing the channel, where you can rent a fishing pole or a bicycle or take a boat excursion.
For nature: With sand as soft as baby powder, nature trails, kayak rentals and lots of places to drop your fishing line, Fort De Soto is deservedly on the Hall of Fame list of the country's best beaches. Parking is $5 per car. Bring the kids to the century-old Spanish-American War fort (3500 Pinellas Bayway S), where they can climb on a cannon or pretend they are behind bars in the brig.
For romance: Take a beautiful nighttime walk across the Dunedin Causeway bridge to Honeymoon Island State Park at the west end. The lights of Clearwater reflect on the water to make gorgeous views for the 2-mile stroll. Hand-holding is encouraged.
For sticking close to Tampa: Just because there isn't a gulf coastline in Hillsborough County doesn't mean there are no sandy spots. Gandy Beach along the Gandy Bridge is called the Redneck Riviera because of its well-earned reputation for parties. More nonbeach beaches in the Tampa area include Davis Islands Sea Plane Basin (864 Severn Ave.) and Ben T. Davis Beach (the Tampa side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway). If you don't mind driving past gritty industrial buildings at the south end of Commerce Street, you'll find a dog beach at Picnic Island Park, as well as a long swimming beach, fishing pier, playgrounds and picnic shelters.
Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writer