I went out to Clearwater Beach the other day.
Just wanted you to know I survived.
Clearwater Beach has gotten a lot of lousy press lately. In letters to the editor and e-mails to city officials, people describe it as something like a war zone, with debris-filled lots, blocked streets, weedy sidewalks and vacant storefronts. There is no parking anywhere, they say. They lament the passing of the late, great Clearwater Beach.
I hadn't been out to the beach in a while, so with a sense of foreboding, I drove out there Thursday afternoon.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered there is still plenty to see and do on Clearwater Beach. I didn't even have to wear a hardhat or steel-toed boots.
Yeah, I know, you're going to tell me it is worse on weekends, that people circle endlessly looking for non-existent parking. If you are worried about that, go on a weekday instead, like I did, or try your weekend visit early in the morning or around sunset.
I waited until about 4 p.m. Thursday, because that's when I could get free and because late afternoons and evenings are my favorite time to go to the beach. Few experiences can beat a beautiful sunset on Clearwater Beach.
I drove over the Memorial Causeway Bridge - the low median edges, recently painted bright yellow by the state, stand out very nicely now - through the roundabout and turned north on Mandalay Avenue.
There were touristy types on the sidewalks, pushing baby strollers and licking ice cream cones, or just walking around in their swimsuits. Some of the storefronts on Mandalay were vacant, but plenty of beachwear shops and eateries were open. There is also new retail space under construction on Mandalay.
Except for a little road work in the vicinity of the Rockaway parking lot, all of Mandalay was open to traffic. There were lots of empty parking spaces in city lots and on the street.
Headed back toward the roundabout, I noticed Pier 60 Park was full of children and their parents - what a great area that has become for families - and the Pier 60 parking lot, which was overtaken a few weeks ago by construction equipment, was open for beach parking again and full.
Across the street from the park, the City Marina area was very busy. Crowds jammed the sidewalk, waiting for their sunset cruises to depart. In the area where private boats are docked, people were cleaning off their vessels after a day on the water.
Now I have to admit, the middle section of Clearwater Beach is a mess. From Pier 60 north a couple of blocks, S Gulfview Boulevard is closed to traffic, and crews are building Phase 2 of Beach Walk, the winding beach promenade that is replacing S Gulfview and its old beach parking lots.
The area that is under construction isn't pretty. There is chain-link fencing, warning signs, blowing dust and piles of dirt. The stores and motels in the area are still trying to do business, bless 'em, but it has to be a tough sell.
It is important to point out that only the middle part of the island - an area only a few blocks long - is virtually shut down by construction. Phase 1 of the Beach Walk project, which was the widening of Coronado Drive to three lanes, is mostly finished, so that street is available to carry all the traffic that might otherwise be on S Gulfview.
Access to the south beach is easy via Coronado, and south beach is in fine shape. The stores and restaurants are open, the motels are hosting summer vacationers, and the recent rains have made the landscaping lush. There isn't much parking on south beach for day visitors to the beach, but if you have a motel room or you are visiting stores or restaurants, they have their own parking.
One of the big problems on Clearwater Beach these days is that too few people are there. This isn't the busy season for tourists, and many of the locals have been scared off by horror stories about how construction has "ruined" the beach. Businesses are struggling mightily to survive. They need your help.
If you want to eat some seafood, if you want to swim in the gulf, if you want to buy a beach umbrella or a swimsuit, don't be afraid to go to Clearwater Beach. It is experiencing some growing pains, but the north and south ends of the island are swell. Just ignore that part in the middle. It, too, is going to be great someday.
Diane Steinle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4184.