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Best beaches? Now it's our turn

For those of us who know Florida, you know this time of year is quiet. The weather chills ever so slightly, making for perfect days at the beach. The tourists, affectionately referred to as snowbirds, aren't here yet, which makes for smaller crowds. The sun is less intense, giving us some reprieve. So the Tampa Bay Times sent out a few of our interns to explore some of Pinellas County's award-winning beaches, including Caladesi Island, Clearwater Beach, Fort de Soto and St. Pete Beach. They scoped out each and reported on what makes each of these places unique.

Clearwater Beach

This more touristy beach is one of the most popular and lively in the country. The white sand beaches run for about two-and-a-half miles, and Pier 60 becomes a hot spot to take in the sunset every evening.

PARKING: Various metered parking — ranging from $1.25 to $3 an hour — is available near the beach but can fill up quickly. Free on-street parking is available about a mile walk from the beach but can also be limited. The North Beach Parking Plaza may be the safest bet, with more than 400 parking spots and a close proximity to the beach. The Clearwater Ferry connects downtown Clearwater with the beach and departs hourly, taking about 15 minutes. The ferry costs $4 each way for adults and $2 for most children.

FAMILY FRIENDLY: Relatively. Plenty of people take their families to Clearwater, but it can be more rowdy than other beaches. Tourists come here to party and live it up in the many hotels.

RESTROOMS: There are restroom stops all along the white sand beaches with outdoor shower stations as well.

AMENITIES: The beaches are lined with blue umbrellas up and down that are available to rent for the day. There are plenty of food options within walking distance no matter which part of the beach you are on. Street vendors will line Pier 60, hawking various knick-knacks and souvenirs, closer to sunset.

FOOD: Standard beach fare close to the water and pier, but many restaurant choices a block or two from the beach.

ACTIVITIES: Near Pier 60, kids can enjoy various inflatable rides, such as slides and bounce houses. At sunset, the pier offers a wide range of vendors for those looking to shop, and there is no lack of places to get a drink later in the evening.

VIBE: Calling it a party beach may going too far, but Clearwater is an undeniably lively beach. Expect out-of-towners left and right to be enjoying the Sunshine State.

WHAT'S COOL: Watching a gorgeous Florida sunset from Pier 60 is an unforgettable experience and the perfect way to cap a beach day, or mark the transition to Clearwater Beach's bumping nightlife.

AWARDS

. No. 4 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2017 — TripAdvisor

. No. 1 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2016 — TripAdvisor

. No. 20 on World's Top 25 Beaches for 2016 — TripAdvisor

. No. 2 Best Florida Beach" — USA TODAY (2015)

. No. 8 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2015 – TripAdvisor

. No. 21 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2014 – TripAdvisor

. No. 18 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2013 – TripAdvisor

. Best Beach Town in Florida for 2013 – USA TODAY

. Best Place to Watch a Sunset – USA TODAY (2013)

. Best Beaches in the U.S. – Peter Greenberg (2013)

St. Pete Beach

Within the city of St. Pete Beach are actually a number of different beaches with different vibes. Much of the beachfront from the Pinellas Bayway north is lined with hotels and condo buildings, where activity is constant and peace and quiet rare. But at the southern end, there is a much different feeling at two of the most popular destinations in the city: Pass-a-Grille and Shell Key.

PARKING

PASS-A-GRILLE: There are hundreds of parking spots along Gulf Way, right next to the beach, metered at $1.25/hr. from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. After 8 p.m., they're free.

SHELL KEY: Shell Key can only be reached by boat. If you've got your own, you can motor down for free. If not, a round trip on the Shell Key Shuttle will cost $25 for adults and $12.50 for kids under 12. $3 car parking passes are available for shuttle customers.

FAMILY FRIENDLY

PASS-A-GRILLE: Pass-a-Grille is the archetypical family-friendly Florida beach. Along the 40 blocks of beach, there are folks who spend all day reading books under beach canopies, families who bring children to romp around in the water for a few hours and couples who hold weddings on the water.

SHELL KEY: is usually pretty quiet during the week, but on the weekends, boaters often motor to the island to hold parties.

RESTROOMS

PASS-A-GRILLE: There's a bathroom facility with showers and changing rooms on 10th Avenue across from the Hurricane Restaurant.

SHELL KEY: Most of Shell Key's land area is taken up by a nature preserve. That means no bathrooms.

AMENITIES

PASS-A-GRILLE: Canopy umbrellas and standard beach umbrellas are available for rental along the beach.

SHELL KEY: The Shuttle gives customers a beach umbrella, mask and snorkel. Other than that, you get what you bring.

FOOD

PASS-A-GRILLE: The standard hot dogs, sodas, chips and the like are available at the concession stand on the sand. For a less casual meal, there are seafood restaurants along the beach, which also offer parking for customers.

SHELL KEY: Food options are limited to whatever you've brought with you. There are no restaurants or concessions on the island.

ACTIVITIES

PASS-A-GRILLE: Beach Historical Museum, fishing expeditions, waverunning, parasailing, banana boating, kayaking, paddleboarding

SHELL KEY: Shelling, birding, snorkeling, sunset cruises, stargazing, fishing, camping (only with free permit)

VIBE

You can find just about any kind of vibe you're looking for somewhere on the city's beaches, from nightlife at the city's beachfront hotels to the solitude of Shell Key.

WHAT'S COOL

PASS-A-GRILLE: has the soft sands of Clearwater, but without the rowdy beach parties.

SHELL KEY: You can read a book in solitude on the beach (at least on weekdays). The key's physical separation from the mainland keeps it from getting crowded, noisy or polluted.

AWARDS

. No. 3 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2017" – TripAdvisor

. No. 4 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2016" - TripAdvisor

. No. 2 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2015" – TripAdvisor

. No. 9 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2014" – TripAdvisor

. One of America's Top 10 Best Beach Towns for 2013 – Parents magazine

. America's No. 1 Beach for 2012 – TripAdvisor

Caladesi Island

There's always plenty of room to lay down your towel and feel secluded and surrounded by nature. The long stretches of sand can be busier on the weekends, but nothing close to nearby Clearwater Beach. That's why the regulars prefer it.

It's also not an island, not during a low tide at least. It used to be separated from Clearwater Beach by Dunedin Pass, but the open channel no longer exists after Hurricane Elena in 1985 blocked it up. It's a long walk to brave the sandbar that connects the two beaches, but some say it's worth it.

The more standard ways to get to the beach are by private boat or ferry, which starts up at 10 a.m. every day. It's about a 20-minute ride with good company; those who run the ferries know all there is to know about the island.

TRANSPORTATION: To ride the ferry, it's $14 for adults, $7 for children, and free for those aged 5 and under. The boat leaves from Honeymoon Island, which can cost as low as $2 and as high as $8 to enter, depending on how many people you have with you and your mode of transportation. It's free to dock your boat.

FAMILY FRIENDLY: Yes. There's not a lot for them to do, it's just long stretches of beach, but on the island, there are other activities, like kayaking, paddleboarding and nature trails.

FOOD: There's one concession stand on the island, which sells a tuna melt and even veggie burgers. Also, beer. Corona, Bud, Bud Light and Michelob Ultra.

RESTROOMS: There's one cafe on the whole island, which is connected to restrooms and showers.

AMENITIES: Picnic tables, nature trails, beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, paddleboards, kayaks

VIBE: If you're looking to get away from muscle beaches and the hustle of busy days, Caladesi offers a peace of mind that's rare for top-ranked beaches. The feeling is one of seclusion. You can escape from mainland worries and find shelter in the beach's old-time Florida feel.

WHAT'S COOL: For the most part, you can only get there by boat so it makes it a bit more exclusive, which adds to the vibe of feeling like you're on your own island.

AWARDS

. No. 9 Beach in America – Dr. Beach (2016)

. No. 6 Best Beach in Florida – USA Today (2015)

. No. 11 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2014 – TripAdvisor

. No. 12 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2013 – TripAdvisor

. No. 1 Beach in America – Dr. Beach (2008)

Fort De Soto

The largest park in Pinellas County, Fort De Soto spans more than 1,100 acres on five interconnected islands that offer almost every kind of outdoor Florida activity. If you want to do it, you can probably do it here.

PARKING: $5 a day, massive lots throughout the park, grass parking available too.

FAMILY FRIENDLY: Very. All beaches and activities very accessible to kids and adults.

RESTROOMS: 10 throughout the park, near parking lots and concession stands.

AMENITIES: 238-site family camping area with camp store, showers, washer/dryers, grills, electricity, dog park and dog beach, ferry to Egmont Key, Quartermaster Museum, playgrounds, pier, historic Fort De Soto.

FOOD: Typical beach fare — hot dogs, burgers, ice cream, lemonade — available at concession stands in picnic shelters at North Beach and on Gulf and Bay Piers.

ACTIVITIES: Fishing, camping, walking, biking, canoeing/kayaking (rentals available), bird-watching, swimming

VIBE: Fort De Soto is relaxed and its expansive landscape makes it feel much less crowded than most Pinellas County beaches. The mangroves and sandbars make it feel like an island haven. It's a great choice if you want an escape, somewhere to relax, swim or explore.

WHAT'S COOL: There's a full dog park and dog beach. While many beaches in Pinellas County prohibit pooches, you're free to take your pup to Fort De Soto to run and romp in the surf.

AWARDS

. No. 8 Best Beach in Florida — USA TODAY (2015)

. Best Family Beach – USA TODAY (2014)

. No. 4 on America's Top 25 Beaches for 2013 – TripAdvisor

. No. 20 on World's Top 25 Beaches for 2013 – TripAdvisor

. Best Family Beach – Parents magazine (2011)

. "No. 1 Beach in America" – Dr. Beach (2005)

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