A Year of Cabin Fever: Taking the Time to Appreciate the Best Beaches in America

Where We’ve Been

I’m sure I don’t need to be the person to point out to you how much life has changed over the last year.

COVID-19 has spread to every corner of the globe, effecting billions of lives while doing so. But, for the sake of this blog and the messages I want to illustrate, I think touching on what COVID-19 has effected will serve as an solid introduction into the ideas this blog will carry. At the point of this writing, the New York Times reports a total of 117 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, with almost 2.6 million lives lost as a result of the disease.

Combating this spread and subsequent loss of life resulted in the halting of what we all viewed as a “normal” life. Anything and everything from schools, restaurants, and small businesses were forced to close. Zoom calls replaced social events. Apps like UberEats, DoorDash, and GrubHub became the buffets for our appetites. This was all necessary, and as a society we made this sacrifice to help save those we loved.

But, this didn’t mean the transition was easy.

For some, the spread of COVID-19 meant the loss of jobs, opportunities, or even loved ones. As Congress gets ready to send out a third stimulus check, the economic impact is evident. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and the stock market crashed as stay-at-home orders were issued around the world. COVID-19 left no stone unturned.

In saying all of this, I don’t hope to remind you of all the negative we’ve been through. Instead, I want to tell you a story of contrast and change, all wrapped up into a pseudo-travel guide. I want to show you how I created a positive out of a negative, and how a mindset of youthful discovery led me to develop a deeper appreciation for my hometown.

My Story Coming Home

After that somber intro, let me lighten the mood and tell you more about myself so the story I hope to share will make a little more sense. My name is Austin, and I’m currently a junior at the University of Florida. I was born and raised in Clearwater, Florida (a town just west of Tampa). As you’d probably expect of someone from Florida, I don’t like the cold, love getting sunburnt, and wear flip flops almost everywhere I go.

Outside of school, I’m a huge sports fan. Whether playing or watching, I’m interested in almost any game you can imagine. If you’re reading this on Yoair travel blog, you’d probably guess I’m a big fan of travel, too.

If you guessed that, then you would be correct. From childhood Disney trips with my family to wandering the streets of Eastern Europe, getting up and going has always been something I love to do. I’ve never really been a guy who likes to sit around inside and let the day pass him by.

Going into my sophomore year of college, I had big plans on how I wanted to spend the summer of 2020. As a community of fellow travelers, you all know what it’s like to get the itch for adventure. Sometimes it creeps into your mind as you scroll through Instagram, seeing friends post pictures from all over. Other times you’re at the movies, and the sweeping scenery sweeps you off your feet into your imagination. Or maybe Expedia sent you an email, and 30 minutes later you’re down the rabbit hole looking at plane tickets to California. Whatever causes this feeling, it had begun to take its effect on me.

So, I planned a trip.

With a solid nest of savings tucked away, I decided I was going to study abroad in Rome. What better adventure could there be for a young bachelor than to travel to the Eternal City? Rome contains millennia of history and culture within it’s city limits, and the state of Italy is one of the most culturally rich in all of Europe. I couldn’t wait to walk the same steps as Julius Caesar on my way to lunch by the Vatican. Having the chance to really immerse myself in Italy for 10 weeks was something that was powering me through the Spring semester.

The Roman Coliseum (Photo via vwalakte/iStock/Getty Images)

But, things changed pretty fast.

The first travel restrictions were put in place about a week after I was approved for the university-sponsored program. COVID had reached Italy, and it spread through the country’s older population like a wildfire. Students who were currently studying in Rome were immediately recalled, and our program was cancelled. The devastation I felt when receiving the news wasn’t built solely on fact that I would miss out on an awesome summer. It came from the understanding that Italy (and soon enough, the world) was hurting, and there was relatively little I could do to help.

Not long after, the US began to document cases on domestic soil. With a growing number of cases in Florida and the country, my school pivoted to complete online learning, effectively closing our campus. So, I returned home, deflated about the future I had lost and confused about what my new future held.

In a way, this is where one story ends and another begins. The story I could’ve told about taking trainlines to Sicily and eating pasta until I got sick takes the back seat for a while, and I really hope that one day I get to tell it. But for now, the story I have to share with you is one based on being stuck at home. Hopefully you’ll see by the end of this that being stuck at home wasn’t a bad thing.

In fact, catching a little cabin fever was a great thing to happen to me.

But, before I get too far into the story I want to share, let me tell you about where I live!

A View of Florida

If you’ve never heard of Clearwater, don’t worry. Although we’ve gained some recent fame in the last few years (which I’ll discuss below), let me start by talking about a city you’ve probably heard of: Tampa.

Home to the reigning Super Bowl and Stanley Cup champions, Tampa has become the embodiment of Florida. Unlike port cities such as New York or Boston, Tampa (and the state of Florida) played little relevance in the first few acts of our Union. In fact, Florida didn’t receive it’s statehood until 1845. Now, Florida has become the country’s third largest state, and Tampa has become the state’s third largest city. Tampa (and much of Florida) has accomplished this by blending the scenery of paradise with a growing corporate landscape.

The first American settlers reached Tampa in 1824, around 300 years after Ponce De Leon had first sailed through portions of what is known today as Tampa Bay. Seeing it’s use as an effective way to reach the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa became a valuable asset to the US Army during the Spanish-American War. This utility is still evident today, with MacDill Air Force Base (located just outside the main city) serving as one of the most important Air Force bases in America.

Beyond the history, Tampa has become a great place to visit. If you ever catch yourself in Tampa, there are a few things you have to do.

The first is go to a sports game. You may think I’m biased when I say this because, like I mentioned earlier, I’m a huge sports fan. That’s entirely correct. Raymond James Stadium (home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is just a few miles away from the Amalie Arena (home to the Tampa Bay Lightning). Sports in Tampa are a mirror of the city: fast, exciting, and never more than 10 minutes away from the water. Raymond James Stadium is a personal favorite, with fake cannons ready to fire off proudly into the night after every Buccaneer’s scoring play.

Tampa also has access to some of the best beach spots in the area. If you aren’t familiar with the coastal landscape of midwestern Florida, let me elaborate on it so you can understand what the beaches of Tampa offer.

Map from https://www.123rf.com/photo_32312474_stock-vector-tampa-bay-area-map.html

As you know, Florida is a peninsula, meaning that it’s surrounded by water on a majority of its sides. What you might not know is that within Florida, Pinellas County (the county where I’m from) forms another peninsula within the state. With the Gulf of Mexico to the west and Tampa Bay to the east, Pinellas County’s geographic shape resembles a smaller Florida. Hillsborough County (the county where Tampa is) is located on the other side of Tampa Bay from Pinellas County. So, most of the best beach spots in Tampa have the same great feel of many areas by the Gulf. Warm water, a cool breeze, and relatively calm wake.

Due to the fact Tampa borders the Tampa Bay, nearly any spot on the western coast of the city limits will lead you to sandy shores and salty water. Some destinations that stand out are Cypress Point Park, or if you want to bring a certain four-legged friend along, the Picnic Island Beach Dog Park closer to the southern tip of the city.

Beyond the beaches and sports, Tampa’s culture has become something that’s really developed over the course of my lifetime. While not having the pedigree and history of a Los Angeles or New York, Tampa’s recent growth into becoming a major city in the southeast has allowed for the flourishing of culture to develop alongside the city’s changing demographics.

Armature Works is a great embodiment of this idea. Originally a massive warehouse for trolley cars built back in the 1900’s, the building was renovated to become a cultural hub of the city. Restaurants, event halls, and even a food market are housed in the space once dedicated to trolleys. The cities history is found in the restaurants offered in the facility, with Hispanic inspired tastes (such as Empamamas) blending with real American cuisine (served at my favorite place, Butcher and Barbeque).

Now that I’ve discussed a city you’re probably familiar with, let me transition to the place where my story takes place: Clearwater.

Welcome to Clearwater

Referring to the description (and map) I gave above, Clearwater is found just on the other side of the Bay from Tampa. Located in the heart of Pinellas County, Clearwater is known for a few things that you might recognize. Let me hit you with some quick facts about my home to see if they jog your memory:

  • Clearwater is the spring training home to the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition to this, it’s the home to notable celebrities and athletes such as Tom Cruise, Hulk Hogan, and Tom Brady. Pretty cool.
  • Clearwater made it to the big screen twice in the last decade, serving as the setting of Dolphin Tale and it’s sequel. The movie is about Winter, the dolphin famous to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium because of her incredible rescue story and healing process. Caught in a crab net at a young age, Winter lost her tail just after she was rescued by the CMA. The movie (and real life story) follows the process of Winter adapting to a custom made prosthetic that gave her the chance at life. If you want to see her for yourself, here’s a live cam of Winter that runs 24/7.
  • Clearwater Beach is considered one of the best beaches in America. As a matter of fact, TripAdvisor ranked it as the number one beach in America back in 2018.

If none of these ring a bell and you’re still unsure what Clearwater is, I’m more than happy to yell you about it.

Originally named Clear Water Harbor by the Native Americans who described the former springs that led into the Bay, Clearwater was incorporated in 1915. Relatively uninhabitable without a means of mass transportation, Clearwater’s population began to grow in the early 1910s with the increased development of the town’s infrastructure, specifically railroad tracks. Now, Clearwater is a bustling town connected to great parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

If you asked, I’d probably say that Clearwater is most well known for it’s popular beaches, specifically Clearwater Beach. But, the distinction between Clearwater Beach and a beach a little further south (such as Saint Pete Beach, which was ranked as TripAdvisor’s number one beach in 2020) is a little fuzzy. Outside of the municipal government that monitors the town that the beach access is in, there isn’t too big of a difference between a Clearwater and St. Pete Beach. Part of this reason is because of one of my favorite things from my hometown: Gulf Boulevard.

Map from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_State_Road_699#/map/0

Gulf Boulevard is the road that connects all of the Pinellas County barrier islands, or the sections of Pinellas County that have the most direct access to the beach. All of these beaches connect directly to the Gulf of Mexico. Following the road from north to south, you’ll pass along the 15-mile stretch of beaches that Pinellas County is known for.

Clearwater Beach is at the northern tip of Gulf Boulevard, and part of the reason it’s so heralded is due to the unique city developing approach taken by the Clearwater Municipal government during the recent decades. Unlike most beaches, Clearwater Beach makes a concentrated effort to prevent massive hotels from constructing directly on the entrance to the beach. As a result, walking along the beach allows you to not only have a clear site of the water, but also back to the two-lane road of Gulf Boulevard, which acts as the buffer between the mega-hotels in the area and the beach access. With a fun bike trail and walking path constructed along Gulf Boulevard, Clearwater’s tactical approach to designing the growing area of Clearwater Beach has allowed it to keep the charm it had decades ago, while simultaneously fostering the business and tourism of large hotels.

Going further south leads you through Belleair, Indian Rocks, and Redington Beach. Each town offers unique cuisine and beach access spots along Gulf Boulevard, especially for those tourists who want to get a real Florida beach experience without going to a heavy tourist area.

My personal favorite beach (even though it’s not technically in my hometown of Clearwater) is Madeira Beach. “Mad Beach”, or just “Madeira” as us locals call it, is a spot that is removed from the heavy tourism areas of north Gulf Boulevard. Located at just about the halfway point of the drive, Madeira is my place to go if I ever want to get away.

It’s also the place where I feel like my story of cabin fever starts. So, let me finally talk about what I learned this last summer.

Permanent Staycation

I can’t remember the specific moment when my attitude shifted over the summer, but I can tell you what I got from that moment. Dealing with the stress of a suddenly virtual school and disappointment of a summer trip to Rome cancelled, my first few weeks back at home were a bit of a struggle. Readjusting to the fact that I was doing hours of homework in my childhood bedroom while the rest of my family completed their daily tasks just outside my door was a tough transition.

Once classes finally ended and I suddenly had a vacuum of time to fill, I thought my stress would fly away.

But, it didn’t.

Instead of worrying about Zoom calls and online assignments, my worry shifted to how I was going to spend the next three months of my life. I had gone through the early parts of 2020 knowing my summer would be taken care of, that I would have no worries outside of traveling, and that I’d use and appreciate every moment of my 10 weeks abroad.

Without the promise of Rome, I suddenly needed to find something to preoccupy my time– close to 100 days worth of it. Stuck at home, I turned to my only option: becoming a tourist in my hometown.

Madeira Beach was my go to place for enjoying time by myself. The beach is a great escape from the chaos of real life. The sun dries out any stress you have, and the universe blends into the shore when night falls. I noticed this last detail one day when I stayed at the beach a little later than normal. It’s amazing to see the sun set, but if you stay a little longer, the darkness of night puts on quite the show itself.

A picture of a footprint in the sand I took on Madeira Beach

I’ve always equated the beach with the bright, burning sunlight of the day. One to pack up my things once the sun goes down, I never appreciated the beach for the other 12 unlit hours of the day. Almost like a coin, the beach contains two images of itself that often aren’t ever shown simultaneously. While the sand and water remain constant, a chilly breeze cools down the warm air and the nights temperature show a changing of the guard. The stars pixelate the sky overhead as they break through the last few retreating clouds of the day. If you give it enough time, planets like Mars and Venus stick out like sore thumbs, and the Big Dipper looks as if it wants to dip into the sea.

Going to the beach to watch the moon and the stars became a new way for me to appreciate my favorite spot on Madeira Beach. Even though I had been to my favorite spot on the beach dozens of times in the last few years, I had completely missed all it had to offer. Understanding that the stars couldn’t have been the only thing that I had missed in my hometown, I began searching for new ways to view the landmarks I had known for 20 years.

Biking became one of the lenses that allowed me to see my hometown from a new perspective. If you ever travel to Clearwater, I highly recommend exploring what the town has to offer on a bike. It will be hot and laborious, but it will be well worth it. Over the course of the summer, I tried and experimented with different routes and paths to various settings I knew incredibly well in my area. Taking a ride around the perimeter of a park instead of cutting straight through and other similar approaches gave me an adventure every time I rode my bike.

My favorite ride of the summer is one that you need to try, even if you won’t be able to recreate it perfectly. I called it my Bay to Gulf ride, where I would go from my house (a few minutes away from the Tampa Bay) to the Gulf of Mexico (i.e. Clearwater Beach). The ride would take about 2-3 hours depending on my pace, and overall it spanned 17 miles. Like I described above, Clearwater Beach is designed to separate the mega-hotels from the actual shoreline. So, when you’re biking through Clearwater Beach, you’re biking a foot or two away from the sand.

Another activity that became a near addiction for my friends and I was golf. Golf, unlike many other sports that were shut down or suspended during the summer, is a relatively isolated game. Outside of sharing a cart with a partner, there is a great deal of grass between you and the next guy.

Belleair Country Club – West Course Hole #6 (Photo by Rob Harris)

Golf in Florida is amazing. A benefit of being the Sunshine State and having no snow is the fact that golf is a year-round sport. Pinellas County is home to an absurd amount of courses, too. Belleair Country Club (a place I ended up working at later in the summer) is the oldest golf course in the state of Florida. Belleair was first constructed next to the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel in 1897. Even though most other courses in the area don’t date back 124 years, they still offer a level of great play. Some of my favorites in the area are Clearwater Country Club (founded in 1920), Bardmoor Golf Club, and the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club (owned by the famous golfer of the same namesake).

With new approaches to the same places I’d been my entire life, I fell into a fun routine of golfing, biking, and beaching. Nearly every store and restaurant in my local area was closed for two months, so I was forced to use these new ideas to fill in the time I would’ve spent living my “normal” life.

Instead of going to a party or meeting a big group at a restaurant, my friends and I enjoyed time outdoors while riding in our sanitized golf carts. We putted and chipped instead of going to movies or playing video games. We biked to unofficial, outdoor HQ’s and tried random things that the town offered (like frisbee golf). I wandered through the parks I had known of but never explored, and the days felt longer and more engaging as I distanced myself from what I thought I knew. A slight detour on a bike ride one day lead me to a small graveyard by my house, and in it I found tombs of the original settlers of my area (with graves dating back to the late-1700’s).

As time began to pass and some non-essential places began to reopen, I worked to integrate my new hobbies with what I had already known. It was great to eat outdoors at my favorite restaurants and shop safe at my favorite stores again, but I didn’t let this familiarity dilute what I had grown over the previous two months.

I continued doing the new things I found that I loved to do, and in doing so I made the place I called home feel new. Without realizing it, I had taken so many tokens and landscapes in my area for granted. COVID offered (or forced) me the chance to go home and realize what I had and learn about what I had forgotten. In a way, being stuck at home felt like I was living abroad without having to go anywhere. With a creative mindset, I was able to find a new way to appreciate my home by discovering the new. It was no Rome, but being home wasn’t bad at all.

As I wrap up my story, I encourage you to try to find new ways to view your home. Maybe you had a story just like mine, and my discovery is a secret that you and I both now share. Or maybe you didn’t, and there’s a spark of curiosity going through your thoughts as you read this last paragraph. Whichever it may be, I encourage you to find your “beach” at home. Take a chair, or if you like the feeling of sand, a towel. Sit down, relax, and ask yourself:

What good can some cabin fever do for me?

Sources

https://www.myclearwater.com/news-info/about-us/history

https://www.tampa.gov/info/tampa-history

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