Tampa is perfect place to unwind
GAZING at the ocean from the white sands of Clearwater Beach, Florida, it's almost impossible to have a care in the world.
As we strolled along we saw a pod of dolphins leap playfully through the air, stingrays flap along near the shore and Hulk Hogan taking a dip with his wife - yep, the glorious Hulk himself.
My new husband had taken about as much magic as he could handle in Orlando, and we'd escaped to the stunning Sandpearl Resort for a week of bliss on the beach as our honeymoon drew to an end.
Only a two-hour drive from Mickey's hometown, the city of Clearwater feels like a world away from busy Orlando.
I was lucky enough to be taken here by my parents every year when I was growing up (partly thanks to a seven-year-old me charming the kids' entertainers at Holiday Inn and scoring great deals on the hotel).
Its incredible wildlife, relaxed atmosphere, great bars and restaurants and endless sunshine make Clearwater the perfect place to unwind and forget the stresses of real life.
Watching the sunset on that unbeatable beach while listening to an acoustic live performance of Brown Eyed Girl drift over the breeze from a nearby pool bar, you know you're in paradise.
We checked into our gulf front room at the impressive Sandpearl Resort and headed to the balcony with chocolate-covered strawberries and champagne in hand.
Staying here, you really feel like you've landed in the lap of luxury. The rooms are beautiful and couldn't have been designed to better suit the seaside setting - just be wary of valet charges as there?s no self-service car park.
If you can't relax here, then it's probably time to seek professional help - or a couple of Rum Runners from the bar.
But for those fed up of lying about in the sun, there's a great gym to use and a programme full of fun classes and excursions to dive into.
Having developed an addiction to Zumba with Mandy Knight at the Newport Centre in the run-up to our wedding, I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms after two weeks away from the wild dance classes.
So when I noticed early morning Zumba was on offer at Sandpearl, I wasted no time in booking my place.
I leapt out of bed the next morning ready for action. But a sense of horror quickly took hold as I realised I was the only hotel guest who had turned up to dance. Gulp.
I was greeted by experienced instructor Gabriella Carlton, who didn't let the poor turnout put a dampener on the class.
As we headed outside to Zumba next to the beach, gorgeous Gabriella looking super glam in full makeup and flattering, figure-hugging ensemble, and me looking super rough in awful green shorts and creased Cat in the Hat T-shirt, I thanked God I'd probably never see any of our spectators again.
But once overthe initial embarrassment wore off, I started dancing like a tribal maniac, looked out at the endless ocean and thought 'screw it, this is amazing'.
Gabriella was incredibly motivational, talented and great fun. After an hour of hardcore craziness in the hot morning sun, she still looked incredible. I on the other hand returned to the room with a face like a tomato, utterly dripping with sweat to be asked: 'What the hell happened to you?'
Fortunately, the Original Frenchy's Cafe was waiting for us a stone's throw away from the hotel - the best place to refuel after any physical exertion.
If you're lucky enough to be heading to Florida soon, I implore you not to miss out on this delicious institution. Try one of their famous grouper sandwiches, and you?ll understand why.
There's a brilliant, happy-go-lucky atmosphere at this fabulous eatery. It's proved so popular they've even set up a shop next door selling Frenchy's merchandise so diners can remember their mouth-watering visit forever (a reminder might be handy if you over-indulge on the cocktails).
Another must-eat lies a leisurely stroll away on Gulfview Boulevard.
Gondolier Italian Restaurant and Pizza has been a favourite of mine since I was a kid, and will keep returning at every possible opportunity until I die.
Despite this being a down-to-earth Italian joint, it?s the memory of their specialty Greek salad with gyro meat that I've never been able to shake.
Years had gone by since I'd been here, and I was thrilled to see the place still standing, and looking exactly how I remembered it.
After fantasising about that salad for so long, I worried it would be impossible for it to live up to my expectations. But I'd been silly to fret. It was as glorious as ever, and the bite of a massive, juicy jalapeno brought a bucket-load of childhood memories flooding back.
And I don't think it's just my nostalgia talking - my husband had never been there before and now he's just as hooked as I am.
We pigged out afterwards on one of Gondolier's decadent cakes from the display. Well, when in Rome...or Venice.
It was settled, the next (and last) day of the trip would be spent burning off those calories and walking along Clearwater Beach until we dropped.
Perhaps not the brainiest idea, as we didn't bother considering dehydration or sunstroke, we got up early and headed out.
For me, this was the perfect end to the perfect holiday ? but if you decide to venture in our footsteps remember to take a hat, plenty of water and sunscreen.
There is so much to see and the white, unspoiled sand continues for miles.
The usual, delightful suspects were on top form - pelicans swooped down for fish, pods of dolphins leapt through the air and our seashell and sand dollar collection became more beautiful by the minute.
As we strayed further away from the resort, the beachfront mansions got gradually more impressive. By this point we were starting to feel quite woozy and we weren't sure if wrestling legend Hulk Hogan was a mirage.
Nope, he was real. There he was in all his glory, sporting red shorts and a cowboy hat, just as you'd hoped he would.
Of course we waved, and nearly wet ourselves when he waved back.
Turns out the blonde blombshell loves Clearwater as much as I do and even has his own shop selling Hulk merch on the strip.
As the sun set on our last night away, it was hard not to cry.
But there's always next time, I can taste the Greek salad already.
Clearwater's top spots
- Sandpearl Resort, visit sandpearl.com
- Frenchy's Original Cafe, visit frenchysonline.com
- Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise, visit captmemo.com
- Gondolier's Italian Restaurant and Pizza, gondolierpizza.com
- Clearwater Marine Aquarium, visit seewinter.com
- Captain Bligh's Landing mini golf on Gulfview Boulevard (next to Gondolier's)
- The Brown Boxer Pub and Grille, visit thebrownboxer.com
- Shop Hulk Hogan, visit shophulkhogan.com
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