CLEARWATER to ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA – It started with a glorious sunrise. And ended with a party at the World Golf Hall of Fame. Not a bad way to spend a day in Florida.
If you’ve never had the chance, you should check out the Sheraton Sand Key Resort/Hotel in Clearwater Beach. The rooms are what’d you’d expect from a Sheraton, which means a decent sized room with a good TV and all that and a pretty small but perfectly adequate bathroom (the sink is just outside the room with the bath/shower and toilet). It’s the grounds and the beach that’ll keep you coming back, though.
The pool sits out back, alongside the white sand beach, with a couple hot tubs and a poolside bar and beautiful landscaping. The beach here is enormously wide, but you can get to the water in a couple minutes and do some people-watching along the way.
The Sheraton is on the north end of Sand Key, just over the bridge to Clearwater Beach proper. Which means it’s quiet but close to the shops, restaurants and activities of Clearwater Beach, including the aquarium/marine research center where you’ll find Winter the Dolphin, the dolphin who was found with a damaged tail and had a prosthetic tail built for it and was featured in a recent movie that did pretty well at the box office. They also have sea turtles and manta rays you can feed and touch, and it’s a great, educational spot for kids and adults both.
Dunedin is just over the bridge to the mainland and up the road a couple miles, so we went back for drinks and dinner. I highly recommend the margaritas at Casa Tina, a standby on Main St. in Dunedin with lots of Mexican dolls and photos and crazy stuff on the wall. Splurge and spend an extra buck for the top margarita on the menu, called a Tina Rita. I always find it’s better to spend a bit more on a margarita and get the better juice mix and better tequila.
For dinner it was The Living Room, on the far east end of Main St. It’s got a fun atmosphere, with orangey-red walls and a large room out back with drapes hanging off to one side and bookcases with books and old photos and mementoes. A tad eclectic in both style and menu, but the food was pretty good. We sampled Kobe beef sliders with brie and caramelized onions that were pretty good, and the shrimp on the jambalaya skewers were fat and perfectly cooked with peppers and onions. We also had sautéed green beans just to up the veggie quotient a bit.
The wait staff served us rather too quickly but the waitress was charming, so we didn’t mind. It’s mostly a sharing/large tapas style place, so you get a good variety for reasonable prices, and there’s a very good wine list. It was about 12 degrees Celsius at dinner time outside but one hardy group opted to eat al fresco while the rest of us stayed warm.
We made the drive up to St. Augustine in about four hours, stopping – of course – at the outlet mall in Orlando. Much to my surprise, I spotted a food/drinks cart outside one of the stores that sold not only juice and pop but also bottles of beer. A godsend for overshopped guys, no doubt. And God Bless America for selling beer openly off a food cart.
I’m at a convention called Florida Huddle from Thursday to Saturday, with tourism/travel reps from all over the Sunshine State and some 54 media from around the world. So that should be great. They had an opening reception Thursday night at the World Golf Hall of Fame, next to the Renaissance Hotel/Convention Center. As the Star’s former golf writer and golf magazine editor, I got quite the charge out of seeing things like the Claret Jug, given to the winner of the British Open each year (Sorry, THE OPEN, as they call it) and old photos of Bob Hope and Bobby Jones and crazy, old clubs and gutta percha golf balls and featherie golf balls, old-time balls fashioned from feathers and sewn up together. Light as, well, a feather, those balls were.
I didn’t have a lot of time to browse but I was happy to see the bust/likeness of legendary Canadian golfer Marlene Stewart Streit, inducted a few years back after a stellar amateur career in which she won dozens of titles, often beating women half her age.
Good stuff. Congrats, Marlene, for being the first Canadian inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
CANADIAN HOTELS HONOURED
Congrats to two new members of the Canadian Automobile Association’s prestigious five-diamond hotel group. The CAA on Wednesday announced that four Canadian properties were awarded five-diamond (like five-star) status for 2013; holdovers The Four Seasons Whistler and the Ritz Carlton Toronto and, now, the Shangri-La Vancouver and the new Ritz Carlton Montreal (see photo)
Pretty impressive that the Ritz has two of the four highest-rated properties. I haven’t got a final answer, but the Shangri-La in Toronto wasn’t rated for the 2013 awards, perhaps because it opened too late in the year (pretty much September). Ditto for the Four Seasons new hotel in Yorkville, which opened even later.
So perhaps next year we’ll get more five-diamond properties in Toronto.
I also feel compelled to note that the Trump International Hotel on Bay St. downtown failed to get the five-diamond status it had hoped for. I don’t much like the lobby but the spa looks tremendous and I hear good things from guests who’ve stayed.
I’d like another five-diamond property in Toronto, but I gotta say it doesn’t make me sad to see a blowhard like Trump fall short and have to settle for four diamonds instead of five. Better luck next year, Donald.
Not that I put much stock in it, but the CAA report surely indicates what a crock the recent Trip Advisor ratings were. As readers of this space may recall, I recently raised an eyebrow or two at how British Columbia hotels dominated the top 10 of the Trip Advisor ratings for Canadian hotels.
In the CAA report, they got two of the four five-diamond properties, but at least we got one in Quebec and one in Ontario. Which seems a little more logical to me.
SPEAKING OF RATINGS
Air Canada is the only international network carried in North America to get a four-star ranking from the U.K. research firm Skytrax.
The airline on Thursday said it was immensely chuffed at the award, calling it a “significant industry benchmark” that “reflects the professionalism and skll of Air Canada’s employees in taking care of our customers and delivering an award-winning product that continues to set industry standards.”
Jaunt.ca, a division of Torstar, has a couple of Avalon river cruises on special. The two for one Tulip Time river cruise goes through the Netherlands and runs for $1,725 plus $133 in taxes. There's also a two for one river cruise through Burgundy and Provence; both fabulously beautiful areas of France for $2,086 plus $133 in taxes.
Check both out at jaunt.ca or by clicking on the above links....