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Join the Fun

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002

From my perch by the tiki bar opposite the band/stage, I can see the guy on the anchored boat -- he's maybe 100 feet away, tops. So I hop down onto the sand and walk toward the water, curious to find out if I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing.

From my perch by the tiki bar opposite the band/stage, I can see the guy on the anchored boat -- he's maybe 100 feet away, tops. So I hop down onto the sand and walk toward the water, curious to find out if I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing.

Yep, he's got the funnel up, and he's chugging it down, letting it flow. Impressive. Haven't seen that since college -- not in person, at least. And though it's a warm, muggy afternoon, the man sucking on the funnel is not endeavoring to replace lost electrolytes with a sports drink.

Good for him, beer chugger. Now I've got to get back and reclaim my choice location for the bikini contest.

This is Clearwater Beach. Join the party, relax and have fun.

On this Sunday afternoon in May, the deck behind Shephard's, on the south end of Clearwater Beach, is prime partying real estate. Which is especially interesting because it's raining just about everywhere else in the Tampa Bay area, pouring in some spots, and has been since noon. Why are a couple of hundred people here?

Oh yeah, the bikini contest. And maybe habit -- a weekly Pavlovian urge to return to the scene of the fun and soak in the sun. Today the sun is having trouble breaking through; the fun, apparently, is a constant.

This is a place to wind up and unwind at the same time, threat of thunderstorm or not. It is a debauchery pit for, from the look of things, anyone from age 21 (ahem) to 50-plus. Not much clothing on many, skin all around, lots of drinking and people watching, some dancing. Hey, it's a beach bar. A big, big beach bar.

Dozens of anchored boats are resting along the shoreline. It is Florida weekend cool: load up the boat, take it to the party beach, park it and frolic the day away.

Christine and Paulette, work buddies from Good Time Charlie's in Tampa (the "fun and party" bar, they say, a cocktail lounge-cousin to Clearwater Beach, perhaps), came by land, not sea on this day. They are celebrating Christine's 37th birthday. They have been here before.

"It's a drinking beach," Christine says. "It's a meat market." They mingle on the edge of the water with a few people from a boat sitting a few yards offshore.

"I like to go to St. Pete Beach too," says Paulette, who lives in St. Petersburg. "But it's more to relax and watch the sunset. Here it's more to have fun. It's a drinking beach, and it's beautiful."

Clearwater Beach might not be the cover shoot in "Gorgeous Beaches of the World" magazine, but it has attractive elements. A few hundred yards to the south is the impressive span Clearwater Pass Bridge, and across the water are the high rises of Sand Key. Heading north, the beach itself expands and the sand is luscious. For a stretch in the middle, in the area surrounding the pier, Clearwater Beach morphs from party to family beach.

Make that a teeming family beach. The previous Saturday, on a vintage Florida spring-summer day, the area was claustrophobically crammed. Getting to and from Clearwater Beach on Memorial Causeway (one of just two outlets to the island) during crunch time can be aggravating, with congestion and traffic snarls.

But the family zone, unlike the party zone, is barren today due to the weather. And exploring the family zone is a mission for another time, anyway -- like, say, 15 years from now. Solo fun is the quest of the moment.

A few hundred yards farther to the north, on the other side of the causeway, the fun/party scene kicks back in at Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar and Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, dual sunset spots bookending a large parking lot. They're twin fun zones, pressed against a few hundred feet of soft sandy beach (with plenty of volleyball nets), leading out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Watch the sunset, eat seafood sandwiches and shellfish in the open air, imbibe a little. There's live music at both, softer sounds at Palm Pavilion.

It's a bit more low key than the Shephard's-area scene, but sheesh, it's dusk on a rainy day and still it's lively and packed. It feels like a place you might arrive at noon and not leave until midnight.

Which is apparently the game plan for Christine and Paulette. When I left them to do more exploring, I said I'd catch up with them later.

"Okay," Paulette said. "We'll probably be here until she turns 38."

Back by the tiki bars on the back deck at Shephard's, among the throng awaiting the bikini contest, are Craig and Courtney, childhood buddies originally from Kentucky who are on a getaway weekend. Clearwater Beach is almost as much destination locale as a hot spot for locals, with Northeasterners and Midwesterners mixed in with natives.

It feels like a massive holiday gathering at the rich neighbor's house, the one with the incredible back porch and back yard -- plus a band, sand and water. And bikinis. Just don't bring the kids -- or a significant other. As the saying goes, you don't bring sand to the beach.

Single 30-something dad Courtney flew in from Cincinnati. Craig lives in Evansville, Ind. Both are knocking down multiple cups of beer, the drink of choice. Courtney's cousin told him this was the place to go. Craig concurs.

"This is what weekend's are for, drinking beer and watching people -- and watching NASCAR," Craig says.

No argument from Courtney.

Finally, eventually, the bikini contest begins. There is no shortage of contestants. No inhibitions. The crowd seems to be enjoying it.

But not quite everyone. As the show winds down and the play-by-play announcer, for lack of a better term, tries to build the drama toward the announcement of the winner, two women from New Orleans ask if there's somewhere else around here they could go. They're spending the night in Clearwater Beach after having been to Miami for a few days, then they're driving back home tomorrow. By "somewhere else to go" they seem to imply "somewhere else a little more classy."

New Orleans, Miami, Clearwater Beach -- sounds like they've got the wrong itinerary.

But Clearwater Beach is not all hedonism, for sure. There's some down-the-shore coziness, soft sand, sights, delectable seafood restaurants ...

By the time I can think of somewhere else for them to go, they're gone. Wherever they went, they weren't having as much fun as everyone they left behind.

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