This hot spot is proving to be much more than a destination for spring-training baseball.
Story by Jim Byers Vacay.ca Writer
DUNEDIN, FLORIDA — A beach consistently rated among the best in the United States. Florida’s oldest craft brewery. An adorable, walkable downtown. And drag queen bingo. There’s a reason folks refer to this town as “Delightfully Different Dunedin.”
And a million reasons it remains one of the top places in the state to visit. I was first introduced to Dunedin when I was covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Star in the early 1990s. The Jays still play their spring-training games in front of fervent fans at what used to be called Grant Field but is now known by the not-so-wonderful Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, naming rights for sports facilities being what they are. I quickly fell in love with so many things about the place, including the slow pace and friendly, small-town atmosphere in a spot close to Tampa and St. Petersburg.
I also adore the waterfront properties that line Victoria Street north of downtown. It’s a small, dirt road that winds past glorious homes with giant porches and long, wooden piers that jut out into the intra-coastal waterway between the mainland and Clearwater Beach/Caladesi Island (more on that in a minute). Every time I meander along the road I can’t help but think about what it would be like to finish my work for the day, then set up a chair under the shade of a deep green palm tree and watch the sun set over the waterway with a proper drink in my hand.
One of the great things about Dunedin is its walkability. If you’re staying in town, you’ll be a five-minute walk from the Main Street shops and restaurants and similar distance to the waterfront. There are tons of antique and home décor shops scattered along Main Street, which bends past a small park with a pergola/bandstand and is decorated with lovely flowers. Found is a beautiful home décor shop that’s been open less than a year, with unique furniture, soaps and other delights.
Other shops are great for picking up a colourful bathing suit, a Hawaiian shirt with enough parrots to get you into a Jimmy Buffett concert or a directional sign inspired by the Beach Boys’ hit “Kokomo” that points to Aruba and Jamaica as well as Bermuda and the Bahamas.
In the heart of downtown you’ll find Blur, where there’s a nice dance floor and reasonably priced drinks, as well as regular Drag Queen Bingo night. It’s the sort of place where folks from all over the U.S. and Canada drink beers and play bingo as numbers are called out by a bearded guy dressed in chiffon and perhaps sporting a tiara. All great fun, and completely harmless.
You’ll need a car to get there, but the north end of Dunedin has a road that will take you out over the intra-coastal waterway to Honeymoon Island, named after a real estate mogul from up north who enticed young couples to come south and live on the island as part of a publicity stunt. You can learn about the experiment at the display centre on the island (part of a state park with a small entrance fee) and also in town at the Dunedin Museum, just a couple steps off Main Street.
Honeymoon Island has nice nature trails and a series of magnificent, quiet beaches on the western end. The eastern section is busier, with cars parked on the sand and kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals and lessons. You’ll also find some pretty good fishing.
My favourite thing in the area is the small pontoon boat ride to nearby Caladesi Island, a quiet, white-sand beach that’s often named one of the top beaches in the country. You can walk there from Clearwater Beach at low tide but the boat is easier and less tricky. Once you’re on the island, grab a map that shows you the various points of interest along the walking trails, which meander through forests of palmettos and pine trees. Look for patterns in the sand to see if snakes or raccoons have been checking the area out, and be sure to watch for snowy white egrets or other birds. The path will ultimately take you to the south end of Caladesi lsland. But you also can walk over the dunes and reach the beach with a very short walk that avoids the nature trail.
Active sorts also will love the Pinellas Trail, which runs about 62 kilometres (39 miles) along an old rail corridor, linking St. Petersburg with the historic sponge fishing and Greek-American town of Tarpon Springs. It’s a quiet and mostly flat spot for biking or rollerblading, and it passes right through Dunedin. You’ll find cool miniature golf spots on Highway 19 in the Dunedin-Clearwater area, with pirates and towering dinosaurs and other fun bits. The Jays play in home games in Dunedin every spring, usually from late March until late April. Tickets are reasonable, and there are several spots to hang out before or after the game, including Bauser’s Bar.
WHERE TO STAY The Meranova Inn is a B&B that’s less than 20 steps from Main Street and features lovely rooms, pretty gardens and a small, protected swimming pool. The two owners are wonderful guys to chat with, and some units have porches where you can enjoy your morning coffee or evening drink. Highly recommended.
The Best Western Yacht Harbor Inn is a nice property overlooking the town’s small but pretty marina and the intra-coastal waterway. The rooms aren’t fancy but they’re just fine, and you’re a two- or three-minute walk from downtown shops and restaurants. There’s also a pool and a restaurant with a lovely outdoor patio overlooking the water and the pier.
Other options include a Holiday Inn Express, also right in town, and several other chains. Clearwater Beach is about a 15-minute drive away if you want to be on the beach. Try the Hyatt Regency Clearwater, with good food and fantastic, spacious suites. The Sand Pearl is another great bet, with lovely grounds, a huge pool, a pretty spa and a fire pit on the beach.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK: Dunedin Brewery has good food and a spacious, bright interior dining space. Great beers, too, including seasonal products. (Another Dunedin brewery, 7venth Son, also makes fine beers.) Casa Tina on Main Street is good for Mexican food, with a nice patio and a quirky, colourful interior. Kelly’s on Main Street has a quiet patio out back and good food at reasonable prices. The Living Room serves elegant food and often features live music. There’s a great patio out front. The Dunedin Smokehouse makes excellent ribs. It’s a bit outside of downtown, but Country Boy serves legendary breakfasts.