Usually when people think of food destinations in Florida, there’s Miami and…well, not much else comes to mind.

Of course it’s hard to be a culinary backwater anywhere these days, with ingredients from anywhere available nearly everywhere and well-trained chefs settling down where they want to live instead of where they have to live. A whole lot of people would rather live in sunny Florida than be frostbitten a good portion of the year, so the game keeps improving even in beach resort areas like Clearwater, Florida. And then there’s the abundant supply of fresh seafood.

wine tastingI spent the weekend in shorts and flip-flops at Clearwater Beach for the Uncorked Festival here, held under a big white tent on the white sand in front of the all-suite Hyatt Regency. The admission ticket got a wristband and wine glass and after that we were free to graze and sip at will.

This was a very popular event, with the food flying so fast it was hard to get a good photo, so the shots here are of the cake decorating demonstration and a sand castle really made from Rice Krispies treats and cake crumbs. It fit the surroundings.

But we ate well, with great ceviche from the Hyatt’s Shor restaurant, a killer pork on polenta dish from The Lobster Pot, and seafood pizza from Crabby’s. (The later sells beer coasters saying, “Don’t worry, be crabby.) My wife, who is more into raw fish than I am, dug the salmon tartar from Oystercatcher’s and the tuna tartar from Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant. That was just the start.

Along with all the food booths there were twice as many dispensing lots of uncorked bottles of wine. It was mostly a California affair, with some tried and true names like Ravenswood, Columbia Crest, Ste. Michelle, Stag’s Leap, and Coppola. Some other lesser-knows producers had a lot of interesting wines to try and an event like this is a great way to figure out what you really like. Or what you thought you didn’t like until you tried a really good one (dry Reisling and unoaked Chardonney always catch people by surprise it seems). The one I kept coming back to for reds was the Oak Ridge Winery, the oldest from Lodi, California. I had something great from their 3 Girls, Maggio, and OZV line.

There was also a separate spirits tasting room inside the Hyatt, where my companion sampled fruity cocktails and I sipped some things neat. I skipped the long Tito’s Vodka line and went for some good tequila from Blue Head and some really terrific Plantation rum from Barbados. That’s going on my shopping list.

 

After some lounging by the pool and changing clothes, we got a second wind after sunset to get out on the water. We walked a block to the Clearwater Marina for a night dinner cruise on the StarLite Majesty. This large ship moves around the intercoastal waterway between the mainland and the beach strip, past crazy mansions with private docks and past the twinkling lights of high-rise office buildings and condos. Inside there’s dinner and dancing, outside a terrace at the top for sea breezes. Yes it’s mid-November, but it’s still no-jacket weather in these parts.

The food was surprisingly good on the StarLite considering there’s a full menu with plenty of choices and everything is prepared in a kitchen the size of a guest bedroom in a house. If this sounds too formal though, Starlite Cruises also offers casual “booze cruise” boats that go out around sunset, dolphin viewing trips, and a sea life nature cruise. ¬†And of course you can always charter a fishing boat from the marina to go catch your own dinner or reel in a trophy photo big one. For all the options, see the Visit Clearwater website for links. (If it’s getting cold where you are and you want to transport yourself to a sunny beach, they have a live webcam as well.)

Related post: Dining Three Ways in Tallahassee

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Tim Leffel is author of five travel books, including Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price, on living abroad. He is editor of Perceptive Travel webzine and this blog. He splits his time between Guanajuato, Mexico and Tampa Bay. See his writing portfolio, awards, and links to his books at TimLeffel.com.