Winding down the last week of our free “rent-back” period, I found myself reflecting on the 550+ days spent in limbo as an unemployed house husband. Recapping, an untimely layoff about an eternity ago (actually 11/1/2013), forced Diane and I into a decision on whether we should simply retire earlier than planned or keep trudging through jobs and commutes we both hated. Having already researched the MM2H Visa requirements for residency we bit the bullet and began a long 17 month period where Diane continued to work and I basically waited until April 15th, 2015. Using the time wisely, I got much healthier and invested her paychecks wisely, albeit a bit more conservatively.
Possibly the hardest part of the last 18 months, not having an upcoming vacation to look forward to grated on me like chalk on a blackboard. Having always used our time off on “Expat Destination Research Vacations” to places like Ecuador, Thailand and Borneo, I jumped at the chance to join Diane when an opportunity arose to attend a nursing conference in scenic Clearwater Beach, Florida. Knowing we’d probably not be using American based airlines very often once we become residents of Southeast Asia, we cashed in the last of the Delta Airlines frequent flier miles and headed to the lesser known side of Florida. Surprisingly clean, quiet and beautiful on weekday mornings, we visited in early spring before the torrid heat, humidity and thunder showers arrived making for a perfect little mini getaway. Naturally, I laid on the beach while Diane suffered inside all day but we did take an extra weekend day to enjoy some quality time together. Staying at the only large property in town, I’m sharing one last domestic travel post about our hotel experience at The Hyatt Clearwater Beach Resort.
Clearwater Beach is a beautiful white sand beach town that’s relatively squeaky clean and make no mistake: This property is the marquee hotel in the town. I tried really hard to give it five stars and the staff is all wonderfully friendly and helpful. Having said that, in the interest of fairness to the Inter Continentals of the world, there are a few things that fall short of earning five stars or being the star player in a field of many hotels. Since I’d rather focus on the positives, I will list the blemishes later.
Standing out as the largest building in the touristy area, the large pink stucco monstrosity jumps out at you. Interestingly, there are no “bay view” rooms; Located on floors 2 through 6, the lower floors all face the ocean. All the other rooms on floors 7 through 17 face the 8th story pool area. Modeled in “T shaped” scheme, these suites face the pool area and look out to the ocean past the pool. Differing from “garden-view” rooms, they all face the pool area directly, have nice sized balconies and at least a partial ocean view, offering a nice touch. Facing the street is the multi-level parking garage so all guest rooms point towards the action.
Set apart from the main lobby floor with the conference rooms, restaurant and beach access, the small check-in area is accessible from the secondary street facing the bay. Offering an interesting touch, the entire floor consists of two small kiosks where they check you in and a concierge desk. Check-in was fast and seamless although a bit strange since the area’s ambiance is not visible as your first impression. Noting one area in need of improvement, there are only two small elevators that take you to floors 7 through 17 and there’s a long wait during peak times. Never using overpriced hotel spas, I can’t comment on the services but it’s on the 8th floor for those who enjoy being pampered. I did, however, work out at the gym with an entire men’s softball team in town for a tournament and felt good as I held my own against a bunch of well built athletes young enough to be my son.
Featuring a large spacious hallway, the main lobby area is on the second floor and provides access to the main street parallel to the white sand beach. Serving Starbucks coffee starting at 6 AM, there’s also a small bar area, an overpriced restaurant and a host of conference rooms where Diane spent most of her time. During my stay, the staff member that served my coffee was attentive, friendly and even gave me my last cup free. Positive emphasis needs to be added to the staff and their attitudes. Knowing the US hotel industry is a sad victim of the new economy, even five-star hotels often hire people with minimal English skills who hate their jobs. Unlike many hotels we’ve patronized, everyone from the maids to the managers was helpful and friendly.
Conveniently placed right in the heart of the picturesque beach, the hotel lobby flanks the small main street. Offering umbrellas and small chaises for the ungodly price of $25, the city makes a killing because once late May arrives, the heat and humidity make it difficult to tolerate a beach day without one. Running about two miles long, the beach is considerably crowded every day but still feels very unobtrusive at least compared to the cacophony of noise you hear on California beaches. Bringing mostly young people and tourists, the three weekdays I visited were quite peaceful but don’t be deceived. Like a Penn and Teller magic act, the weekend transforms into a celebration of diversity with every imaginable ethnic group flocking to the beach and overwhelming the tourists. Although quite different, I found it both interesting and fun.
Within walking distance of the hotel is the town’s center, Pier 60, easily reachable by public pathway or a stroll on the beautiful white sand beach. Attracting vendors and buskers in the evening, you can also fish but it costs $1 to enter the end of the pier; Finding that fee kind of ridiculous, they told me it helps pay for a recent $8 million renovation of the area. Also close by are many fishing boats offering day trips. We took a sunset cruise on Kai-Lani, a catamaran that was pleasant but not very exciting as far as the limited staff went. Shopping for souvenirs and beachwear is a breeze at one of the inappropriately named “Surf Style” stores including the largest one right outside the hotel lobby. (The franchises are found in 3 states on the Gulf of Mexico; For those unfamiliar, you can only surf in an ocean since the gulf can’t produce waves except perhaps during a hurricane).
Seafood is the star of the show in The Gulf of Mexico. Compared to overpriced California, the multitude of family themed “pub-style” restaurants serving a cornucopia of fresh seafood at very reasonable prices is awesome. Although the hotel does have a very nice looking restaurant, it’s too expensive. Patronizing four different establishments with similar menus, all the food was delicious and within easy walking distance. Granted, $40 to $45 is expensive by Malaysian standards but relative to West Coast seafood that never tastes like it was just caught, the value for the money was refreshingly inexpensive.
Intriguingly different from Bay Area style, the seafood portions were light on the unnecessary carbohydrates like fries and instead emphasized enormous portions of freshly caught fish. Priced under $20, portions of mahi-mahi, snapper and grouper (the local favorite) are filling and satisfying. Claiming to have the best grouper anywhere in the USA, each restaurant tantalizes you into ordering it according to a custom-made recipe but to me it all tastes the same and I don’t find it very flavorful. Instead, scallop dishes that come with more than three on a plate brought back memories of childhood visits to the New England coastline. Here’s a quick summary of some restaurants worth trying.
1) Frenchy’s: On the main street across from the beach; We had fish chowder, grouper, fish tacos and fried clams, all delicious.
2) Cooters: Off the main strip: Unusually big mahi-mahi sandwiches; fried alligator bites (tasted like tougher dark chicken meat) and large seafood platters.
3) Crabby Bills: Right next to the tourist boats; Large choice of oysters served many ways; All the seafood is good
4) Jimmy’s Fish House: In the back of the Holiday Inn Express, but the patio is right on the water with beautiful views. A tad pricier than the others but well worth it. Enjoyed mahi-mahi again and it came with salad, delicious bread and two sides. They also have a seafood bucket filled with shellfish. Go early and sit right by the waterside. Spoiled by the tourists, a pelican they call George often comes up to the table to eat almost anything a pelican can swallow.
Unfortunately for retired old farts from the Reagan generation, there are a lot of young people who like to party since it is a beach resort. While the town tried hard to keep excessive rowdiness to a minimum, I wanted to share on our experience for the benefit of anyone not interested in pounding down shots of Jaegarmeister until last call. While college crowds don’t usually congregate at Hyatt Resorts, there’s inevitably an occasional group that pools their funds and decides to have the Frat House Night at the hotel. Ending our trip on the first night of Memorial Day weekend, we ran into typical stupidity as some group of college dudes decided to play bowling with furniture directly above our floor.
Understanding hotel management can’t knock on everyone’s door, the noise level was so ridiculous that any sane manager would either break this up RIGHT AWAY or call the police. Sadly, it took three phone calls and a visit downstairs to the college-age night manager to convince them that this was a party worthy of the police and that it that ruined our night’s sleep (we had to get up at 5 for a flight). Commenting how they “sent security to the floor above us and it’s quiet”, the bowling tournament went on for over two hours. Finally getting up for a personal visit to the night manager, I informed them I’d never pay for this night and tried to explain negligence means not dealing with unruly guests clearly destroying hotel property.
Finally, at 1:30 AM, they called me and said “they found the offending room” which should have taken about two minutes. Offering no apologies or offers to make it right, this sad situation demonstrates one difference between the USA and Asia, where the staff at the Kota Kinabalu Shangri-La bent over backwards when a group of unruly Australians pulled a similar stunt during our visit. Not considering a call to the police part of a standard weekend agenda, the incident didn’t tarnish necessarily the experience but it lowers the hotel standards far below five stars. Even party towns need to respect their paying guests by taking less than 2 1/2 hours to quiet an excessively loud situation.
Thinking nobody from this generation ever complains, I’ll keep this trip in mind and stick to off-season weekdays when we traverse popular vacation spots throughout Southeast Asia. Despite the noise issue, we do recommend Clearwater Beach if you’re looking for a beautiful beach area , albeit very touristy on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico side. For the cash we received on our house, we’d literally be able to buy three houses with cash and still have some left over but I think I’ll let Jeb Bush keep that state in favor of Penang. Filled with East Coast transplants, Florida can be noisy and brash and Diane is not a huge fan of New York accents or beach bums. Actually, I can do without them myself so bring on Southeast Asia.
Coming in less than one week:
Boxing the PC, wrapping up California and starting life as homeless Experimental Expats on their way to bother Canadian relatives for a while before hitting Asia.