Where to stay in Clearwater? Check out new beach hotels

Uday Lele saw the potential of Clearwater Beach to become a major Florida destination more than two decades ago, when he first moved to the region.

So he invested in the area, developing several condo towers and building the DreamView Resort on the beach. Now, as Clearwater Beach enjoys a hotel and tourism boom, the entrepreneur’s Enchantment LLC will bring a much-lauded piece of the puzzle to the locale -- a five-star hotel, the first in the Tampa Bay area. 

Lele will raze the DreamView, located at 691 S. Gulfview Blvd., at the end of this year to build a 166-room JW Marriott hotel. He’ll also dedicate four floors of the hotel tower to the first JW Marriott Residences ever to be built in the United States. The $120 million-project will include two signature restaurants, two signature bars, a Zen garden, a pool and 20,000 square feet of open decking and terraces.

“It’s an iconic brand,” he says. “There’s nothing like it in a 100-mile radius. We’re looking to create a product that is unique and different for the marketplace.”

Buyers snatched up 11 of the 36 furnished, upscale residences within two weeks of their going on the market. 

“That was without any advertising, without any real push,” he says. One-, two- and three-bedroom residences are available, ranging from $550,000 to $1.3 million.
As Lele eyes retirement, he doesn’t consider the JW Marriott project his swan song. Instead, he says, it’s his gift to Clearwater Beach. 

“I’m not doing it for myself. It’s not about my legacy,” he says. “This is what the community needs. It’s for the community. Something like this will improve the quality of life and bring things to the next level here.”

A hotel renaissance

Clearwater Beach, with its amazing white sand, two nearby airports and proximity to Tampa and St. Petersburg, has always been a draw for family vacations. 

“But it was like a hidden secret,” Lele says. “I’d have people [staying at the DreamView] come up to me and say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about this place.’ They didn’t want it to be another Miami. They wanted it to be their own secret.”

But in recent years, developers and tourists have flocked to the beaches of Pinellas County after media outlets consistently rank the beaches high among the best in the world. 

In 2016, TripAdvisor named Clearwater Beach the No. 1 beach in America. This year, it fell a couple of notches, but still ranks high at number four. 

“People have finally woken up,” Lele says. “The media has realized what a beautiful beach it is. It’s also where families can get the biggest bang for their buck.”

Buoyed by record tourism in the past two years, developers have built a number of new hotels along Clearwater Beach, one after the other, with even more projects on the horizon.

The Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach, at 750,000 square feet the largest development ever built on that beach, opened its doors in January. The $175 million resort, located at 100 Coronado Dr. and built by philanthropist Kiran Patel features two 15-story towers with 450 rooms and 200 timeshare units as well as a 10,600-square-foot ballroom and convention center.

Business has been booming from the get-go, says Miguel Diaz, Wyndham’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “We opened essentially to 100 percent occupancy,” he says. “Then we went right into peak season in March and have enjoyed high occupancy ever since. It’s been a great opportunity so far.”

Other hotel projects completed this year include the 102-room Fairfield Inn (650 Bay Esplanade), and the upscale Edge Hotel (505 S. Gulfview Blvd.) with 155 rooms. Two major hotels on the beach will also enjoy a facelift. The nine-story Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa (400 Mandalay Ave.) recently underwent a $20 million refurbishment while renovations will begin on the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa (301 S. Gulfview Blvd.) later this year. Additionally, construction of a 134-room Courtyard by Marriott (443 East Shore Dr.) and a 234-room SpringHill Suites and Residence Inn (309 Coronado Dr.) is slated for completion by the end of 2017.

These follow several 2016 hotel projects, including the swanky, 15-story Opal Sands Resort (430 S. Gulfview Blvd.) that made headlines when it opened its doors, and Hampton Inn & Suites (635 S. Gulfview Blvd.) that brought another 91 mid-price rooms to the market.

Beach by Design

“The first thing you need to remember is this is no accident,” says David Downing, Executive Director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. “The city had a clear vision of how it wanted to reinvent Clearwater Beach. It didn’t just happen overnight and out of nowhere. The city recognized the potential of Clearwater Beach to be a major destination in Florida and to compete with many other areas.”

Tourism really took off in 2003, when the city adopted Beach by Design, a master redevelopment plan for Clearwater Beach, says Michael Delk, Planning and Development Director. 

“We looked at what kind of redevelopment we wanted in this district and that set the stage for where we are today,” he says.

One of the first things they did was move parking off the main drag, eventually building several parking garages, and creating Beach Walk. The promenade provides visitors better access to the beachfront and presents an environment ideal for new hotels, retailers and restaurants. 

“It created a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment,” Delk says.

Beach by Design also established density incentive pools for both high-end resorts and mid-range hotels to encourage new developments. This allows developers more units per acre to build along the beach if they meet certain criteria. The Sand Pearl and the Hyatt were the first two resorts built taking advantage of this pool, Delk says.

This was shortly followed by the mid-2000s housing boom, which brought more housing developments to the area, he says. But when the bubble burst and the economy failed, development of any kind stalled in Clearwater Beach. 

“There wasn’t much of anything going on,” he says.

Downing adds, “The recession put a damper on things.” 

But as the country eased out of the economic crisis, development picked up along the beach, and “one by one, a lot of the expected resorts came to us.” So the current hotel boom is “the natural evolution of this beach,” he says.

What’s next for Clearwater Beach?

Downing expects hotel developments to continue to transform Clearwater Beach. In addition to providing more options for visitors, these developments, many of them high-end, will also elevate the restaurant and retail offerings in the area. 

“Everything is coming together and bringing a new level of sophistication to Clearwater Beach,” he says.

Diaz agrees. Already he’s seen new dining options emerge. Not far from Wyndham, a brand-new Crabby Bill’s as well as Marina Cantina has opened. 

“They’re both very nice restaurants,” he says. “They’re certainly elevating the restaurant experience out here and I think you’re going to see more of that.”

The number of high-quality restaurants opening in the past five years has been “mind-blowing,” Downing adds. “There will be more. With the new hotels, visitors come in with expectations and other amenities need to be there to support it.”

While some worry that so many high-end resorts opening in Clearwater Beach will eventually push out other lodging options, Downing says he doesn’t see any need for concern. In addition to the resorts, he believes smaller “kitschy, mom and pop” motels won’t go anywhere and that “mid-range beachfront” hotels are still needed. 

“We’ve always attracted a wide variety of visitors and because of that we have to have a wide variety of accommodations,” he says.

If anything, says Delk, these smaller, older properties will see an increase in value, which will allow them to afford reinvestments and upgrade rooms.

“Development often means redevelopment,” he says. “I look at what’s happening on Clearwater Beach and I think the redevelopment spurred by Beach by Design has been extremely successful. The economy is doing great and hotels have really taken off. Whether they’re high-end resorts, traditional hotels or motels, the economy is pretty healthy. Options are more broad than they used to be.”

Read more articles by Tiffany Razzano.

Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.