(USA TODAY) CLEARWATER BEACH, Florida -- The first night Carol and Nick Stroumtsos arrived on this barrier island resort, fleeing a sullen New Jersey winter, they couldn't avoid a comparison.
As they gazed toward the Gulf of Mexico across a shoreline that stretched a football field wide, "that sand was so white, it looked just like snow," Carol recalls.
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A week later, the retirees are back in the land of slush and mittens. But they're still dreaming of Clearwater Beach, which beat out nine other nominees from Florida-based coastal expert Stephen Leatherman, aka "Dr. Beach," to win a USA TODAY online reader survey as "Florida's best beach town." Among the visitor bureau's get-out-the-vote tactics: Trailing a banner from a chartered plane on a sunny, 80-degree January afternoon.
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As Dr. Beach is quick to point out, there are plenty of other cushiony soft, blindingly white strands along the Sunshine State's west coast.
And yes, Clearwater Beach's packed assortment of glitzy high-rises, T-shirt emporiums and mom-and-pop motels can seem more like a traffic-clogged tourist stop than a real community. This is especially true at this time of year, when springbreakers rub sunburned shoulders with young families and baseball "phanatics." (The Philadelphia Phillies train at Clearwater's Bright House Field, about a 20-minute drive east via the soaring Clearwater Memorial Causeway and Gulf to Bay Boulevard, home of the original Hooters restaurant.)
But last week, as they danced to Mustang Sally and boardwalk musician Owen Poteat serenaded another Technicolor sunset at the nightly Pier 60 celebration, the Stroumtsoses insisted they couldn't imagine a better Florida escape.
"You can find anything you'd want within a 10-mile radius," Carol says. "But you can also park your car once and never leave."
Laura Bly, USA TODAY