Florida Best Beaches
Bahia Honda State Park
The third-longest coral barrier reef in the world flanks the Florida Keys, and this relaxed beach park, 12 miles south of Marathon, is a prime spot to take advantage of it – the park concession runs snorkeling trips and rents gear and kayaks. Get a sneak preview by swimming among the tropical fish and soft corals close to the park's shore. Bird-watching, sunset gazing, and fishing are also popular activities from the narrow stretch of beach. Campsites and vacation cabins are available, making it an affordable base for a day trip to Key West, 45 minutes south. For a $2 donation, the on-site Sand and Sea Nature Center provides a children's activity book (junior ranger badge included!) about the area.
Caladesi Island State Park
Respected researcher Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach) named the tranquil white sands of Caladesi Island as North America's top beach in 2008. Positioned on an undeveloped barrier island one mile off Florida's west coast (near Clearwater), it's a nature lover's dream: Look for osprey, armadillos, and gopher tortoises on the nearby nature trail or along the 3-mile kayak route. Picnic tables and snack bar are available. A boat is required for access, but the Caladesi Connection ferry (727-734-5263) from Honeymoon Island is easy to use and makes frequent trips. Plan ahead; timed tickets only allow for stays on the island up to 4 hours at a time. The Dolphin Encounter's pricier morning trip is available from Clearwater to Caladesi and includes 3 hours on shore (727-442-7433).
This sun-drenched spot is as well known for surfing as it is for its 6 miles of Atlantic-facing beaches – world surf champion Kelly Slater hails from here and it's also the site of a massive 24-hour Ron Jon Surf Shop. Still, the waves aren't too overwhelming, making them good for long boarders (just beware that lifeguards are only on duty between Easter and Labor Day). It's possible to see a recently launched space shuttle from the beach, courtesy of nearby Cape Canaveral. For advanced surfers only: Drive about an hour south to Sebastian Inlet for the state's most-celebrated breaks. Some of the best surfing can be had at the stretch of beach that lies between South 13th and 16th streets.
Two miles of sand spilling into turquoise water and plenty of coconut palms make Crandon Park's beach a favorite of photographers seeking a Caribbean stand-in. The Key Biscayne sunbathing spot is also a top choice for families thanks to its low surf, ample picnic areas, easy parking, and amusement center, which has a bring-your-own-skates roller rink, splash fountain, and vintage carousel (the latter is open weekends only). Adjacent to the beach, you'll find the nature center, which offers ecotours, self-guided trails, and kayak rentals. Connoisseurs of sandy shores can double their pleasure on Key Biscayne with a stop at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, a beautiful natural setting with sea grass-covered dunes and a white, sandy stretch that is frequently ranked among the country's top beaches.
Fort De Soto Park
Making frequent appearances in guides to the country's top beaches, Fort De Soto boasts soft, white sand; calm, swimmable waters; and the frequent sight of dolphins frolicking offshore. An overstuffed amenities roster includes walking and canoe trails, camping, showers, picnic areas, fishing, and a fenced playground for dogs, but, as part of the largest park in the county system (1,136 acres are spread out across five interconnected islands), there's still ample room to spread out. Mullet Key is the site of the park's namesake fort remnants, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A 2.5-mile, car-free promenade lines the sands of this must-see beach, creating a family-friendly zone of shops and open-air cafes unlike anything else in the state. Bike and roller blade rentals keep the boardwalk humming, and the lifeguard-patrolled beach is good for swimming. Cultural festivals spring up on weekends throughout the year around the sand-side Hollywood Beach Theatre, which hosts free concerts. There's also a tot-friendly park with a mini climbing wall and splash fountain at Surf Road and Connecticut Street.
Lovers Key State Park
Once only accessible via boat, it was said that this remote barrier island beach was an escape for lovers. Although a boardwalk and tram now provide access to the 2-mile stretch of white sand, it's still a quiet place to stroll, sunbathe, picnic, and collect seashells. West Indian manatees, dolphins, marsh rabbits, and bald eagles are often spotted around its shores and mangrove forests. The park closes after allowing visitors to take in sunset, typically a spectacular sight.
Panama City Beach
With its 27-mile stretch of bright, sugary-white sand spilling into the emerald Gulf of Mexico and reputation as an affordable destination, Panama City Beach woos spring breakers and families alike. Locating sailing and fishing charters, parasailing, or jet ski rentals barely requires moving from the sand. At the east end of the beach, 1,260-acre St. Andrews State Park provides a natural diversion with good snorkeling, walking trails, and 1.5 miles of unspoiled sands on the Gulf and Grand Lagoon.
With its backdrop of sherbet-colored Art Deco architecture and popularity with the model set, the wide stretch of sand at Miami Beach's southern end is a giant piece of eye candy; and the abundant outdoor cafes alongside the beach make it easy to indulge all day. Whimsical, brightly painted lifeguard stands dot the beach, as postcard-worthy as the international mix of sunbathers. At 12th Street, a well-toned gay crowd sets up camp near the volleyball courts. For picnic tables and views of the cruise ships heading in and out of port, head to South Pointe Park, the beach's southernmost tip. A 2009 makeover added lounge-worthy grass, ample seating, and landscaped paths to South Pointe Park at the beach's southernmost tip, creating a grand perch for watching locals and the cruise ships heading in and out of port.
St. George Island State Park
The park's 9 miles of undeveloped white-sand beach hug the eastern shoreline of this barrier island, accessible via a 4-mile-long bridge from Eastpoint, Florida. Low-key pursuits like combing for seashells, fishing, sunbathing, and watching migratory birds top the list of things to do. A series of trails and boardwalks traverse the surrounding salt marshes, dunes, and oak forests, which provide shelter for raccoons and diamondback terrapins. Six picnic shelters with grills and 60 full-service campsites are also available.
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