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Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park
Frequently ranked among the country's top beaches, this natural beauty at the southern tip of Key Biscayne invites quiet strolls along sea grass-covered dunes and swimming from more than a mile of Atlantic-facing sands. Cycling the 400-acre park's paths is a favorite family pastime. A historic lighthouse, constructed in 1825, destroyed by Seminoles and rebuilt in 1846, stands sentinel; tours are given Thursday through Monday and include a bird's eye view of the beach from the watch room, reached via 109 steps. The seawall along Biscayne Bay is a prime spot for anglers.
Two miles of sand lapped by turquoise water and lined with coconut palms make this Key Biscayne beach a favorite of photographers seeking a Caribbean stand-in. The sunbathing spot is also a top choice for families, thanks to its low surf, amusement center with roller rink, splash fountain, and vintage carousel (open weekends). There are also ample picnic areas and parking spaces. The adjacent nature center offers eco-tours, self-guided trails and kayak rentals.
Tourists will find plenty of Miami and Fort Lauderdale residents in the international mix here, one of the state's few sunbathing spots with a section where it's legal to go au naturel. The often-crowded clothing-optional area, 0.4 miles of sand marked with signs and tucked behind landscaped dunes at the beach's northern end, has an invisible dividing line; if you’re facing the beach, heterosexuals congregate to the right, gays to the left. There's plenty of room for more modest bathers as well, since the beach extends south for more than a mile. Across the street, family-friendly Haulover Park contains a marina, tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, and a kite shop.
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.
Matheson Hammock Park Beach
The waters of Biscayne Bay flow through a man-made atoll pool with the changing tides, providing a tranquil, safe haven for young swimmers at this scenic beach park. Although it's located in a quiet residential neighborhood, a snack bar and waterside seafood restaurant fuel lengthy visits. Just off the bayside parking lot is a convenient launch pad for kiteboarders, with the Miami skyline adding urban sparkle to the action. Also in the mix: nature trails, bike paths and a full-service marina.
North Shore Open Space Park
As the name implies, this northern stretch of Miami Beach delivers respite from the condo and hotel canyons. Beach and green space merge with a walking trail, picnic tables and lifeguard stands among the few man-made additives. The laid-back vibe, accented with sea oats, sea grape trees and dunes, stands in sharp contrast to the trendy voyeurism of Miami Beach's sexy southern sands.
Oleta River State Park
Yes, the 1,200-foot beach is man-made, but the unspoiled nature that surrounds it more than compensates. The state's largest urban park not only has a lovely patch of sand for sunbathing and swimming, but also 15 miles of mountain-bike trails, a fishing pier and kayak trails through mangrove forests. Look for migrating water birds and the occasional dolphin or manatee.
With its backdrop of sherbet-colored Art Deco buildings and popularity with models (and wannabes), the wide stretch of sand at Miami Beach's southern end is a giant piece of eye candy. What’s more, abundant outdoor cafes along Ocean Drive make it easy to people watch all day. Whimsical, brightly painted lifeguard stands dot the beach, as picturesque as the international mix of sunbathers—some of them topless. Near 11th Street, a well-toned gay crowd sets up camp across from Versace's former mansion (since converted to a hotel). For a few picnic tables and views of the cruise ships sailing to and from port, head to South Pointe Park at the southernmost tip. It debuted a full renovation in March 2009 and now has a lovely promenade, new lighting, fountain jets, and appealing landscaping.
Virginia Key Beach Park
Located on an 82-acre barrier Island just off Rickenbacker Causeway, this beach park underwent a major facelift and re-opened in February 2008. There are 80-plus picnic tables, 30 grills, a children's playground (as well as a seaside carousel and mini-train), and a boardwalk through the area's wetlands. The narrow beach has inviting, secluded stretches, but it's also a convenient stop for families visiting Miami Seaquarium across the causeway. Dating to 1945, it was the only beach in the county open to African-Americans during segregation and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
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