Favorite Florida Beaches

By: Kara Chalmers

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Whether you're looking for a family beach, a beach for your dog, the best place to surf, or just a secluded stretch of sand, here's your best Florida beach guide.

It’s a simple enough formula: Sun + warmth + peninsula = countless fabulous beaches.

Since the sheer number of stunning shores in Florida can be a bit overwhelming (unless, of course, you’re lucky enough to visit them all), we’ve made a list of some favorite Florida beaches according to interest. Math has never been so easy!

Family Beaches: Seaside spots enjoyed equally by adults, infants and everyone in between.

Four-Legged-Friendly Beaches: Where your dogs can join you for some fun in the sun – and surf.

Catch-a-Wave Beaches: The state’s top surf spots, both for pros and beginners who’d like to learn.

Secluded Beaches: Relaxing, romantic retreats away from any hustle and bustle and as pristine as can be.

Sporty Beaches: Best for the active set – those of you who hit the water for jet skiing, fishing, boating and scuba diving.

Family Beaches

Hollywood Beach: Families love this destination for its safe, clean shores (Hollywood Beach has been designated a Blue Wave Clean Beach by the Clean Beaches Council). Its Hollywood Beach Broadwalk – a car-free brick promenade lined with shops, restaurants and hotels – runs along the palm-lined Atlantic beach and is perfect for biking, jogging, rollerblading, pushing strollers or riding tricycles. For swimming and sunbathing, head to Hollywood North Beach Park, where the amenities include concessions, a picnic area, fishing, volleyball and an observation tower. For a break from ocean swimming and building sandcastles, check out Charnow Park, a beachfront park on the Broadwalk that features shaded seating, picnic pavilions, playgrounds and an interactive fountain. Or, take the kids to Castaway Island at Topeekeegee Yugnee Park – a water park with slides, concessions and a separate pool just for toddlers.

If you go: Hollywood Office of Tourism: 877-672-2468, www.visithollywoodfl.org

Panama City Beach: Some of Florida’s most stunning shores – with emerald-green waters and sand that looks like pure sugar – can be found in Panama City Beach. This destination, located on the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay, is known for being affordable for families, as well as chock full of on-the-water activities: jet skiing, windsurfing, scuba diving shipwrecks – even cruises aboard a pirate ship! Spend a day at St. Andrews State Park, home to a gorgeous white-sand beach on the mainland, plus a pristine bridgeless barrier Island (Shell Island) that you can visit via a water shuttle. The park offers several family-friendly activities, such as boating, canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing and camping. Other nearby attractions include the Coconut Creek Family Fun Park and Gulf World Marine Park.

If you go: Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau: 850-233-5070, www.visitpanamacitybeach.com

St. Andrews State Park: 850-233-5140, www.floridastateparks.org/StAndrews

Siesta Public Beach: You’ll find this beach on Siesta Key, an island in the Gulf of Mexico near Sarasota. It’s known for clear, warm, calm water and fine, white, powdery sand that doesn’t get too hot in the sun. The water is shallow near the shoreline and lifeguards are on watch year ’round. Stay all day, and you’ll be rewarded with one of Florida’s most glorious sunsets. Family-friendly amenities abound, including food and drink, restrooms, showers, umbrellas and beach chairs for rent, beach volleyball courts, tennis courts, a ball field, a playground, picnic tables and grills. Siesta Village, a charming collection of restaurants and shops is just a short walk from the beach. Note: The beach is home to the famous “Drum Circle,” held at sunset every Sunday. Kids will love dancing, listening to the music and watching the belly dancers.

If you go: Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce (Siesta Public Beach): 866-831-7778, www.siestakeychamber.com

Fun Fact: Panama City Beach and Siesta Public Beach both boast sand that’s nearly pure quartz. That’s why it’s so white and soft.

 Fun Fact: USA TODAY named the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk one of America’s top 10 nostalgic promenades.

Four-Legged-Friendly Beaches

Brohard Paw Park and Dog Beach: It’s a lucky dog that gets to spend the day at this spot, located on a beautiful stretch of shore in Venice. Brohard Paw Park is one of four state-of-the-art Sarasota County parks where dogs are allowed to play off-leash. A wooden boardwalk leads the way to the county’s only beach that allows dogs to swim, run and roam in the sand, leash-free. All of Venice’s beaches are gorgeous, and this one is no exception. It’s clean, the water is clear and calm, and there are shells and fossilized sharks’ teeth a-plenty, so the beach will be enjoyed equally by the dogs and humans in your group. The adjacent paw park is grassy and fenced, with shaded picnic tables, benches, dog drinking fountains, a separate fenced area for small dogs only, plastic baggies (for picking up after your pet) and plenty of trashcans.

If you go: Brohard Paw Park and Dog Beach: 941-861-5000, www.scgov.net

Key West Dog Beach: It may be small, but this beach is a favorite of Key West pooches. Located at the corner of Waddell and Vernon avenues (next to Louie’s Backyard restaurant and bar), this tiny stretch of coast welcomes dogs to chase balls into the surf and romp in the sand, without the hindrance of a leash. In general, Key West is known as a pet-friendly place. Head to the Higgs Beach Dog Park, which is actually not on a beach, but is fenced with lots of shade, a small-dog area and water fountains. Go for a walk around this island city, and you’ll see dogs sitting at the feet of their human companions at outdoor bars and restaurants (and even inside some), and water bowls left outside storefronts.

If you go: Key West Dog Beach: 800-fla-keys, www.fla-keys.com

Bayview Dog Park and Beach: Pensacola is another Florida destination known to be especially dog-friendly. The Bayview Dog Park and Beach is a one-acre site where dogs can play in the park and swim in the water (Bayou Texar), all off-leash. The park section of Bayview is fenced, and amenities include water fountains for dogs (and humans), a separate small-dog area, pooper scooper stations, ample shade, trash cans, benches, picnic tables and a dog-washing station. It’s neat, clean, well-maintained and an especially popular gathering spot for dogs and their owners on Saturdays. Also in Pensacola, the Scott Complex Dog Park is the same size (one acre) and features the same amenities as Bayview. The city’s also home to the Navy Point Walking Trail, a 2.5-mile paved walking trail on Bayou Grande that welcomes dogs. 

If you go: Bayview Dog Park and Beach: 800-874-1234, www.visitpensacola.com

Fun Fact: Many Florida state park beaches prohibit dogs. An exception is Dunedin’s Honeymoon Island State Park, which allows leashed dogs on part of its beach.

Fun Fact: Dogs are welcome on the beaches of St. George Island, a 28-mile secluded and pristine barrier island off Apalachicola.

Catch-a-wave Beaches

The Space Coast: The Space Coast – which runs from Titusville down to Sebastian Inlet on Florida’s East Coast – has so many prime surf spots that it’s impossible to list just one stretch of shore. At the destination’s southern end, Sebastian Inlet State Park features a wildly popular and consistent surfing break. Here, surfers catch waves at “First Peak,” located next to the north jetty, and at “Monster Hole” on the south side of the inlet. Cocoa Beach – and especially its pier – is another favorite surf spot that hosts several surfing competitions. It’s fitting, then, that Cocoa Beach is the home of the famous Ron Jon Surf Shop (open 24 hours a day) and to world champion surfer Kelly Slater. Other top surfing beaches on the coast include Satellite Beach, Melbourne Beach, the Indialantic Boardwalk and Playalinda Beach, part of the Canaveral National Seashore.

If you go: Florida’s Space Coast: 321-433-4470, www.space-coast.com

Daytona Beach Area: The beaches in and around Daytona Beach are sandy with a gentle slope – and that means they’re some of the best in the state on which to learn to surf. As a result, qualified surfing instructors and surf camps abound here, including the Daytona Beach Surfing School, Mimi Munro Surf Camps and Surfari Surf Lessons and Camp, all in Ormond Beach. Another draw for surfers is that many of the area’s beaches allow driving, which makes it easier to search out the best swells. It’s difficult to narrow down the best surf spots from all that are found in this part of the state, but Ponce Inlet, located just south of Daytona Beach, is considered one of Florida’s best breaks. Also, New Smyrna Beach, a laid-back beach town just south of Ponce Inlet, is home to world-class waves and some surfing competitions.

If you go: Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-854-1234, www.daytonabeach.com

Jacksonville Beach: The surfing can be spectacular at this northeastern corner of Florida, on the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Jacksonville Beach is lively and bustling, and the action is centered on the Fishing Pier, a top spot for surfers. Another consistent break is “The Poles” (a.k.a. Mayport Poles). Named for old pilings, the Poles is the closest surfers can get to the famed Mayport Jetties, which are now off-limits because of a nearby naval base. Huguenot Memorial Park, located on the north side of Jacksonville, is popular both with regular surfers and kite surfers. It’s also the area’s only spot where driving on the beach is permitted. Jacksonville is home to surf camps and competitions, including the city’s annual Super Surf Camp and the annual Wavemasters Surf Contest. To the north, find Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach -- laidback beach towns boasting miles of white sand beaches great for surfing.

If you go: Jacksonville Beach: 800-733-2668, www.visitjacksonville.com

Fun Fact: Other top East Coast surf spots: Flagler Beach, St. Augustine-area beaches and Palm Beach’s Reef Road.

Fun Fact: The Nokomis jetties and Indian Rocks Beach (home of surfing champions Cory and Shea Lopez) are great surf breaks on the Gulf Coast.

Secluded Beaches

Caladesi Island State Park: This barrier island near Dunedin boasts beaches that have long been thought of as both stunning and secluded – partly due to the fact that you must take a private boat or a special ferry to get to the pristine island. But, in 2008, the cat was let out of the bag, and Caladesi Island State Park was named “America’s No. 1 Beach 2008” Dr. Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach). Since then, it’s seen an increase in visitation, but it still is a great choice for anyone seeking a romantic and memorable beach experience. The park is unspoiled, natural and quiet. The shores are pure white and seem to stretch forever. Take a break from swimming and sunbathing and hike the nature trail through the island’s interior, or paddle the canoe and kayak trail under the mangroves. Park amenities include picnic areas, a marina and snack bar.

If you go: Caladesi Island State Park: 727-469-5918, www.floridastateparks.org/caladesiisland

Lovers Key State Park: The name says it all – the beach at this state park is for lovers. It’s also rather secluded. The island of Lovers Key is actually one of four that make up the park, located near Fort Myers. Its 2.5-mile beach is unspoiled, with white sand and calm waters. Take a tram to the south beach, home to a gazebo, restroom and picnic area. Or, take a scenic walk over two bridges to reach the less developed middle of the beach. You can reach the north beach through a gate at Big Carlos Pass. The wildlife-viewing opportunities here are endless, from shorebirds to manatees, dolphins and gopher tortoises. While the beaches are popular for shelling, swimming or just relaxing on a beach towel, the park also offers more than 5 miles of great hiking and biking trails; a boat ramp; concessions; bicycle, canoe and kayak rentals. Boat and fishing tours are available from private vendors.

If you go: Lovers Key State Park: 239-463-4588, www.floridastateparks.org/loverskey

South Walton: This destination encompasses 15 beach communities on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast. Some 40 percent of the destination is owned by Florida and protected from development, and the area was recently recognized by Frommer's as one of the top 12 destinations in 2010. The shores are stunning, with tall dunes, sugar-white sands and clear, emerald water. For the ultimate in seclusion, check out some of the area’s state parks. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach is often called the most pristine piece of coastal property in Florida. Its beach is quiet and sheltered, with white sands and towering dunes reaching heights of 25 feet. The park also features three coastal dune lakes. You can fish in the lakes or from the beach, bike, hike, camp and bird-watch. Nearby is Grayton Beach State Park, which is consistently ranked among America’s most beautiful and unspoiled beaches.

If you go: South Walton: 800-822-6877, www.visitsouthwalton.com

Fun Fact: Walk the trail leading north along the Atlantic at Blowing Rocks Preserve on Jupiter Island to a usually deserted section of beautiful beach.

Fun Fact: Cayo Costa State Park is a bridgeless barrier island known for spectacular shelling.

Sporty Beaches

Fort Lauderdale: Avid sportsmen (and sportswomen) need look no further than Fort Lauderdale for a perfect day at the beach. When it comes to activities both in the water and on the sand, this stretch of Atlantic Coast has all the bases covered. Stretching for seven miles, the beach offers warm water, soft sand, waves and activities, including boating, windsurfing, jet skiing, kite-boarding, beach volleyball and, of course, swimming. After toweling off, you can walk, jog, bike or skate along State Road A1A, and check out the city’s “wavewall” and beachfront promenade. Steps from the beach are shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes. Snorkelers and scuba divers should hit the beach in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, a charming seaside village just north of Fort Lauderdale. A reef 100 yards off-shore means you can swim out to fabulous snorkeling and diving, right from the beach. Anglers will like it here, too, because this beach also has a fishing pier.

If you go: Fort Lauderdale: 800-22-SUNNY, www.sunny.org

Fort Myers Beach: No matter what you’re into (and even if all you want is to lie in the sun) Fort Myers Beach has it all. On the shores of this Gulf Coast beach, you’ll find outfitters for jet skiing, parasailing, sailing, windsurfing, water skiing, boating and surf-biking, as well as charter fishing boats for deep-sea fishing (you can also fish from the pier). Also, jet ski and boat charters offer dolphin-sighting tours. Skim boarding is popular here, and you can even ride bikes on some portions of the beach where the sand is hard-packed. The diversity of activities, the gently sloping, wide shoreline and the miles of white sand make Fort Myers Beach a favorite for families. The heart of the action is at the north end of the beach, near the pier and the Times Square shopping, dining and entertainment district. The southern end is a little quieter.

If you go: Fort Myers Beach: 800-237-6444, www.fortmyers-sanibel.com

Miami: Miami-area beaches encompass such a large area – basically the southeastern-most corner of Florida – that several make the cut for top sporty beaches. Virginia Key Beach offers windsurfing and ultra-light seaplane rentals. Hobie Beach (aka Windsurfer Beach) is located along the Rickenbacker Causeway in Key Biscayne and offers windsurfing, sail boarding and sailing. It also has concessions, restrooms, showers and fishing, and it allows dogs. Crandon Park Beach, found on the northern half of Key Biscayne, is a popular swimming beach with an offshore sandbar. It also has a marina, picnic facilities, barbecue pits, concessions and volleyball; the Crandon Amusement Center is nearby. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, on the tip of Key Biscayne, rents bicycles, beach chairs, umbrellas, hydro-bikes and kayaks. Its amenities include biking and hiking trails, canoeing and kayaking, concessions, showers, restrooms, a playground, picnicking and fishing.

If you go: Miami: 800-933-8488, www.miamiandbeaches.com

Fun Fact: Catch an exquisite sunset at the lively Naples Municipal Beach and Fishing Pier, a favorite with beach-goers and anglers alike.

Fun Fact: Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys has beaches known for snorkeling, boating and fishing.

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