I’ll always remember our family trips to Manatee Public Beach. The excitement would build as we neared Anna Maria Island and the smell of salt air hit our noses. We would crane our necks to catch a first glimpse of the Gulf, checking to see if the water was calm or if there were waves to play in.
When we arrived, there was the hunt for the perfect picnic table, followed by a mad dash to the water, with mom chasing close behind wielding sunscreen. Dad would make sure we didn’t drown.
Soon the smell of hot dogs and burgers from the grill lured us out of the water. Leftovers went to the seagulls. Exhausted boys, covered with a mix of lotion, salt crystals and sand, were reluctantly rounded up for the drive home.
Many years later, I still get that little-boy sense of excitement whenever I smell salt air and hear seagulls. Over the years, I’ve discovered a lot of wonderful beaches, and I’m always making new discoveries, but the original thrill remains. It’s why I, an accountant, became fascinated with Florida’s beaches.
If I had to choose an ideal beach, I would say it’s Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel Island. When I first found Bowman’s, on the Gulf of Mexico, the parking area was little more than a clearing in a thick forest of Australian pines. A long trail through the woods led me across a wooden foot bridge and through the sea oats to a wide beach with few people. I took a long walk up the beach, losing track of time. I sat on a stump, picked up a shell, listened to the gentle lapping of the Gulf and squinted to see an osprey calling out from its perch high in a tree.
But my idea of a favorite beach may not be yours. With almost 1,200 miles of coastline, Florida offers nearly unlimited choices for every personality.
In Florida’s Northwest, from the Pensacola area to Apalachee Bay, the sandy northern Gulf beaches with names like Navarre Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Grayton Beach and Seaside are part of a strand of brilliant white sand dunes that stretch for miles before giving way to the marshlands of the Big Bend area. It’s no surprise that the best of the best beaches in this region have been set aside as Florida State Parks, including St. Andrew’s State Park, sitting east of Panama City Beach.
Farther east, St. George Island State Park is a quiet preserve occupying the eastern third of St. George Island. Just south and east of Apalachicola, St. George Island is a 28-mile-long island several miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, reachable by boat or bridge. The beaches are miles-long stretches of sand dunes and gentle surf. Besides palm trees, you'll find pines and low scrub shaped almost like bonsai from constant exposure to the wind and salt spray. Quiet and natural, this breeze-swept park is a perfect complement to the seafood-centered lifestyle of Historic Apalachicola. You can’t miss the seafood industry. Almost every 50 feet there are signs for Apalachicola oysters; fishing boats are everywhere, unloading seafood.
Gulf Coast Beaches
Heading down the peninsula on the Gulf Coast, the first real sandy beaches you’ll come across are in the Tampa Bay area. Honeymoon and Caladesi islands begin a nearly unbroken chain of barrier islands, all with beautiful sandy beaches, stretching more than 150 miles south to the Everglades.
Each island has its own distinct character, ranging from the busy and popular resort destinations of Clearwater and Fort Myers to the relaxed beach towns on the family-friendly Anna Maria Island. Heading south across a small drawbridge from Anna Maria Island, the upscale exclusivity of Longboat Key is closely followed by the calm, clear, shallow waters and welcoming white sand beaches of Siesta Key.
Gently curving from the Gulf into San Carlos Bay is the world-famous Sanibel Island. One-third of the 12-mile-long island is protected by the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Farther south still is Marco Island, the southernmost of southwest Florida’s developed barrier islands. In addition to its white beaches, clear shallow waters and luxury beachfront resorts, Marco also offers strategic positioning close to Naples’s fine restaurants and high-end shopping and to nature tours in Everglades National Park.
Consider visiting some of the less well-known (at least nationally) beaches on the southwest Gulf Coast, like the darker sand beaches of Venice, where you can find fossilized sharks’ teeth; or perhaps you’ll want to catch a boat to Cayo Costa Island State Park for the day to experience what the beaches looked like a hundred years ago.
And here’s another tip: There can be a big temperature difference between north Florida and south Florida on a chilly winter day. While Pensacola or St. Augustine might be a windy 55 degrees, Marco Island or Miami Beach may very well be enjoying a gloriously sunny 75-degree beach day.
Florida Keys Beaches
A drive through the Florida Everglades takes us toward the Florida Keys. Clear and warm, the water in the Keys turns different colors depending on the angle of the sun, the water’s depth and whether it is over seagrass, coral, rock or sand. Small in size but immense in beauty, the best beaches in the Keys are found in Bahia Honda State Park. Don’t expect a wide Atlantic beach pounded by surf, but do expect to be mesmerized by the dazzlingly beautiful water and swaying coconut palms.
Heading north from the Keys, Florida’s Atlantic Coast is bathed by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, making the water on the Atlantic beaches, on average, a bit warmer in the winter than the Gulf of Mexico, and a few degrees cooler in the summer.
Florida’s southeast is home to the cosmopolitan and urbanized beaches of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, including the famous South Beach area of Miami Beach, Haulover Beach, with a portion designated for nude sunbathing, and Fort Lauderdale’s brick-paved beachfront promenade for seeing and being seen.
These beaches are partially sheltered from the Atlantic swells by the Bahama Islands. That is why the beaches between West Palm Beach and Miami Beach tend to enjoy more placid waters than beaches farther to the north.
Central Atlantic Beaches
Farther north on A1A, about halfway up Florida’s Atlantic coast, is the Space Coast of Brevard County, where you can stand on the light brown sands and watch a NASA rocket launch. Brevard is home to Cocoa Beach, one of the most affordable beach towns in Florida. Everywhere you go, you’ll see surfers carrying their boards. Even in town, a bathing suit and flip-flops are generally acceptable attire. And the Space Coast hasn’t forgotten nature lovers; Canaveral National Seashore offers a 24-mile stretch of undisturbed beach on the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty more beaches north of Cape Canaveral, all easily reached from A1A. Volusia County includes world-famous Daytona Beach and its neighbors, New Smyrna Beach and Ormond Beach.
Low tide and compact sand unique to this area mean driving is allowed on most beaches in Volusia County for a small fee. Access ramps guide vehicles to the beach, depending on beach conditions. Signs indicate which accesses are open on a given day. A four-wheel-drive vehicle isn’t necessary, but be mindful of the incoming tide, which narrows the beach considerably. The orange-tinted sand in this area, especially near the water, has fragments of multicolored coquina shell in it.
Heading father north on Highway A1A, in places like Flagler Beach and other coastal towns, the highway runs so close to the ocean that it seems like you can almost reach out and pluck a few shells as you drive by. Take a walk out onto the Flagler Pier and get a good view of the whole coast, with sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. A painfully obvious but nevertheless satisfying thought crossed my mind the last time I was there; the refreshing sea breeze you feel has crossed the entire Atlantic before making landfall, making it some of the cleanest, freshest air on earth.
On the way north toward St. Augustine Beach, Highway A1A passes by Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, which has one of the most peaceful and beautiful gardens in Florida. Here, large coquina rock formations dominate the beach, which is a still a surprise for those of us used to seeing nothing but sand on Florida beaches.
The focal point for many visitors to St. Augustine Beach is the St. John’s County Fishing Pier, which includes a four-acre beach front park, but the shining star of St. Augustine Beach is Anastasia State Park, with four miles of protected, undeveloped sandy beaches offering, in addition to the usual beach activities, some of the finest birding in the state.
I never tire of searching for new beaches because I never know what I’ll discover; it always seems there is something new. Not long ago, I decided to visit the Gulf coast’s Don Pedro Island State Park. This quiet beach park is located near Englewood, at the edge of Charlotte Harbor, on an interconnected group of four islands: Knight Island, Thornton Key, Don Pedro Island and Little Gasparilla Island. There is no bridge. Residents bring their cars onto the island by ferry. I left my car on the mainland and rode the small ferry across, intending to walk across the island to the beach.
I saw few people on the island but got directions to the park and permission for private beach access from an island resident I met on the way. It was a sunny, 75-degree November day, and I easily made the 45-minute walk up the beach to the park carrying only a small backpack and camera. There were a handful of visitors, all arriving by boat, which are docked on the bay side of the island park.
Don Pedro State Park has restrooms and picnic shelters and some nature trails to explore, as well as an excellent beach with light brown sand. There is something special about being on an island with little traffic, and nowhere to go but my favorite place: the beach.