Best Beaches For...

By: Lynn Waddell

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With 825 miles of beaches and 1,100 miles of coastline, it's no wonder Florida has one to suit every visitor.

Best Beach for Birding: Shell Key, St. Pete Beach (727-552-1862, pinellascounty.org/park/managedlands/skp.htm)
More than half of the 1,800-acre Shell Key is a bird sanctuary, but the beaches are accessible to human visitors by boat. There are no buildings, no trash, no cars or telephone lines, just coconut palms, Australian pines, white sandy beaches lined with gentle, clear emerald surf and dunes topped with sea oat whiskers.

Best Tropical Beach: Bahia Honda State Park (305-872-3210, www.floridastateparks.org)
In this paradise of a park, palms wave in the breeze over pristine, sandy beaches. Widely considered to have the Keys' best beaches, Bahia Honda is a sheer tropical heaven, with mild, clear water and more than one lush and cozy beach from which to choose.

Best Beach for Surfing: Sebastian Inlet State Park (321-984-4852, www.floridastateparks.org)
Sebastian Inlet, south of Melbourne Beach, is the capital of East Coast surfing. The waves along this three-mile stretch of beach divided by the Sebastian River are consistent, hollow and fast. If any surf is breaking on the East Coast of Florida, it will be at Sebastian Inlet.

Best Beach for Feet: South Walton (800-822-6877, www.visitsouthwalton.com)
If you plant your soles on the glistening sands of the beaches of South Walton County, you will instantly become a spoiled-rotten sand snob. The grains are so fine, so white that you'll feel you are on packed sugar. The sand's secret is that it's almost pure quartz, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains over the years.

Best Beach for Treasure Hunting: Vero Beach (772-567-3491, www.indianriverchamber.com)
A Spanish fleet cracked open upon the reefs of Florida's East Coast in 1715, spilling its treasure into the sea. Sea Grape Trail in Vero Beach has proved lucrative for treasure hunters combing its sands. Finding a gold doubloon is rare because they are often so encrusted by the sea that it's hard to recognize them.

Best Beach to See a Millionaire: Palm Beach (800-554-7256, www.palmbeachfl.com)
Rent a Jaguar and drive to Palm Beach if you really want to see how "the Donald" lives. This 16-mile barrier island has a well-deserved reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. But you don't have to be a millionaire to tan beside one here, second home to the likes of the Kennedy clan.

Best Beach for Shelling: Sanibel Island (800-237-6444, www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com)
With more than 400 varieties of shells, Sanibel Island is so popular with shell seekers that it holds an annual three-day Sanibel Shell Fair and Show in the spring and has a name for the shell seeker's posture: "The Sanibel Stoop." Sanibel is equally respected for its beauty and the community's commitment to preserving it.

Best Beach to Find Sharks Teeth: Venice Beach (800-348-7250, www.sarasotafl.org)
Venice Beach is the spot for finding fossilized shark's teeth from thousands of years ago. The beach concessionaire even sells metal mesh scoops to aid in the process. Small teeth, the size of a Chihuahua's, are easy to find while walking along the shoreline and larger teeth by snorkeling along a ridge just offshore.

Best Beach to Be Pampered: Ponte Vedra Beach (800-653-2489, floridashistoriccoast.com)
Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is one of the best places to find delicious spa treatments along a Florida beach. The resort sits on a beach lined with high dunes and towering palms. The roaring surf makes for exhilarating body surfing or a comforting bedtime song after a day of pampering.

Best Place to Feel Small: Canaveral National Seashore (321-267-1110, www.nps.gov/cana)
The Canaveral National Seashore, 24 miles of undeveloped coast, is lined with dunes, beaches and a range of wildlife. It's not unusual to see a blue heron on the seashore while a bald eagle soars over the shoulder-high marsh grasses. Bordering Kennedy Space Center, the seashore may also allow you to glimpse an equally astounding rocket launch.

Best Snorkeling Beach: Dry Tortugas (305-242-7700, nps.gov/drto)
For colorful fish and living coral reefs, pack your snorkeling gear and head to the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, reachable by ferry, seaplane or private boat, but well worth the trip. This cluster of seven islands, made of coral and sand, includes Garden Key, home to historic Fort Jefferson.

Best Beach for a Getaway: St. George Island (850-653-9419, www.apalachicolabay.org)
A remote beach that comes with the comforts of personal service, rocking chairs and a view of the Bay, the St. George Inn is a quaint inn with double-decker verandas only minutes from what may be the most uninhabited beach in Florida, St. George Island State Park.

Best Boardwalk Beach: Hollywood Beach Broadwalk (800-22-SUNNY, www.sunny.org)
An Atlantic City-type boardwalk, the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, just south of Fort Lauderdale, is a 2.5-mile-long, paved walking, jogging and biking path bordered by shops, hotels, game rooms, taverns and an outdoor amphitheater. Often live music competes with the surf. The beach is certified as "Blue Wave" for its outstanding cleanliness and safety.

Best Beach for Romance: Lovers Key (800-237-6444, www.FortMyers-Sanibel.com)
On Lovers Key, explore the mangrove wilds of the west coast Florida by kayak or foot in Lovers Key State Park. Lounge beside a waterfall in a lagoon-style pool at the Lovers Key Resort, a posh all-suite resort. At sunset, dine overlooking Estero Bay. Soak in the spa tub-for-two in your suite.

Best Beach to Watch a Sunset: Naples Municipal Beach & Fishing Pier (800-688-3600, www.paradisecoast.com)
Naples Pier (built in 1888 as a freight and passenger dock) shines as an all-time sunset favorite. When the sun begins to set low on the western horizon, beachgoers, fisherman, locals and tourists fill the narrow pier in anticipation of the daily show as the sun melts into the Gulf.

Best Beach for a Drive: Daytona Beach (800-854-1234, www.daytonabeach.com)
You can watch surfers catch a wave as you drive along the sands of Daytona Beach. The 23-mile stretch of firm sand along Daytona Beach is one of Florida's few remaining beaches that include a stretch –11 miles in this case – where cars are still allowed. For $5, cruise it all day, but don't floor it: The speed limit is 10 mph.

Best Beach to Loaf: New Smyrna Beach (800-541-9621, www.nsbfla.com)
New Smyrna Beach is a laid-back beach town, where Orlando co-eds come for sun, and top surfers come for waves. There are no high-rises along the beach, only low-rise motels and condos giving it a comforting feel. These 13.2 miles of beach is so relaxed even the currents are laid back here.

Best Beach for a History Lesson: Fort Pickens (850-934-2600, www.nps.gov/guis)
At Fort Pickens, brick archways and fortifications, a piece of American history, hug the white sand and aquamarine waters the Gulf of Mexico. This massive fort, which still has two inactive cannons onsite, has protected America from the early 1800s until after WWII. During the Civil War, Union soldiers occupied the fort to prevent Confederate shipments into Pensacola. Its museum is expected to display new exhibits soon.

Best Beach for Paws: Fort De Soto Park (877-352-3224, pinellascounty.org/park/05_ft_desoto.htm)
Fort De Soto Park is a canine paradise. Its beaches are undeveloped, except for a former fort that can be explored by paws (as long as Rover is leashed). Dogs can roam freely along a prime stretch of beach near the park's pier. There's also an adjacent fenced field complete with dog facilities – fire hydrants and garden hoses with spray nozzles.

Best Beach to Giddy Up: Amelia Island (800-2AMELIA, www.ameliaisland.org)
On Amelia Island, fulfill that fantasy of riding along the beach, with your windswept hair tickling your face as your horse leaves hoof prints in the sand. At Kelly Seahorse Ranch, experienced riders can canter their steeds along the waves, and actually go into the surf with their horses. These are freedoms most stables won't allow.

Best Beach for Kids: Siesta Public Beach (800-348-7250, www.sarasotafl.org)
When it comes to family beach spots, nothing tops Siesta Public Beach in Sarasota – gradual slopes, shallow waters, lifeguards, a playground, gentle waves, fine white sand and translucent waters. It continually makes several of America's Top 10 lists of best beaches based on sand, water quality and facilities.

Best Beach to See and Be Seen: South Beach (800-933-8448, www.miamiandbeaches.com)
If you enjoy a beach scene, go to South Beach, and look in any direction. Lounge on the beach among serious sunbathers in European-style swimsuits who are as likely to chat in French or German as in English. Watch shirtless guys prove themselves on the sand volleyball courts. On the other side of Ocean Drive there are pastel Art Deco buildings house sidewalk cafés, trendy nightclubs, posh shops and groovy hotels.


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