I gathered the tools I would need for my task, setting them on the car seat in a neat pile so I wouldn’t forget anything. I had a pen and a notebook, sunglasses and a baseball cap, a bottle of water and my camera, complete with an extra memory card. I slipped on my flip flops, smeared my nose with sunscreen, and dabbed insect repellent on my ankles. I was as ready as I would ever be. Shaking with anticipation, I stepped out onto the sizzling parking lot.
Every year, America’s foremost beach authority, Dr. Stephen Leatherman – aka Dr. Beach – reviews, evaluates and ranks the country’s beaches on 50 criteria, including the softness of the sand, the water color, the beach’s safety record, and other factors. Based on the results, he names the top ten beaches in the nation, a highly anticipated annual event.
In 2013, Barefoot Beach State Preserve near Bonita Springs made the list for the first time, coming in sixth. “The surf is gentle with waves generally being measured in inches, and the water is very shallow, making this a great beach for bathing and swimming for families,” Dr. Beach said.
It was my mission to discover what else inspired him about the park, set on 342 acres of natural land, one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on Florida's southwest coast.
The first thing I wanted see was the beach.
I pushed past the shade of the gumbo limbo trees and palms, following a boardwalk through the dunes, lush with sea oats and sea grapes. The air carried the sweet, salty perfume of the Gulf, and I could hear the melody of the surf. Finally, I could see the water, peeking from around a dune, an impossible hue of turquoise. I abandoned my flip flops and notebook at the end of the boardwalk, rushing out to get a better view.
The beach was a generous sweep of curved sand – 8,200 feet, I later learned – interrupted by an occasional group of chairs and beach umbrellas. I sifted a handful of sand through my fingers; it was soft, white, and brimming with tiny shells. Children played in the surf, able to stand in the shallow water a long ways from shore. The waves were only hints, inviting me to come in and cool off.
The bottom sloped gently, and the water was clear enough I could see my toes when I was waist deep. I gazed up and down the coast, and took a deep breath. I could see buildings in the distance, but they were so far away they were only silhouettes. It was quiet enough to hear the songs of the birds and the sound of the wind playing through the sea oats. Clouds drifted, people splashed in the waves or lounged on the shore, and I found myself humming.
I swam in the Gulf and wandered the boardwalks, though admittedly I did not hike the mile and a half nature trail. I saw a pelican dive into the water, an osprey riding the sea breeze, and a Gopher Tortoise grazing on some flowers, placid enough he let me take his picture from only a few feet away. I explored the Learning Center, an overgrown tiki hut brimming with displays of shells and information about manatees and sea life, freshened up in the showers, and got a cold drink from the concession.
And I have to agree with Dr. Beach: Barefoot Beach Preserve is a winner. But you should check it for yourself. After all, if you want fast-acting relief, you should try slowing down.
If you go:
Barefoot Beach State Preserve
505 Barefoot Beach Blvd, North Naples, FL 34134