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 bathing suit, sunglasses and a baseball cap, a bottle of water and my camera. I slipped on my flip flops and smeared my nose with sunscreen.
I was ready for a hard day of reporting.
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 10 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. And in 2014, Dr. Beach liked it even better, ranking it second in the United States. He cited the gentle surf and shallow water, saying that it made it "a great beach for bathing and swimming for families.”
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. Then, I saw the water, peeking from around a dune, an impossible hue of turquoise.
I abandoned my flip flops and hurried 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 far away.
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 wandered the boardwalks and admired the scenery.
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.
It was brimming with displays of shells and information about manatees and sea life.
But my favorite part was just relaxing by the shore.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA
If you go:
505 Barefoot Beach Blvd, North Naples, FL 34134