Insider Tips to Florida's Beaches

    By VISIT FLORIDA staff

    Looking for the best surfing beach? Longing for a romantic sunset? Itching to see a movie star? Follow these insider tips for the best beaches to indulge your fancy.

    There's nothing like a trip to the beach to revive the soul and make you smile. Feeling the sugar-white sand between your toes and the warmth of the sun upon your head as pelicans glide over the sparkling emerald tide in search of fish is as easy as walking out the door. With about 1,260 miles of linear coastline and 825 miles of sand beaches, Florida has a beach paradise around every bend.

    My idea of a Florida beach vacation used to be riding the gentle waves on a raft in between sipping coconut drinks with tiny umbrellas. That's a fantasy I fulfilled easily. But after countless beach trips around the state, I've learned that the great thing about Florida's beaches is you don't have to be a sun-worshipper to enjoy them. Each beach has a unique feel and appeal, and often the sand and clear blue waters become just an added bonus. Birdwatchers, auto fans, history buffs, kayakers, horseback riders, dog lovers, shell seekers, snorkelers, people watchers, treasure hunters and more can all find a beach to indulge their passion. Florida has more than one beach for every love. That's why I've made a list of local favorites to help you navigate the vast shoreline to a beach that suits you.

    If the beach you seek didn't make my list, never fear, there's no such thing as an unattractive beach in Florida. Our beaches consistently rank among the best (prettiest and cleanest) in the nation. Beach aficionado Dr. Beach (actually Dr. Stephen Leatherman, Director of the Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research), who rates beaches based on water quality, sand, facilities and environmental conditions, almost consistently ranks one or more of Florida beaches in the nation's top 10. The Clean Beaches Coalition, a national not-for-profit organization devoted to sustaining our nation's coastal areas, certifies Blue Wave Beaches as those that meet strict standards of health and cleanliness. Not surprisingly, Florida leads the nation with the most Blue Wave-certified beaches.


    It doesn't matter if you want to catch a wave or watch others do it, surf's up from New Smyrna Beach to West Palm Beach along the Atlantic coastline. But if you want to hang ten with the pros, go to what's considered the capital of East Coast surfing - Sebastian Inlet State Park, about 15 miles south of Melbourne Beach. This three-mile stretch of beach divided by the Sebastian Inlet has been the site of numerous world surfing events because its waves are hollow and fast. Even on light days, if any surf is breaking on the East Coast of Florida, it will be at Sebastian Inlet.


    If your idea of a vacation is escaping your shell, paradoxically, a relaxing way to do so is to walk a beach at sunset and seek another one. Call it seeking Sanibel sanity, and accomplishing it is as easy as looking down. With more than 300 varieties of shells, Sanibel is so popular with shell seekers that it holds an annual Sanibel Shell Fair and Show in the first week of March and has a name for shell seekers' posture: "The Sanibel Stoop." While famed for shells, Sanibel is equally respected for its beauty and its residents' commitment to preserving it. Almost three-quarters of the island is preserved as the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, and all island development melds with the environment of bushy mangroves and palms.


    Bury your hands in the banks of sand at Venice Beach and you may well find something the tooth fairy overlooked -a dull, triangular shark's tooth. This beach south of Sarasota is the spot for finding shark's teeth. The beach concessionaire even rents out metal mesh scoops to aid in the process. Small teeth, the size of a Chihuahua's, are easy to find along the shoreline. You're more apt to find larger teeth by snorkeling along a ridge just offshore. Don't worry about these sharks coming back to look for their teeth - they died thousands of years ago, when scientists believe most of Florida was covered in water.


    When I need to find my own space in the world, I head to the Canaveral National Seashore, where there are 24 miles of undeveloped coastline with towering dunes, pristine beaches and a dynamic range of plants and wildlife. It's not unusual to see a blue heron on the seashore, while a bald eagle soars over the shoulder-high marsh grasses on its way to a treetop nest. Because this National Seashore shares its southern border with Kennedy Space Center, on occasion you may also glimpse an equally astounding flight, like a rocket taking off. There's no better place to feel small, yet inspired to accomplish big things.


    For an assured sighting of 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. This cluster of seven islands, made of coral and sand, is ideal for a snorkeling blowout. Snorkeling off Garden Key, the largest island and home to historic Fort Jefferson, is as popular as the coral is healthy and easily accessible. The Dry Tortugas is only reachable by ferry, private boat or seaplane, but worth the trip.


    There are a thousand beach getaways in Florida, but when I really need to escape I set my GPS on a remote beach of pristine beauty that comes with the comforts of personal service, rocking chairs, a view of the bay and a cool room. This wonderful place is the St. George Inn on St. George Island in northern Florida. This quaint inn with double-decker verandas is only minutes from the historic fishing village of Apalachicola (good eats), and what may be the one of the most uninhabited nine-mile stretches of beach in Florida, Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park.


    Forget reality TV. Rent a Jaguar and drive to Palm Beach if you really want to see how the Donald Trumps of the world live. Palm Beach is the place to put your beach towel beside the very wealthy. This 14-mile stretch along the Atlantic Ocean has a well-deserved reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. It's been a second home to everyone from the Kennedy clan to the Donald. But you don't have to be a millionaire to tan beside one. The nearby Worth Avenue shops and five-star hotels alone make this waterfront the best place to get that million-dollar tan.


    For the times when you want a beach with an Atlantic City-type boardwalk and carnival atmosphere, Hollywood Beach, just south of Fort Lauderdale, is your best choice. Avoid getting sand between your toes as you stroll with young hipsters, families, retirees, bicyclists, rollerbladers and joggers along a 2.5-mile-long, 27-feet-wide brick-paved promenade bordered by shops, hotels, game rooms, taverns and an outdoor amphitheater. It's not unusual to hear live music compete with the surf; weekly events keep this beach hopping. If it gets to be too much, there's always the adjacent wide beach, certified as "Blue Wave" by the Clean Beaches Coalition for its outstanding cleanliness and safety.


    It's hard to avoid romance on an island named Lovers Key, where the only thing between you and your partner is a gentle Gulf breeze. Start your day exploring the mangrove wilds of the west coast Florida coastline by kayak or foot in Lovers Key State Park, where dolphin and manatee frolic. In the afternoon, lounge beside a waterfall in a lagoon-style pool at the Lovers Key Beach Club & Resort, a posh all-suite resort. At sunset, dine by candlelight overlooking Estero Bay at Flippers on the Bay. Then turn up the heat. Soak in the spa tub-for-two back inside your suite. What's not to love?


    In a state known for spectacular sunsets, Naples Pier shines as all-time favorite. Located at the west end of 12th Avenue South in Naples, this beach has the additional scenery of the historic pier built in 1888 as a freight and passenger dock. 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 spectacular show. The camaraderie such closeness evokes is so much a part of the experience that, when the sun finally melts into the glistening Gulf, you've almost forgotten why you're there. Be sure to take pictures.


    If you turn down the energy of Daytona Beach, you will find its quiet little sister to the south. Like Daytona Beach, you can drive your car onto New Smyrna Beach (driving allowed on certain parts of the beach), but that's where their shared traits end. This is a quintessentially 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 medium-rise motels and condos giving it a comforting retro feel. Jetties to the north, and the Canaveral National Seashore to the south border its 13.2 miles of beach. Even the currents are laid back here.


    It's one of America's favorite places to start your engines, and here you can do it on the beach. While on the other side of town NASCAR drivers watch for a checkered flag as their wheels screech around the Daytona International Speedway, you can watch surfers catch a wave while you leave tire tracks in the sand. The 23-mile stretch of firm sand along Daytona Beach is one of the few remaining beaches in Florida where cars are still allowed (on 11 miles of the beach). For $5, cruise it all day, but don't start thinking you're Richard Petty: The speed limit is 10 mph.


    If you enjoy a hip beach scene, park yourself in South Beach, and look in any direction. The crashing surf and wide sandy beach is just a backdrop to its famed, vibrant international scene. Lounge on the coarse sandy beach among serious sunbathers in European-style swimsuits who are as likely to chat in Spanish, French or German as in English. Watch shirtless guys with washboard stomachs prove they're buff on the sandy volleyball courts. When you need a break from the sun, cross to the other side of Ocean Drive, where pastel Art Deco buildings house sidewalk cafés, trendy nightclubs, posh shops and groovy hotels. Try a thirst-quenching mojito, Hemingway's favorite Cuban cocktail, and watch the passing parade of lanky fashion models, budding movie stars, international tourists and stylish locals.


    When it comes to family beach spots, nothing tops Siesta Public Beach in Sarasota, ranked No. 1 by Dr. Beach in 2011. Gradual slopes, shallow waters, lifeguards, beach volleyball, a playground, gentle waves, fine white sand, translucent waters that let you spot a crab 10 feet away, and enough restaurant choices within a three-mile radius to keep your tots dining on a different dish every night. And lest we forget, it's beautiful! It continually makes several of America's Top 10 lists of best beaches based on sand, water quality and facilities.


    You don't have to be a binocular-wearing ornithologist to appreciate the birds on Shell Key. In their natural element, these winged creatures are more entertaining than a troop of parasailors.

    A flock of orange-beaked American oystercatchers stands along the shores, chatting in an alien, yet comforting quack. From high in the air an osprey dives into the surf and rises with a fish in its beak that's half its size. If it seems that birds own the island, well, in a sense, they do. More than half of the 180-acre Shell Key, managed by Pinellas County, is a bird sanctuary. Fortunately, the county and the birds are willing to share this isle of paradise with the rest of us, and humans still have access to some of the best parts - the beaches.

    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 whiskers of sea oats. While most people boat to Shell Key to gather shells (hence the name), it's also one of the best birding spots in Florida. More than 100 varieties of birds come to this undeveloped barrier island to raise families, spend the winter in the sun or rest their wings on their migration to South America.

    Shell Key is accessible only by boat. In addition, the island is also a great place for swimming, snorkeling and primitive camping (in designated areas). Just remember to bring sunscreen and plenty of water. There are no facilities on the island.


    At sunset, the emerald tide recedes, leaving a blanket of firm, glistening sand inviting footsteps. I took those steps as a teenager on the wide beach of Sandestin, and I've since been a spoiled-rotten sand-snob

    If you plant your soles on this sand you will be, too. Jog barefooted along the surf, build a sandcastle that lasts until you leave, and sleep like an angel on your beach towel. The grains of sand are so fine, so white, that you feel you are walking and lounging on packed sugar.

    I learned the secret of the sand years later: It's almost pure quartz, which explains its cool shimmer. Its grains are smooth and fine because they've traveled hundreds of years from the Appalachian Mountains by rivers to reach the beaches on the northern Gulf Coast of Florida. This is also why the sand "squeaks" beneath your feet.

    Call me a child at heart, but when I now visit the 26 miles of beaches in South Walton, I leave my sandals in the room, and treat my feet to what feels like a delicious desert.

    I'm not alone in my appreciation: South Walton, which comprises 16 neighborhoods, has been named one of the top 12 travel destinations in the world by Frommer's for 2010. Dr. Beach ranked Grayton Beach (one of the 16 neighborhoods) the "Best Beach in the Nation" in 1994, and Santa Rosa Beach was listed among Yahoo! Travel’s 10 Best Beach Destination for 2011.


    If you thought Florida waters couldn't compare with the translucency of the Caribbean's, wade into the sheer heaven of Bahia Honda State Park.

    In this paradise of a park, the water hides nothing but yesterday's troubles. Palm fronds atop lazy trunks wave in the breeze over pristine, sandy beaches. Located south of Miami and north of Key West, Bahia Honda Key is widely considered home to the Keys' best beaches. Currents are mild, water is normally clear, and there's more than one beach from which to choose. Calusa Beach, the smallest, is my favorite, partly because it reminds me of the lagoon on Gilligan's Island - lush and cozy - and partly because deep waters are close enough for exceptional swimming and snorkeling. All beaches have bathhouses. If you want to be a castaway, cabins and campsites are available.


    Sometimes you need a vacation from a vacation. Then it's time to let someone take care of you. . . to be treated to mimosas and Bloody Marys while you wait on a soft leather couch for a masseur to smooth oil into your travel-weary neck. . . to wear cucumber wedges on your eyes, have your skin buffed, your feet rubbed, your nails manicured and your muscles pulverized by the jets of an outdoor spa.

    Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is one of the best places to find this delicious treatment along a Florida beach. In addition to being one of the top spas in the nation, 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.


    "I love Fort De Soto. I don't have to wear a leash. I can swim after sticks. I can run after Frisbees. I can roll in the sand." OK – I'm taking dictation from my dog. But humans love this beach, too. Dr. Beach ranked Fort De Soto the nation's top beach in 2005.

    The entire island is a county park. Beaches are undeveloped, except for a former military fort. While dogs cannot explore the fort, they can roam freely along a dog-designated prime stretch of beach near the park's pier. There's also an adjacent fenced grass field known as Paw Playground, complete with dog facilities' fire hydrants and garden hoses with spray nozzles. You need only bring water and a tennis ball.


    Treasure hunting along the eastern coast of Florida isn't just a child's fancy. Modern day pirates dive and walk the beaches with metal detectors from Sebastian to Jupiter seeking the gold and silver spewed from a fleet of Spanish ships that crashed along the reefs during a hurricane in 1715.

    The 10-mile stretch of Sea Grape Trail in Vero Beach has been especially lucrative. The typical booty is a gold doubloon but, in 1995, one Floridian found a gold box containing jeweled rings valued at $250,000. Of course, a metal detector helps, but don't use it in the water. The waters along the beach are protected. Also, hold onto to chunks that may look more like rocks than coins. Many crusty doubloons believed worthless have been tossed back into the sea.


    As a child in braids who gleefully clung to a saddle horn as my dad encouraged our sorrel mare to gallop across a creek bottom, I grew up feeling that a vacation without an equine experience is just not complete.

    I found in Florida that not only is horseback riding abundant, but there's even a place to fulfill that all-time-horse-fantasy of riding along the beach. On Amelia Island, you can feel your windswept hair tickle your face as your horse gracefully leaves hoof prints in the sand.