Great Beaches in Florida: The Best in Sand, Surf, Sky & Skin

    By Lenora Dannelke

    These great Florida beaches offer a veritable smorgasbord of wiggle-your-toes-in-the-sand experiences.

    With 1,100 miles of coastline, there are tons of great beaches in Florida to choose from. While exploring the state’s vast and varied beach options, however, my focus remained on four specific elements: Sand, surf, sky and skin. Concentrating on this quartet of components – which I personally deem to be key factors for great Florida beaches – would simplify my search for premium beach adventures.

    Or so I thought. The state's expansive geography presented me with a formidable number of appealing Florida beach choices.

    Great beaches in Florida for sand connoisseurs

    Connoisseurs of sand will agree that Florida’s northwest Gulf Coast features Mother Nature’s designer product line. Just be sure to don sunglasses before stepping onto any one of the pristine beaches that stretch across the Emerald Coast of Okaloosa County and beyond. However, you may need to take them off momentarily to rub your eyes in disbelief. The sands are so dazzlingly white that it’s possible to mistake dunes for snowdrifts.

    Of all the great beaches in Florida, the distinguishing characteristics of northern Gulf sands are not limited to their visual appeal, though – as if the breathtaking beauty of alabaster beaches set against vibrant green waters weren’t enough of a lure for me. You can actually hear the difference: The sugary shores emit an audible “squeak” as you walk across them.

    Sand this special was an eon or two in the making. Formed from quartz particles washed from the Appalachian Mountains and carried by the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico, the granules were gradually pulverized into tiny, oval-shaped grains. The uniform size and shape of these ultra-fine granules give them a powdery finish that’s remarkably soft – so it’s little wonder that Okaloosa Island plays host to the popular Emerald Coast Volleyball Week in April.

    The gleaming sands are also a superb medium for creative expression. During the Fiesta Sand Sculpture Contest, held every June, Pensacola Beach is transformed into an astonishing – if temporary – art gallery.

    Since parks are abundant throughout the region, it’s easy to heed the call of nature. For example, Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach is an idyllic, protected environment where endangered plants and animals thrive. Morning beachcombers here should keep an eye out for tracks of giant sea turtles that clamber ashore at night to lay their eggs.

    Henderson Beach State Park, in the heart of Destin, balances natural beauty with visitor-friendly amenities like air-conditioned and heated bathhouses. Shady campsites located behind wind-swept dunes provide vacationers with easy access to the beach, where watching the surf at sunset is a favorite way to end the day.

    The character of the Emerald Coast is decidedly Southern and totally laid-back. Although Destin has evolved from rustic fishing village to popular tourist destination, the town still retains a quaint, unpretentious charm. Since the community has been dubbed “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” finding phenomenal seafood restaurants with a relaxed, flip-flop friendly ambiance is a cinch. And you don’t even need to leave the beach. The Back Porch in Destin allows you to sample the local aquatic specialties while taking in magnificent beachfront views – all to a soothing soundtrack of crashing waves. Don’t miss the amberjack, a full-flavored fish that can stand up to assertive Cajun-style seasoning.

    Beachside fun continues even after the sun goes down. Travel along the picturesque coastal highway from Destin to Fort Walton Beach – which passes through a section of Gulf Islands National Seashore – and you’ll discover an assortment of energetic late-night beach clubs by the boardwalk. Fort Walton Beach offers plenty of family entertainment, too. If you get tired of frolicking in the surf at Beasley Park, the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park is only a short hop away. My favorite aspect of this beachfront marine show aquarium and animal interation facility is a meet-and-greet opportunity that features encounters with dolphins, seals, sea lions, penguins and turtles and even a snorkel experience with stingrays and sharks.


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    Great Florida beaches for surfers

    “Surf’s up” is definitely the theme of Cocoa Beach, a quintessential beach town that buzzes with a youthful, upbeat energy. It’s a place of endless summer where life centers on the quest for the next great wave.

    Considered the surfing capital of the east coast since the early 1960s, Cocoa Beach has been the early training ground for several superstars of the sport – including 10-time world champion Kelly Slater.

    What attracts hordes of surfing enthusiasts, though, are not just the waves. It’s the whole surf-dedicated culture of the town, which is home to the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum. This fascinating collection of boards, memorabilia and vintage photos is located at the Ron Jon Surf Shop, a two-acre complex that resembles an enormous castle – decked out in vibrant beach colors.

    The flagship store of this world-famed retail behemoth offers so much more than mere sporting equipment – though, of course, the selection of fiberglass and foam surfboards is staggering. There’s a full line of apparel for every member of the family, plus every kind of beach-flavored accessory and souvenir imaginable. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the emporium is a non-stop source of entertainment that periodically adds live bands and surfing celebrity autograph signings to the mix of attractions.

    Ron Jon also handles a full spectrum of sporting equipment rentals, including bikes and kayaks. In addition, they partner with the Ron Jon's Surf School by Craig Carroll.

    The surf at Cocoa Beach usually remains waist- to thigh-high (waves are measured in body height rather than feet), making it a perfect place for beginners. Advanced surfers seeking bigger thrills – and waves – head for nearby Sebastian Inlet State Park. Watching well-practiced athletes “hanging ten” in the crashing shoulder- to head-high surf is a vicarious pleasure for people willing to enjoy surfing through their optic nerves.

    Great beaches in Florida for sky enthusiasts

    When you want to count on perfect beach weather, St. Petersburg/Clearwater practically issues a guarantee: This area averages an amazing 361 days of sunshine a year. And with 35 miles of exquisite white sands that stretch along a chain of Gulf barrier islands, there’s an endless selection of beach experiences awaiting visitors. Whether you crave solitude or socializing, there’s a place under the sun that’s just right for you.

    Those who enjoy the bustle of a busy beach town will relish the lively atmosphere of Treasure Island, a family-oriented community. Kite flying, a popular local hobby on one of the area's widest stretches of beach, keeps skies here filled with brilliant colors and fantastic shapes.

    Clearwater Beach is another lively destination that offers a full spectrum of sand and surf activities for every member of the family, including visiting Winter the dolphin from the  "Dolphin Tale" movies The amenable seaside town even turns sunset into a daily celebration. When magnificent blue skies are tinged with glorious hues, Pier 60 lights up and the party begins. Along with live music and street performers, you’ll find local artisans displaying handcrafted treasures.

    The Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort is located only a short beach ramble away from the nightly shindig. I had just one small – and quite enviable – problem with this superb hotel. The sunset view from the balcony of my sky-high room was so breathtaking that I hated to tear myself away and join the party.

    Dedicated fishermen should note that the action on the pier continues long after the skies have grown dark. Round-the-clock fishing is available at the tip of the pier from April through September, and locals report that the biggest, best catches are made in the wee hours.

    With 1,136 pristine acres and more than seven miles of waterfront, including almost three miles of beautiful white, sandy beaches, Fort De Soto Park is a not-to-be-missed attraction. In addition to a special Paw Playground where pets can enjoy an off-leash romp in the surf, the park’s North Beach gets bragging rights to a prestigious “#1 Beach in America” rating for 2005 by “Dr. Beach” and America's Top Beach in 2009 by TripAdvisor.

    To get away from it all, take the ferry from Fort De Soto Park to Egmont Key. This 440-acre wildlife refuge served as a fort during the Spanish-American War, and the majestic ruins that remain are fun to explore. The real highlight, though, is the gloriously remote beach. Pack plenty of food and water since this is an all-natural, concession-free park – which also means there are no restrooms or showers – and watch for dolphins and sea turtles on the entertaining, narrated ferry ride.

    Another secluded beach escape – with restrooms – is Caladesi Island, one of the few completely natural islands along Florida's Gulf Coast. Hop the ferry from Honeymoon Island, and spend time sunning and swimming at a Dr. Beach favorite, ranked America's No. 1 beach in 2008. Shelling and birding are spectacular, and a cluster of sand dollars and a massive fighting conch were among my best finds. While lunching on the wide porch of the park’s little restaurant, I showed my finds to an inquisitive six-year-old girl. She then showed me her shells – a collection impressive enough to be a museum exhibit. It was easier for her to see them in the sand, I reasoned, since she was closer to the ground. But it clearly supports my assertion that there’s something for everyone. Just bring a bucket to carry it all home.

    Great Florida beaches for your skin 

    The intimate nature of this element begged a special focus. I needed to find one exceptional beach that would offer a meaningful personal relationship with skin; a place that would understand that skin needs more than a quick tan. It likes to be pampered and massaged, dressed in designer clothes and taken out and flaunted in trendy clubs at night. The beach would have to embody both glamour and style – qualities intrinsic to Miami’s glitzy South Beach area.

    This celebrated Art Deco-embellished district is regarded as the American Riviera, attracting an international crowd of sophisticated sun worshippers. The constant parade of beautiful people showing off beautiful bodies makes “SoBe” the place for skin – whether you’re an exhibitionist or a voyeur. (Forget your mother teaching you that it’s not polite to stare. Strutting your stuff is the raison d’être in this mecca of flesh, and people-watching is a favorite local pastime.)

    Of course, putting a burnished glow on skin requires dedicated hours of lounging in the sun, and the vast expanse of beach that adorns this neighborhood offers a superb setting for languid afternoons of utter relaxation. Deep blue water laps the broad shoreline, and candy-colored lifeguard stations add a festive touch to the scenery. The most striking sights, though, are the throngs of gorgeous sun gods and goddesses that congregate in this playground of the rich and famous. Just basking amidst this ultra-chic crowd is enough to make you feel fabulous by association. Although the atmosphere of South Beach is decidedly uninhibited, don’t mistake this for a “clothes optional” beach. While going topless is socially acceptable, you’ll have to head for Haulover Beach Park to sunbathe (legally) in the raw.

    The compact nature of South Beach makes it easy to get around on foot. A quick walking tour of Ocean Drive, which offers beach access points on the east side, is beneficial. The opposite half of this famed street is lined with charming cafés and bars that spill onto the wide sidewalk. I staked out an appealingly tropical eatery that featured mist fans – a refreshing amenity that would cool my sun-toasted skin when it was time to hop off the beach for a bite to eat.

    While the entire beach is public property, several oceanfront hotels offer exceptional pampering to their beach-going clientele. The Palms Hotel & Spa, South Beach, an elegant boutique-style resort, is a tranquil oasis on the quieter north end of South Beach. Full food and beverage service is offered at the beautiful lagoon-like beach, so there’s no need to leave the comfort of an umbrella-shaded lounge chair to sip a fabulous cocktail. You can even treat your skin to a massage in an outdoor garden cabana. (City code prohibits massages on the beach, but you’ll still enjoy a great ocean breeze in this tropical setting.)

    To fully experience South Beach’s round-the-clock partying lifestyle, head for Nikki Beach at the southernmost end of Ocean Drive. This super-sexy beach club is a hedonistic paradise that features a palm-fringed outdoor lounge adn restaurant with teepees and white linen chaises. By day or by night, this is the place to show your skin a good time, South Beach style.