Dr. Beach's Florida Picks

    Year after year, Florida's beaches rank among the top in the country, according to Dr. Beach.

    You've heard of Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Spock, Dr. Zhivago- now there's Dr. Beach. Yes, there's actually a man who has made a career of going to the beach. (Now, why didn't we think of that?) In real life, he's Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a professor of environmental studies and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami and the author of "America's Best Beaches."

    Ever since he began publishing his list of best U.S. beaches in 1991, Dr. Beach has become the authoritative sandman. Criteria for "Best Beach" covers virtually every measure of beach health, including sand quality, water temperature and the presence of litter. His evaluations are based on personal visits and on constant contact with naturalists, park rangers and scientists around the country.

    Since Leatherman began his surveys, several Florida beaches have won the top-in-the-nation slot on the list, including Siesta Key Public Beach most recently in 2011. (All No. 1 winners are subsequently excluded from future lists.)

    Caladesi Island State Park (2008), one of the last undeveloped large barrier islands on the Gulf, took second place in 2006. Sandwiched between Clearwater Harbor and the Gulf, Caladesi is only accessible by boat (ferry service is available). The park offers a nature trail and a marina.

    Fort De Soto Park's North Beach (2005). Actually five interconnected islands off the southern tip of the Pinellas peninsula, Fort De Soto Park has miles of sandy beach, a historic fort, a nearly seven-mile recreation trail, boat ramps, campsites and fishing piers. "North Beach and Fort De Soto Park just have so much to offer," shares Dr. Stephen Leatherman." In addition to its great natural setting, Dr. Leatherman claims "Fort De Soto Park offers something for everyone; there's great fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, bird-watching, camping, biking, walking trails and a dog park. There's even a 123-year-old fort on-site that's a landmark of Florida history."

    St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (2002). Situated on a peninsula off Port St. Joe in northwest Florida, this park has a 10-mile white-sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico and some of the highest sand dunes in the state. The park features a boat ramp, small marina, picnic pavilions, cabins, campsites and nature trails.

    St. Andrews State Park (1995). This northwest Florida beach in Panama City is known for its sugar-white sands, dunes and clear, emerald-green water. The park features two fishing piers, a boat ramp, picnic pavilions, campsites and nature trails. There are also three concession stands offering snacks, souvenirs and fishing supplies. Boat tours to Shell Island are available in the spring and summer.

    Grayton Beach State Park (1994). Sea oat-covered dunes, white sands and emerald-green water make up this northwest Florida beach on the Gulf. The park features a boat ramp, nature trail, cabins and campsites.

    Bahia Honda State Park (1992). Bahia Honda, located south of Marathon in the Florida Keys, has three sandy beaches, which is unique for the Keys. The park features nature trails, a canoe ramp, picnic pavilions, cabins and campsites.