By Sam Dolson
Way back in the '60s, the Drifters romanticized boardwalk life in song. In "Under the Boardwalk," they wove its virtues into doo wop poetry with a song that reached No. 4 on the Top 40 in the summer of '64.
Sunshine, romance, summer food, a carousel... the song has it all. The Drifters clearly knew a good time when they saw it. Because, let's face it: While beaches are wonderful by themselves, a beach becomes an experience when adorned with a thriving boardwalk.
With its bounty of beaches, it's no surprise Florida knows this quite well. Three of the best Florida boardwalks are scattered across the state, from the top of the Atlantic coast to either side of the southern peninsula.
Whether it's time for a walk, a meal or fun and games within the echo of the waves, Florida's boardwalks have it in large supply, just a sand-swept stroll away.
DAYTONA BEACH BOARDWALK
Once you're past the Halifax River on eastbound Main Street, it's a scant few blocks to the beach. The road leads directly to the 1,000-foot Main Street Pier, which juts right out over the Atlantic Ocean. The Daytona Beach Boardwalk, which heads north from Main Street, was built in 1938. Though it's been modernized, it oozes of the nostalgic touches the Drifters rhapsodized about in their song and it's one of the most famous boardwalks in Florida.
The candy shop at the base of the pier features an old-fashioned saltwater taffy-puller in the front window. Just try to sneak your kids past a spot like that, with pastel-colored sweetness getting tugged this way and that for all to see. Inviting scents waft from various grills, and an opportunity for a cool drink is never too far away. And the game arcades, the souvenir shops, and the mini go-cart racing all recall the breezy, carefree time of yesteryear.
If you enjoy a slightly dizzy viewpoint, then the Sling Shot ride will take care of things for you. It's a throwback to the days when thrill rides weren't marketed as an extension of the latest superhero movie. Just an honest-to-goodness, edge-of-your-seat jolt of motion. Adrenaline flows freely when you're strapped in and launched 275 feet into the air.
If you or the kids need a bit of wide-open space once on the ground, Oceanfront Park lies just to the north of the Boardwalk. Within the splash of its waterfront fountains that lift spray among the palms, there's an inviting, open, grassy field, a playground and a lighted volleyball court. Adjacent to the park is the Bandshell, a coquina-rock landmark that has hosted open-air concerts here since opening in 1937.
One of Daytona Beach's up-to-the-moment shopping areas, Ocean Walk Shoppes, is also right within reach. With its diverse combination of shopping and dining options, events and attractions, Ocean Walk presents a colorful set of choices to satisfy any craving for food or fun.
In the event of an afternoon shower, the 10-screen R/C Theatre gives movie-watching visitors all the modern amenities-- stadium seating, Dolby Digital sound systems and private party rooms-- within a stroll of the boardwalk and the beach.
The city's famous opportunities for a drive on the beach occur to the north and south of Main Street, leaving the boardwalk and the pier as the center of the action.
JOHN'S PASS VILLAGE & BOARDWALK
Here's a boardwalk in Florida that's filled with rustic substance and style. It looks as if the John's Pass Village & Boardwalk, near St. Petersburg, was shipped down directly from a fishing village somewhere in a small Northeastern town. But what it lacks in glittering door handles and precision landscaping, it more than makes up for with a wealth of entertainment options that lie within a short stroll along the sturdy wooden walkway or adjacent Village Boulevard.
The most obvious options involve boats. John's Pass is the waterway that cuts between Madeira Beach and Treasure Island to connect the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway, and its boat traffic defines it. The Florida boardwalk bolsters the southern edge of the Pass, and is the launching point for fishing charters, parasail and Waverunner rentals, family boat rides and sunset cruises.
The Pirate Ship at John's Pass might hold the most fun for the entire family. For the kids, there are watergun battles, treasure hunts, pirate stories, face painting, limbo contests and free soft drinks. For the adults, music and dancing, free beer and wine. For all, a two-hour trip on a colorfully decorated, Jolly Roger-flying, multi-level pirate boat. It sails through the waters of Treasure Island, Boca Ciega Bay or the Gulf of Mexico before returning to the boardwalk.
Hubbard's Dolphin Watch Cruise is also very popular, with its 90-minute tour of the Intracoastal Waterway where you're almost certain to see dolphins frolicking in the surrounding waters.
Back on land (and wooden planks), there's barely a limit to the broad array of shops and stores. There are sweet shops and bars & grilles, boutiques and artisan's markets, leather and wood handcrafters and jewelers, art galleries and souvenir stands. They fit categories from grandly upscale on down, and some are presented in a nautical theme that fits the surroundings.
The Pass' seafood restaurants benefit greatly from their standing on the boardwalk. At the Friendly Fisherman (under the big red fish sign), a simple question to a server about the freshest seafood item on the menu brings a slightly incredulous look and a just-as-simple answer: "Everything," she says. She"s right. Go down the line from the grouper to the smoked fish dip and your senses will tell you quickly that today's fresh catch didn't spend much time in transit.
Want to get out and fish for yourself? At Hubbard's Marina, every option is covered, from charters that run miles out into the Gulf's open waters to hunt the big game, to smaller bait-and-tackle rentals that are perfect for the quick walk under the John's Pass Bridge and onto the sands of the beach.
A quick windbreaker alert: If there's a hint of wind about, it will find you at the Pass. Pelicans soar and plunge into the water, and other winged scavengers share the sky-- and the boardwalk. It all leads to a salty, breezy atmosphere that feels perfectly at home with the charming, rustic look of the place.
Access is easy. Gulf Boulevard will bring you north to the Pass from St. Pete Beach, or south there from Clearwater Beach. It's a 15-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg, and the city's trolley system makes frequent stops there. Tampa and Bradenton/Sarasota are short hops away.
HOLLYWOOD BEACH BROADWALK
First thing to remember: It's called Broadwalk here, not Boardwalk. That's broad as in spacious and wide open. And broad as in extensive and varied. Both descriptions apply.
The term actually comes from the generous width of the promenade. It's concrete pavers. But the way it lays out for two-and-a-half miles across a 30-foot-wide promenade in front of the sand and waves of Hollywood Beach, with the odd palm tree sprouting up into the high blue sky, supplies a boardwalk feeling of wide-open spaces. Think Venice Beach, California. Family-owned beachfront shops and restaurants. Family-owned beachfront superior small lodging. Some full-service hotels. And scores of people milling about. It's one of the largest boardwalks in Florida.
"Downtown" Hollywood has undergone a modern makeover, but at Hollywood Beach, the 1920s Broadwalk wears its history proudly. There's a timeless appeal to the visitors' strolling, shopping, playing and dining before the open sand and the Atlantic Ocean. It's a haven for people and people-watchers of all ages.
Families love the convenience of grabbing a bite to eat at a beachfront stop, while their kids can run about in the sand within easy eyesight. There's Mediterranean, Turkish, Italian and French cafés or stands, as well as the usual quick-stop hot dog grills and pizza places.
Just a jog away, it seems there's always an activity going on. Paddleboarding, paddleball, volleyball. Add to that the runners, walkers, bikers and rollerbladers that are a constant and you've got an athletic vibrancy that jolts the area to life. Finally, there's a healthy choice of rental options, from any number of bikes or beach crawlers to watersport favorites such as Jet Skis and WaveRunners to kayaks and canoes, which are available at Anne Kolb Nature Center and West Lake Park.
A steady flow of concerts and theatrical events bring the nearby Hollywood Beach Theater to life. The music varies at the 500-seat outdoor venue: One day it might be beach-party rock'n'roll, the next it's jazz or Latin or tropical.
The variety extends to a series of festivals that the Broadwalk hosts each year. No need for a calendar, just check to see if it's time for Seaside Craft Fair or FootVolley Tournaments as your cue.
In food, fun or festivals, it's diversity and variety that are keywords at the Broadwalk at Hollywood Beach. The concept of traffic here brings a smile instead of a frown. It signals the lively traffic of people coming and going, dining and playing. Living. The Hollywood Trolley, available year-round, makes getting around Hollywood Beach and downtown a breeze.
Get across the Matanzas Pass on San Carlos Street to Estero Island (Fort Myers Beach), and the Fort Myers fishing pier and the area that surrounds it are known as Times Square. With its location at the foot of the pier, and its stop on the trolley line, Times Square is the center of it all. Interested in a shelling excursion? How about a sunset cruise or a fishing charter? Even a trip to Key West? This is the place to get started.
Parking is plentiful and there are indoor or outdoor dining options. Music seems to emanate from everywhere. Palms poke up from the brightly decorated walkways. There are colorful shops and shaded areas to sit and check out the beach.
The pier extends out into the Gulf of Mexico and provides a covered bait-and-tackle/gift shop for fishing enthusiasts and souvenir hunters alike.
In a small area, Times Square covers it all for Fort Myers Beach.
A boardwalk in the middle of the state? Once again, Disney works its magic at Disney's BoardWalk, where the charm of bygone seaside resorts combines with modern amenities for a complete "coastal" lodging, dining, shopping and entertainment experience.
Located on the crescent lake that rests between the shores of the Disney's Hollywood Studios and Epcot theme parks, the BoardWalk is home to the nostalgic Disney's Boardwalk Inn, as well as restaurants like the whimsical Flying Fish Café and many souvenir shops. You can walk along the promenade or rent a four- or six-person bike. There's even free water taxi access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
But the Florida BoardWalk is at its best after dark, with lights shimmering off the lake, strolling performers entertaining the crowd and the nightspots heating up – don't miss all the sports action at the ESPN® Club or dueling pianos at Jellyrolls.