Along the Sunshine State's thousands of miles of coastline are more than a few remote, unspoiled natural beaches where you can get away from it all for a while.
By Katherine O'Neal
On a picture-perfect spring afternoon, you would expect the beach to be packed. It is spring break, the height of tourist season, but my only companions are a couple of seagulls, hoping I'll drop a potato chip as I eat my lunch with my back to the dunes.
Here in Caladesi Island State Park, consistently ranked as one of America's top beaches, crowds are never a problem. It takes a little time to get here. There are only two ways out from the mainland - public passenger ferry or private boat. But the half-hour kayak paddle was well worth the effort.
A mother dolphin and two calves are chasing snook through the shallows 100 feet from my feet. The show drags on for 20 minutes, until finally my friends head offshore. I look at my watch and it is time to go. But I linger a little more; wishing time could just stand still on this little patch of paradise.
When it comes to beaches, the King (or Queen) of the Coastline is Florida, hands down. If you count all bays and inlets - where you'll find the "secret" sandy getaways usually known only to locals - Florida’s coastline spans over 1,000 miles.
Starting on the northwest Gulf Coast and running south to Cape Sable, the Gulf Coast's wild beaches provide a haven to a variety of wild and endangered creatures ranging from sea turtles to manatees. The east coast has its share of popular vacation spots, complete with hotels and condominiums, but it is still easy to find sanctuaries where the birds and animals roam free. From the barrier islands north of Jacksonville to the tip of the 125-mile island chain known as the Florida Keys, the Atlantic beaches have a unique, wave-washed beauty.
To see them all would take months, if not years. So we'll make it easy for you and hit the highlights so you will waste no time getting sand between your toes.
Sand Dunes and Sea Oats
Ever dream of wandering for miles through the sand dunes and sea oats, with the ocean and seabirds your only companions? If so, the wild beaches of northwest Florida won't leave you disappointed. If you start in Pensacola and head east through Panama City Beach the greatest challenge will be deciding which of the many deserted natural beaches in Florida will be your destination.
If you ask a dozen locals where you would find the least-developed stretch of coastline, you will probably get a dozen different answers. As a connoisseur of all things wild, two spots immediately come to mind: Grayton Beach State Park, located between Panama City Beach and Destin, and St. George Island State Park (near Apalachicola).
But after much deliberation, I think the natural beach award (if there was such a thing) would go to a sandy spit that sticks out from Cape San Blas called T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It takes a while to get here - the nearest "big city" is Tallahassee, 80 miles away - so only the truly committed find their way to this peninsular gem. Visitors can spend hours if not days exploring the waters here as the park has both ocean and lagoon systems. If you start at the entrance and head out along the beach, you can walk for nine miles before you reach the tip and have to turn around again. It is far easier to rent a kayak and paddle through the lagoon and out to the end of the peninsula.
But few people who start the trip seldom make it all the way without stopping. It's easy to get sidetracked since the bay is a great place to gather scallops during the summer and fish for spotted sea trout and red drum during the spring and winter.
If you visit St. Joseph Peninsula during the fall, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars. The state park is on the flyway for a variety of raptors, including the sharp-shinned hawk, as they make their way south to their winter hunting grounds. Another natural wonder is the annual migration of colorful Monarch butterflies as they make their way to Mexico to escape the ravages of winter.
Surf and Solitude
Northwest Florida has no monopoly on wild beaches. Sure, when many visitors think of Florida, they picture the Art Deco decor of Miami's South Beach or the towering condos and hotels of Fort Lauderdale.
But if you head north, all the way to the Georgia border, you'll find shoreline that looks much the way it did when the Spanish conquistadores first settled here nearly 500 years ago.
Fort Clinch State Park, at the mouth of the St. Mary's River, is at the tip of 14-mile-long Amelia Island. Fernandina Beach is another spot rich in history, and the world-famous Amelia Island Resort is a popular destination for those seeking a more luxurious form of isolation.
South of Jacksonville, you will find the wild beaches of the St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach area. With the Atlantic on one side and the St. Johns River on the other, these natural communities enjoy the best of both worlds.
Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve has five miles of virgin beach and some of the tallest sand dunes you'll see in Florida. The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve contains extensive public use amenities directly managed by the reserve staff including an extensive trail system, beaches with parking access and dune boardwalks, the Guana Lake Fishing Dam, and an Environmental Education Center that welcomes visitors.
Area beaches are all gems, but few would argue the fact that St. Augustine's Anastasia State Park is the crown jewel. The four-mile-long beach is one of the widest in Florida. Some days, you can start at the beach entrance and walk for hours without seeing another soul, except for the occasional surfer looking for waves.
The park has excellent nature trails that wind through the dunes and hardwood hammocks - the oaks stunted by the strong Atlantic winds - which makes Anastasia a popular destination for birders from around the country.
The campground, with 139 tree-lined sites, is among the finest in Florida. Most of the camp spots are within easy walking distance of the beach, making Anastasia a place where you can arrive by car then hide the keys.
Further south are several other internationally known beaches, including Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach, the popular surfing destinations of Ponce Inlet and New Smyrna Beach and Canaveral National Seashore.
Canaveral National Seashore (the bulk of which lies in the Space Coast) is one of those rare places that has never been altered by man. With 24 miles of raw, unspoiled beach, Canaveral National Seashore has one of the longest undeveloped shorelines in Florida, thanks in part to the Kennedy Space Center to the south.
Originally set aside as a buffer zone for NASA, the establishment of the national seashore has proved to be a boon to wildlife. A variety of migratory waterfowl use the sheltered waters as a resting area on their trek south. In June and July, visitors can join a ranger and watch a loggerhead sea turtle nest on the beach.
Sugar Sand and Sunsets
Drive straight across the state and you'll find more of the soft, white, sugar-sand beaches that have drawn people to Florida for more than 100 years. From Marco Island in the south to Anclote Key Preserve State Park in the north runs a string of barrier islands that have also made it to Dr. Beach's top ten list.
The St. Petersburg/Clearwater area's Gulf Islands Geo Park consists of three state-owned properties: Caladesi Island, Honeymoon Island and Anclote Key. Each has its own special attraction and each is worth a visit. But all three have two things in common - the softest sugar sand your feet will ever feel and sunsets that will stir the soul.
Anclote Key, the northern link in the chain, is the most difficult to access. The only way to get to this four-mile-long island is by private motorboat, ferry service or kayak. Navigation can be difficult because of the island's eternally shifting sands, but Anclote lies just three miles (across a sheltered waterway) west of Tarpon Springs, making it easily attainable by human-powered craft. The key feature of this pine-covered sand spit is the restored lighthouse that has guided generations of mariners back home to safety at the nearby port of Tarpon Springs.
Honeymoon Island State Park, a few miles to the south, is linked to the mainland by a causeway. The seemingly ever-expanding beach (thanks to failed re-nourishment projects to the south) is popular with birders and fitness walkers. It seems a little odd that in Florida's most densely populated county that there is still a place where you can walk for hours and never see another human being.
Caladesi Island State Park, the southernmost in the three-island GeoPark, is one of Leatherman's favorite Florida natural beaches and was ranked America's Top Beach in 2008. The fact that you can only get to it by passenger ferry or private boat helps keep the crowds away. With nearly four miles of beach (it's hard to get an exact number because it grows with each passing storm), Caladesi has some of the softest sand in Florida. The water here is exceptionally clear and, even on a busy day, you can find your own patch of paradise by simply walking 100 feet in either direction. Kick back, close your eyes and you might as well be on your own Pacific atoll.
If you head farther down the coast, you'll find more unspoiled stretches of coastline scattered among pockets of civilization. One good example is Charlotte County's Stump Pass Beach State Park at the south end of Manasota Key. With more than a mile of waterfront access, visit Stump Pass Beach and you'll understand why the surrounding area has been so attractive to developers. The ocean here is exceptional in its clarity, making this park one of the best "swimming holes" in the state of Florida. While there is no scientific basis for this claim, the waters off Stump Pass Beach seem to have strange curative powers. Maybe it is the long, secluded walk that helps melt the stress away. But a half-hour soaking in the shallows does wonders for the psyche, and you will leave Stump Pass feeling better than when you arrived.
Palm Trees and a Turquoise Sea
Much has been written and said about Miami's South Beach, but just across Biscayne Bay you'll find the northern tip of the Florida Keys and some beaches worthy of recognition.
Eilliot and Boca Chita keys, part of Biscayne National Park, are the start of the island chain that stretches 125 miles southwest to Key West. Sand beaches are sparse on these mangrove-studded islands, but if you know where to look, you'll find them wild and waiting for the intrepid traveler.
But the best wild patch of sand in the Keys, and one of the top in a state with more than 1,000 miles of Florida’s natural beaches, can be found at Bahia Honda State Park.
The islands of the Bahamas and Caribbean have nothing on Bahia Honda, which, in 1992, was voted best beach in the country. This picturesque key, with its palm trees and turquoise seas, can be found at mile marker 36, just a short drive from Key West.
While sand is a rarity on these islands, formed atop ancient coral reefs, Bahia Honda has two-and-a-half miles of beach. It is a narrow patch of land, no more than 30 feet wide on average, but the sand is soft and bone white. Loggerhead Beach, at the south end of the park, is well protected. Sandspur Beach, to the north, has numerous sandbars that are easy to walk to at low tide.
Like all of the natural beaches in Florida, the sand is just a gateway to the water. At Bahia Honda, rent a kayak and head out for a paddle. Get a few hundred yards offshore, then turn around and look back toward land.
It is not hard to imagine why the explorers who first spied these shores thought they had found paradise.
The back bays, lagoons and rivers that border many of Florida's natural beaches are among the most biologically diverse habitats in the coastal zone.
More than 95 percent of the state's recreational and commercial finfish and shellfish spend at least some portion of their lives in these sheltered waters.
Estuaries, a catch-all term for the zone where fresh and salt water mix, also provide a home and feeding ground to larger species such as the bottlenose dolphin and the endangered West Indian manatee.
Most lagoon systems are easily accessible by canoe or sea kayak, and as a result, are usually the best place to observe wildlife. A variety of wading birds, including the great blue heron, snowy egret and roseate spoonbill, spend most of their lives in estuaries.
The state's major estuaries include Apalachicola, Tampa and Florida bays, as well as Charlotte Harbor, Rookery Bay and the St. Johns' and Indian River's lagoon systems.
The Beach Life
If you visit one of Florida's natural beaches during the summer months, you might come across the tracks of one of five species of endangered sea turtles that come ashore to nest on the state's beaches.
The loggerhead, the most common species, can have a shell that is three feet long and weigh 275 pounds. The green sea turtle, so named for the color of its meat, is slightly larger, weighing in at 350 pounds.
At the height of the turtle trade during the late 1800s, more than 15,000 green sea turtles were sent to England from Florida and the Caribbean.
The species now enjoys full federal protection and state officials estimate that 100 to 1,000 of the animals nest on natural beaches in Florida from June through September.
The leatherback, which can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, and two smaller relatives, the Kemp's Ridley and the hawksbill, can also be found along Florida's natural beaches.