By Susan & Simon Veness
Everyone knows Florida and beaches go together like ham and eggs, or Morecambe and Wise. Or blue skies, warm seas and golden sands. It is a quintessential experience that delights the locals as much it does the state’s 100-million-plus visitors every year.
There are almost 700 miles of pure, sandy shoreline along the 1,350-mile coast, and more than a hundred individual beaches to enjoy among that litany of eye-soothing seaside locations. So, how do you make sure you visit some of the best? Easy – we’ve highlighted our Delightful Dozen, safe in the knowledge you can’t go wrong with any one:
Bowman’s Beach, Sanibel Island; Gulf Coast
Sanibel is well-known as one of the best shelling beaches in Florida, so much so the term “Sanibel Stoop” was coined for its bent-over beachcombers picking through each day’s surf-side treasures. Sunrise in winter is optimum shelling time, with wildlife sightings – including dolphins and manatees – abundant year-round.
Caladesi Island, Dunedin; Gulf Coast
This is the archetypal beach experience, sitting amid azure waters just three miles off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico, but with the feel of being oceans away. Here, you leave the every-day behind on three miles of white-sand beach amid a secluded location that encourages a slower pace, where sunbathing, beachcombing, snorkelling, bird-watching and nature trail strolls are as active as it gets.
Clearwater Beach; Gulf Coast
This has long been a major destination for its warm waters, expansive beaches and vast array of hotels and restaurants. Clearwater Beach itself is the epi-centre, just a short distance from shopping, dining and other attractions. Activities include the thrills of the Sea Screamer powerboat tours, kid-friendly Captain Memo’s Pirate Cruise, parasailing, waverunner hire and dolphin-spotting tours along the intracoastal waterway.
Daytona Beach; Space Coast
The Atlantic coast’s answer to Clearwater, Daytona Beach is tourist central with a wide white-sand beach, surf-worthy waves and enough activities to fill a week or more. It’s largely family territory, but watch out for rip current warnings and designated drive-your-car-on-the beach sections when visiting with children. This is also the location for the mid-October Biketoberfest motorcycle rally, appropriate for ages 21 and up.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park, Naples; Gulf Coast
This boasts clear blue-green waters, whisper-soft sand and gentle lapping waves, and, aside from dolphins at play, you may have the place to yourself on weekdays. More spectacular shelling can also be found here, especially in early morning. Snorkelling and kayaking add an active touch to an otherwise slow-paced visit.
Delray Municipal Beach; Gold Coast
Between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, serene Delray Beach is far less crowded than its larger neighbours, providing a modern-day version of yesteryear Florida with all the mod-cons and none of the hustle-bustle. It mainly attracts the locals, but the smattering of international visitors who discover it quickly find it a hit for families with youngsters, who appreciate the extended shallows.
Grayton Beach, Santa Rosa; The Panhandle
Locals don’t want you to know about this one-mile sliver of shoreline that is as natural as it gets in the north-west. This is Florida as it once was, with a clean sugar-sand beach lapped by the Gulf of Mexico’s emerald waves. It most suits those who absolutely must have a wide beach all to themselves, as well as nature lovers and adults seeking time away from crowds (and kids).
North Beach at Fort De Soto, St Pete Beach; Gulf Coast
Fort De Soto State Park is a wonderful discovery just south of St Pete Beach. North Beach’s secluded location inside the park ensures a level of serene tranquility broken only by birdsong and lapping waves. Much of its charm is its peaceful isolation and the chance to watch dolphins frolicking close to the shore, but it is also the site of some fascinating Civil War history.
Pass-a-Grille Beach, St Pete Beach; Gulf Coast
St Pete Beach itself is prime tourist territory, but head to its southern-most tip and Pass-a-Grille is a quiet area favoured by locals – and one of the Sunshine State’s best ‘hidden gem’ beaches. It is ideal for honeymooners and couples, who especially appreciate Pass-A-Grill’s slower, relaxed pace.
Siesta Beach, Siesta Key; Gulf Coast
One of our all-time favourites, crescent-shaped Siesta Beach deserves its reputation as ‘the perfect beach’ for its cool, talcum-powder-soft sand, wide beaches and turquoise waters. There is something here for everyone, split into three sections, from those who just want to work on their tans to those seeking a more active visit.
South Beach; Miami
Sizzling South Beach is famous for its Art Deco district and rowdy nightclub scene as much as its golden sands and golden tans. It attracts “the beautiful people” and party crowd, but also those interested in exploring this quintessential Miami location, with its cafes, nightclubs and smart restaurants, as well as several miles of open beach.
St. Andrews Beach, Panama City Beach; The Panhandle
The city of Panama City Beach has been dubbed the “Wreck Diving Capital of the South,” but there is a lot more along these 27 miles of cool white-quartz sands. Sitting Gulf-side in the Panhandle, it attracts surfers, divers, sunbathers and nature lovers. At the heart is St Andrews beach, ideal for families with its natural “kiddie pool,” a calm-water tidal basin perfect for swimming and paddleboarding.
Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.