The Sunshine State takes great pride in its 600 or so miles of beautiful beaches. Thanks to a year-round mild-climate – sub-tropical in the south – these mesmerizing white sands make Florida prime beach territory.
Although some of the most popular beaches are around Miami on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, with its warm breezes, bone-white sands and spectacular sunsets, shouldn’t be overlooked.
From east to west, here’s our pick of the best beaches in Florida.
Miami’s most exciting area, South Beach, which occupies the southernmost three miles of Miami Beach is the natural place to start this list. Filled with pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings, up-and-coming art galleries, modish diners and suntanned beach addicts, it’s often celebrated as one of the hippest places in the world. Socially, South Beach has an unbeatable buzz. Here, Latin, black and white cultures happily collide, gay and straight tourists soak up the sun together, and Cuban cafés and chic boutiques sit side by side. Though elsewhere Miami’s cultural schizophrenia may cause friction, here it’s at its riotous, cocktail-clinking best. Try to turn in early one night and wake up for an early-morning stroll– the lucid white light and wave-lapped tranquillity are striking.
Beaches are rarely found in the Keys, owing to the reef, but the sands at the 300-acre Bahia Honda State Park are some the best. Among the finest are Sandspur Beach, Calusa Beach and Loggerhead Beach, all of which offer golden sand, good swimming and snorkelling, and the opportunity to view rare plants, eagle rays, jackfish and the occasional nurse shark.
One of several barrier islands fringing Sarasota, Siesta Key is refreshing and laidback, attracting a younger crowd. Clusters of shops, restaurants and bars form Siesta Key Village, along Ocean Boulevard, but beach-lovers should head straight to Siesta Key Beach, beside Beach Road, where the sand has an uncommon sugary texture due to its origins as quartz (not the more usual pulverized coral). It’s a wide, white strand that can – and often does – accommodate thousands of sun-worshippers.
Just a short distance from the hard-working town of Bradenton lies the attractive Anna Maria Island. It’s a bright and convivial place with ramshackle beach cottages, seaside snack stands and beachside bars. As for the beaches, Coquina Beach offers excellent swimming, while if you’re after tranquility, Anna Maria Bayfront Park, at the island’s northern tip, has stellar views across the bay to the Sunshine Skyway, where you can watch pelicans feed from the nearby pier.
Fort de Soto Park is the furthest point south you can reach by car on the stretch of coast running south from St Petersburg. Made up of five interconnected keys, it covers 1136 untrammelled acres and some blissfully undeveloped beaches. As well as the ruins of a Civil War era fort, the park contains almost three miles of white sand, which possess an intoxicating air of isolation during the week – pristine North Beach is contender for the best on the Gulf coast.
Just to the south of Clearwater Beach, a full-scale resort community popular with students and families, lies pretty 65-acre Sand Key Park, where tall palm trees frame a scintillating strip of sand. This classic beach vista is a good spot to watch dolphins, though the view is marred by the nearby high-rises. Beyond lounging on its belt of sparkling white sands and enjoying the daily sunset festivities at Pier 60, you can also make a day-trip to Caladesi Island (see below), a few miles north.
For a glimpse of what the St Petersburg beaches must have looked like before the onset of mass tourism, make for Caladesi State Park, just to the north of Clearwater Beach. From Caladesi’s mangrove-fringed marina, boardwalks lead to a beach of unsurpassed tranquillity that’s perfect for swimming, sunbathing and shell collecting.
A few miles off the aptly named Forgotten Coast, the three Apalachicola barrier islands are well endowed with beaches and creatures – including thousands of birds that use them as resting stops during migration. The largest island, St George, boasts twenty-seven miles of powdery white sands and Gulf vistas. Shady live-oak hammocks and an abundance of osprey-inhabited pine trees add colour to a day’s lazy sunning.
With some of the best stretches of sugary white sands on the Gulf coast, St Andrew’s State Park is one of the region’s real highlights. The brilliant white beaches here are wild and undeveloped gems, while a further 800 acres of untouched Shell Island, across the inlet, is also part of the reserve.
Perdido Key, lined with spectacular untouched, bone-white beaches, has some of the best sands in the Panhandle. Though there has been some development in the centre, large swathes of beach and the island are protected within Perdido Key State Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore. A one-and-a-quarter-mile nature trail allows you to explore the area, and if you’re smitten with the seclusion, stick around to swim or pitch your tent at one of the primitive campgrounds.
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