Florida Beaches for your Bucket List
The Magnificent Seven
By Lisa Codianne Fowler
Sparkling blue waters, brilliant white sand and sun-kissed skies grace Florida’s beaches, acknowledged to be among the most enticing in the world. Noted authorities such as Steven Letterman (aka Dr. Beach), US News & World Report, 10Best, Trip Advisor’s Travelers Choice and countless others have rated many of Florida’s 124 beaches among their Top 10. However, seven coastal beauties consistently make the grade.
Though you may not have time to visit all of these sun-swept shores, it would be a shame to miss any of them... the one you skip might be the best in your book. So, hold onto your trunks as we take you on a tour of these seven stellar strands.
Bahia Honda State Park
A trip to the Florida Keys is not complete without spending time at Bahia Honda. About a 45-minute drive from Key West, this island paradise lures locals and visitors alike for sunbathing, snorkeling and beach combing.
The beaches here are typical of those in the Keys. Rather than wide, soft sandy shores, they are narrow with shallow, clear water, making snorkeling sans boat easy and rewarding. Fishing and boating are also favored pastimes. One of several hiking paths leads to the Old Bahia Honda Bridge, originally part of the Overseas Railroad and one of the most photographed structures in the keys. Walking across the bridge affords endless views of the Gulf and Atlantic waters.
Unique to Bahia Honda is the dramatic contrast between powdery white sand sprawled along the Atlantic and the opposing secluded cove on a beach of coral and limestone rock. Of Bahia Honda’s three beaches – Loggerhead, Sandspur and Calusa, the latter two have garnered best beach awards. Calusa is the smallest beach and is located on the northwest side of the island. Sandspur, on the southeast end, is the largest. All the beaches have or share pavilions with stationary barbecue grills, and a restroom with accessible, outdoor, fresh water showers. Kayak rentals and snorkeling tours to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary are available at the concession.
Caladesi Island State Park
Don’t miss the boat! It’s headed toward savage beauty, serenity and seclusion. A 20-minute ferry ride from Honeymoon Island lands you at Caladesi, one of the few undeveloped barrier islands in the state. The short trip there alone is a naturist’s delight, with dolphin swimming alongside, and seagulls, ospreys and heron gliding overhead.
The 650-acre park includes more than three miles of gulf-front beach with sand dunes, sea oats and sea grasses and a three-mile nature trail. Just west of Dunedin and north of Clearwater Beach, it is also accessible by kayak or private boat.
The island offers excellent opportunities for swimming, fishing, shelling, boating and nature study. There are picnic shelters, bathhouses, a ranger station and concession stand. Boardwalks provide access from the beaches to the bathhouses and picnic areas while protecting the fragile dunes and sea oats.
Caladesi and Honeymoon Island were one until 1921, when a hurricane split them in two, dividing them by a body of water aptly named Hurricane Pass.
Fort Desoto Park
Five islands make up Fort Desoto’s 1,136 scenic acres, anchored by Mullet Key, where the main beaches are located. It is here that the old fort, an outpost during the Spanish American War, peacefully guards the park’s huge expanses of dazzling white sand and clear, pale green waters.
Hugged by the Gulf of Mexico, North Beach is the official winner here, popular for swimming, shelling and its unrivaled sunset views. It offers 10 picnic shelters, six rest rooms, a food concession and a gift shop.
The less crowded East Beach on Tampa Bay presents a clear view of the Skyway Bridge, three shelters and a bathhouse, and is convenient to the campgrounds. There is a food concession and bait shop at the 500-foot Bay Pier, one of two fishing piers. The other spans 1,000 feet over the gulf, and is located near the fort and museum.
Dog lovers and their canines appreciate Dog Beach, consistently named of one Florida’s best dog beaches. North of the Bay Pier, it has large fenced in areas, dog showers and drinking water. Dogs may also run in the sand and swim in the surf at Dog Beach Paw Playground.
Grayton Beach State Park
The oldest coastal community between Pensacola and Apalachicola, Grayton Beach is a funky little beach town nestled within Grayton Beach State Park. Renowned for its emerald green-waters and wide, sugar-white shores, it is an idyllic setting for swimming, sunbathing and surf fishing. The beach is a wonderful place to relax and mingle with the locals that inhabit this artsy village, self-described as free-willed and free-spirited.
Alternatively, venture into the 2,000-acre park, with nature trails for hikers and bicyclists, modern cabins and a full-facility campground, and a boat ramp that provides access to the brackish waters of Western Lake, offering both freshwater and saltwater fishing. Canoeing, paddle boarding and kayaking allows visitors to get a closer look at a salt marsh ecosystem, and a self-guided nature trail describes the ecological diversity here including sand dunes, the coastal dune lake, pine flatwoods and the beach.
In addition to the cabins, campgrounds and boat ramp to the lake, the park’s facilities include public restrooms, a pavilion, picnic areas, and canoe rentals for lake tours.
Siesta Key Beach
Go ahead. Sink your toes in the sand. You’ll soon discover that it is surprisingly cool. Located mid-island off Midnight Pass Road, the widest beach in Sarasota County is recognized as having the whitest and most powdery sand in the world. Comprised mostly of quartz, the sand feels refreshing even on the steamiest of days. You can easily spend a day here, if not a week.
Witness dolphins, seagulls and shorebirds putting on a show. Water sports of all kinds are readily available, from jet skiing to parasailing, boat rentals and tours. Every Sunday at sunset, locals and visitors gather for the festive and now-renowned drum circle. Afterwards, take the short walk to Siesta Key Village, a quirky jumble of cafes, boutiques and bars.
Hugging the gentle waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Siesta Key Beach offers year-round lifeguard protection, concession stands, restrooms, showers, tennis courts, volleyball nets, playground and fitness trail.
Seems Siesta Key is always tops on someone’s list – this year it’s Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice that voted it the Number 1 in the World. Arrive early - the parking area at this most popular beach tends to fill up fast, particularly during high season.
St. Andrews State Park
Endowed with the dazzling emerald green waters and powder-white sand for which Panhandle beaches are famous, this outdoor sanctuary is one of the most visited state parks in Florida. Situated on a peninsula at the far eastern edge of Panama City Beach, the 1,200-acre park is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico to the south, the St. Andrews Pass to the east, and the Grand Lagoon to the north.
St. Andrews was once a military reservation; today, it is frequented by water sports enthusiasts, anglers, campers, birders and all-around nature lovers. It boasts more than one and one-half miles of pristine beaches on the gulf and lagoon, and features a rock jetty that creates a protected shallow play area for the little ones.
With two fishing piers and a boat ramp, it’s easy to catch the big one in these fish fertile waters. Swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and canoeing are also fabulous, and clearly marked nature trails yield great opportunities for bird-watching. Park amenities include picnic pavilion, full-facility campsites, and concession with snacks, souvenirs and fishing accessories. It’s a short ferry ride to Shell Island, an uninhabited barrier islands with some of the best shelling in the state.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
A secluded 10-mile strip of sugar white sand and some of the oldest and highest sand dunes in the state are just a few of the highlights that set this beach apart. The 2,716-acre state park is located between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe at the tip of Cape San Blas. The park is quiet, undeveloped and uncrowded. It’s Florida at its natural best.
A favorite of beach lovers, it is a haven for shelling, swimming, kayaking and birding, and offers both gulf and bay beach access. Snorkelers are drawn to the crystal-clear waters of the bay and can see starfish, sea horses, and blue, hermit and horseshoe crabs, among other types of marine life.
On land, several miles of nature trails facilitate viewing wildlife, including deer, bobcat, fox, otters, raccoon, otters and armadillo. A wooded boardwalk allows visitors to appreciate the sea oats and dramatic sand dunes without disturbing them, and offers a panoramic view of both bay and gulf.
July through September is scallop season, when you can catch your own Bay Scallops to take home. There is a food concession with showers, restrooms and rentals. Picnic under pines or palms, let the kids enjoy the playground, hike, camp, fish or just take in the beauty of this incredibly peaceful park.
If you go
Bahai Honda State Park: 36850 Overseas Hwy, Big Pine Key, FL 33043
Caladesi Island State Park: 1 Causeway Blvd, Dunedin, FL 34698
Fort Desoto Park: 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde, FL 33715
Grayton Beach State Park: 357 Main Park Rd, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Siesta Key Beach: 948 Beach Road, Siesta Key, FL 34242-2174
St. Andrews State Park: 4607 State Park Lane, Panama City Beach, FL 32408
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park: 8899 Cape San Blas Rd, Port St Joe, FL 32456
Reprinted from The Tampa Bay Times' annual summer Florida Travel Section - 2017