Gulf Islands Beach.Photos: Visit Florida

By Donna Carter

The sun has barely risen but from my hotel room window on Sanibel Island I can see there are already people on the beach, all of them bent over the sand in a posture widely known as the “Sanibel stoop.” It’s good that I know the island is one of the best shelling venues on the planet, otherwise this scene would look extremely weird. The “stoopers” are shell seekers on an early hunt for prize mollusks washed up on shore overnight. They hope to find treasures such as the Horse Conch, Kitten’s Paw, Golden Olive and even the common Sand Dollar. Lying in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the southwest coast, Sanibel and its sister island Captiva, are examples of the great diversity that exists among Florida’s hundreds of beaches.

Art Deco, South Beach.

Glitz & Glamour

People wanting to experience the high life head to Miami’s famous South Beach whose reputation extends to the far reaches of the planet. It’s the epicentre for cutting edge chic where its famous beachfront is flanked by world-class restaurants, swanky shops and one of the hottest nightclub scenes in the nation. It’s a gathering place for the rich and famous and it’s also a place vacationers come to join in the excitement of one of the most fashionable “in” spots in the U.S. The beach itself is the icing on the cake where – considering it’s Miami – there’s a section for people to sunbathe au natural.

Panama City Beach.

Family Favourites

Beaches particularly suited to families are in great supply where snorkeling, kayaking, beach volleyball, and even horseback riding in ocean surf, are the activities that make memorable family vacations. The upper Gulf Coast towns of Destin and Panama City Beach are among the multitude of places with kid-friendly waterfronts. With wide sand beaches lapped by emerald green waters both of them are ideal for everything from sandcastle building to sun bathing. Indeed, excellent family days can be had at scores of Sunshine State beaches including those at Amelia Island, Siesta Key, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Other good places to lay down family beach towels are the Atlantic Coast’s Delray Beach, Fort Lauderdale and the Gulf Coast towns of Tampa and Naples – to name just a few.

Families enjoy the soft white sand on Florida’s many pristine beaches.

Sand, Sand & More Sand

The South Florida Keys stretch south from Miami in a long slender sweep where the sand-fringed archipelago is connected by a series of bridges. Scenic views are unparalleled with sparkling aquamarine waters, quiet beaches, picturesque harbours, swaying palms and tropical bougainvillia. There are beaches everywhere and the Bahia Honda State Park boasts one of the best. From top to tip, the entire archipelago is known not just for its beaches but for its slow and easy lifestyle where people are encouraged to slow down and smell the hibiscus.

Where The Rubber Hits The Sand

The Daytona Beach area is one of the few places people can drive vehicles on beaches – a tradition that dates back to the early 1900s when the wide, hard-packed sand stretching south from Ormond Beach to Daytona and Ponce Inlet was Florida’s first racetrack. In fact all kinds of land speed records were set here in the early days of beach racing. Even NASCAR races were once held on the beach until Daytona’s now famous Daytona International Speedway was established. Today, the speed limit for leisurely beach driving is 10 mph and is restricted to dedicated driving lanes. There are 13 auto access ramps between Ormond Beach and Ponce Inlet.

Bathed In Beauty

In addition to a delightful web of inland canals, Fort Lauderdale has one of the prettiest beachfronts in the state. Its more than 37 kilometres of pale, sugary sand are pure eye candy and the city has gone out of its way to take advantage of this great natural asset. The building of an attractive, 3.2-kilometre-long wave-wall and a signature beachfront promenade were part of a latter day multi-million-dollar beautification project that resulted in the creation of one of the finest and most impressive waterfronts in all Florida. Flanking the promenade is a host of shops, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and entertainment venues. Of course, the beach remains the star of the show where vacationers indulge in snorkelling, surf fishing, scuba, beach volleyball, windsurfing and jet-skiing.

Blowing Rocks Reserve.

Unique & Unusual

Not all Sunshine State beaches are ribbons of silky sand. Some of Florida’s rocky shores represent an entirely different kind of beachfront. These are places where swimming may be limited but water-carved sea caves are fun to explore and tidal pools beg for splashing. One of the best-known craggy shorelines is found at the Blowing Rocks Preserve off the mid-Atlantic Coast on Jupiter Island. Here at high tide, wave after wave pounds away at sea caves shooting geysers into the air. The Preserve is also engaging in other ways: spotting loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, inspecting small fossils, meandering through tunnels of sea grape, snorkelling and scuba diving. Other rocky shorelines are found at the Washington Oaks Gardens State part north of the Palm Beaches, as well as Big Talbot Island State Park east of Jacksonville.

A Natural Attraction

On the Atlantic Coast south of Melbourne, along a 32-kilometre stretch of beach defined by coastal dunes is the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge where its protected environment is the most important nesting site for loggerhead sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also a minor nesting spot for leatherback turtles, the largest and rarest of all turtles on the planet. Weighing upwards of 544 kilograms each, they are among the more than 15,000 sea turtles that annually arrive at the Refuge to nest and hatch their young. Nesting months occur from April through September and volunteers provide guided walks for visitors wanting to observe and learn about this phenomenal ritual.

Small Town Charm

Visitors who prefer small town beaches over Florida’s big city waterfronts can vacation in communities such as New Smyrna Beach. This laid-back town on the central East Coast that began in the mid-1700s as a seaside plantation has 21 kilometres of pristine, white sand shoreline and a community vibe that is pure “down home.” The small, friendly town of Dunedin north of Tampa likewise has a small town atmosphere and a waterfront that’s the doorway to two of Florida’s top-ranked beaches on Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island.