Florida's Best Secret Beaches

empty beach during the day in florida with houses on the left past dunes

Matthias Clamer / Stone / Getty Images

The Sunshine State doesn't want for pretty palm-lined stretches of sand.

But for a beach experience that takes you away from the usual postcard-worthy haunts, access your peripheral vision and set your sights on Florida's sublime spaces between.

Within easy reach of vacation meccas such as Miami's South Beach and the Gulf Coast's snowbird flocking grounds, including St. Petersburg Beach, our 5 picks give you a taste of a lesser-known, less crowded Florida.

Here, the nature is abundant and thriving. There are waves to be ridden, and a unique beach culture lives on in small seaside towns you might ordinarily pass by.

beach, daytime, signs, florida

Visit Florida / Pete Cross via Flickr Creative Commons NC ND 2.0, cropped and color corrected

Delray Beach, South Florida
Lost between Palm Beach's untouchable riches to the north and the ostentatious yacht culture of Fort Lauderdale to the south, Delray Beach appeals to those in search of a true South Florida coastal vibe without the accompanying dose of attitude.

The dunes here are largely preserved, with beautiful, wide beaches accessed through tangled arches of sea grapes that beckon with a come-hither intrigue. The town itself is a treasure, too, with cool boutiques and European-style sidewalk bistros on Atlantic Avenue that provide a cosmopolitan more-than-just-a-beach-town edge while staying true to the area's roots.

Tip: Delray's oldest residence, the Sundy House, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1902, the Sundy is worth a splurge for its uber-lush grounds and freshwater "swimming pond" stocked with tropical fish.

Sebastian Inlet, Space Coast
Fishermen have long been lured to Sebastian Inlet State Park, where daily hauls off the pier — snook, redfish and mackerel, to name a few — are often more impressive than what the boats bring in from offshore.

Beach lovers in the know adore the 3-mile stretch of pristine oceanfront here. With the surf crowds paddling out to catch the big waves, you'll have the shore pound practically to yourself.

The park is situated at roughly the spot on Florida's east coast where the water makes that subtle switch from midnight blue to Caribbean-like turquoise. Nature reigns here; Sebastian Inlet's beaches are a major sea turtle nesting area and home to an impressive array of birdlife. Visitors regularly spot bottlenose dolphins and manatees in the park's waters. Meanwhile, the jetty attracts surfing fans with its annual contests. Monster Hole, a break that requires a 1/3-mile paddle to reach, is one of the East Coast's most respected proving grounds.

Tip: Located on park property at the site of a 18th-century shipwreck survivors' camp, the McLarty Treasure Museum is the place to see real pirate booty fished from Florida waters. Divers are still salvaging gold and silver from the 1715 wreck of a Spanish fleet, and new treasures are always being added to the exhibits.

Fort De Soto Park, West Florida
Despite North Beach in Fort De Soto Park being listed on Dr. Beach's 2005 list of best American beaches, few tourists make it to this stunning swath of sand near Tampa.

Bay Area locals, however, consider Fort De Soto the best beach around. Come weekends, recreational boaters swarm within swimming distance of the sugary sands. Still, you can always find a private spot to sun on the wide beach itself.

As you drive in, the island park conjures old Florida, and you could get lost exploring the 900 acres of bike trails, beaches and nature walks. Fishermen toss nets into the mangrove shallows lining the road that runs through the park, and from atop the 105-year-old fort, the beach dunes below appear wild and untouched.

Leave the parking area at North Beach and emerge onto a completely natural beach prime for shelling, strolling or swimming in warm, shallow waters. Most folks congregate by the water's edge, and a short stroll can lead you to a private piece of paradise.

Tip: Dog owners love the park's leash-free dog beach, dubbed the Paw Playground. There, pups can join their owners for a paddle in the warm Gulf waters.

Pass-a-Grille Beach, West Florida
Have a secret that's just too good to keep to yourself? That's how the locals feel sitting on the hidden treasure that is Pass-a-Grille Beach. Officially incorporated into the city of St. Petersburg Beach in 1957, Pass-a-Grille, its residents will tell you, remains an enclave apart.

From the broad, white-sand beaches, you can see the pink towers of St. Pete Beach's sprawling Don CeSar Beach Resort to the north. But south of Eighth Street (Pass-a-Grille's main boutique- and cafe-lined drag), the sands are blissfully empty all the way to the tip of the peninsula.

Even the tourists here become locals of sorts, as many tend to return year after year, staying in the same hotel rooms and rental cottages. The town stretches a ways along the water but is only 2 blocks wide from the bay to the beach, with nary a high-rise in sight. The historical houses, art studios and unique eateries sandwiched in the sandy lanes are best explored barefoot atop a beach cruiser.

Tip: Breakfast on the bayside at the Seahorse Restaurant is a long-standing local tradition. The grits and pecan pancakes are to die for.

Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville
The most residential of Jacksonville's 3 beach communities, Atlantic Beach (the burg furthest north) didn't come to be until 1899, when railroad tycoon Henry Flagler purchased the local railroad, attracting the first snowbirds from the north. Today, the tight-knit seaside settlement close to the Florida/Georgia border retains a personality that's all Florida beach bum with a smidge of Southern debutante mixed in.

Beach cruisers are the preferred way to roll on the neighborhood streets. The dunes are lined with wildflowers and gracious homes rather than the towering condos and chain hotels you'd find to the south in Daytona and Cocoa Beach.

The beaches are wide and packed enough for pedaling a bike at low tide, and surfers congregate to the north near Mayport Naval Station, where jetties create what's considered the best break on Florida's northeastern coast.

Tip: If you need a break from Southern seafood, Al's Pizza is the area's go-to joint for New York-style pies.

Video: Florida Beaches

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