Florida's Best: Secret Beaches
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 deemed-postcard-worthy haunts, do the peripheral vision thing and set your sights on Florida's sublime spaces between.
Within easy reach of vacation meccas such as Miami's South Beach and Gulf Coast snowbird flocking grounds like St. Petersburg Beach, our five 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.
Delray Beach, South Florida
Lost between Palm Beach's untouchable richesse 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 beach vibe without the accompanying dose of attitude.
The dunes here are largely preserved, with beautiful wide sand 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 providing that cosmopolitan more-than-just-a-beach-town edge while staying true to the area's South Florida roots.
EAT: Locals swear by the mojitos at Cabana el Rey. Just don't call the food Cuban - you'll be quickly corrected. This cuisine is Nuevo Latino all the way, with a tapas-heavy menu and killer seafood.
STAY: Delray's oldest residence, the Sundy House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built around 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 bird life. Visitors regularly spot bottlenose dolphins and manatees in the park's waters. Meanwhile, the jetty attracts wild life of a different sort when fans of surfing descend for the annual wave-riding contests held here. Monster Hole, a break that requires a 1/3-mile paddle to reach, is one of East Coast America's most respected proving grounds.
STAY: While there's a campground inside the park, another great one nearby is Long Point Park, with more than 100 waterfront sites.
SEE: 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 DeSoto State Park, West Coast Florida
Despite North Beach in Fort DeSoto 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 DeSoto 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.
Arriving by car, the island park conjures old, wild 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 here 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. Here, pups can join their owners for a paddle in the warm Gulf waters.
Pass-a-Grille Beach, West Coast 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's 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 here 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 café-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 for blocks along the water, but is only two 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.
STAY: The ultra-private Island's End Resort sits at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, where the channel empties into the gulf. Individual cottages are linked by boardwalks through tropical gardens, and a fishing pier juts into the clear waters.
EAT: Breakfast on the bayside at the Seahorse Restaurant (800 Pass-a-Grille Way - no Web site), a long-standing local tradition. Service can be surly (in an endearing way - just don't dare ask to swap one ingredient for another), but one of Tampa's top restaurateurs calls the grits here the best anywhere. Plus, the pecan pancakes are to die for.
Atlantic Beach, Jacksonville
The most residential of Jacksonville's three 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 of Atlantic Beach. Here, 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 northeast coast.
STAY: The Sea Turtle Inn has oceanfront rooms with balconies and is a minute's walk from the area's best dining and nightlife.
EAT: Tourists seek out Starbucks. To hang with the locals, hit Shelby's Coffee Shoppe for your morning java jolt (200 First Street - no Web site). At this popular spot, the caffeinated chatter centers on swell conditions or whatever festival is taking place that weekend. Nearby, Al's Pizza (pictured here) is the go-to joint for New York-style pies.