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When I was a kid growing up on the gulf coast of Florida, everyone in my family had their favorite beach. My beloved great aunt Polo liked to harvest coquinas, tiny colorful clams she used in fish soup, in the early mornings along Fort Myers beach. I occasionally enjoyed the honor of being her bucket and rake-wielding assistant. My mother preferred a quieter stretch of shore by the old light house on Sanibel Island, where she could be left alone with a paperback while my sister and I bobbed in the still waters of the gulf. I never complained because Sanibel is also home to a Dairy Queen, which meant a day at the beach always ended with a butterscotch dipped, soft-serve ice cream cone.
Chances are that whatever your idea of a perfect day at the beach, there’s an exemplary spot for it in Florida. With almost 1,200 miles of coastline along both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, there’s plenty to choose from. The selections here include spots on both bodies of water, as well as in the Keys, which sit just above the Florida Strait. Whether you want to hang ten or get some Zzzs, here are my top picks.
Jennifer Richardson's guide to Floridian beaches
Surfing in New Smyrna Beach
California may be the U.S. state most synonymous with surfing, but Florida holds its own when it comes to catching waves. To soak in the laid-back vibe of a true surf town, head for New Smyrna Beach on the Atlantic Coast. Just 15 miles south of Daytona, a notorious spring break destination, New Smyrna Beach couldn’t be more different. Besides the surf, there’s an artsy scene and the vague, pleasant sense that not much has changed here since the 1970s. Smyrna Inlet is the place to go for small, consistent waves, while Ponce Inlet offers more challenging swells.
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Shelling on Sanibel and Captiva
If your idea of a day at the beach involves pottering along pristine, white-sand shores in search of new seashells for your collection, neighboring Sanibel and Captiva Islands are the places to go. Just off Fort Myers on the gulf coast of Florida, shells aren’t the only wildlife that feature here. Look out for dolphins as you cross the causeway, and don’t miss the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of Sanibel. Keep in mind it’s illegal to remove live shells from the beach—turns out my elderly Aunt Polo was a bit of a criminal—so only take those shells without signs of life.
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Snoozing on Barefoot Beach
For a lazy day at the beach, it’s hard to beat Barefoot Beach Reserve between Bonita Springs and Naples. Access is hidden off what appears to be a private residential street in a posh neighborhood just off Bonita Beach Road. Keep driving until you see a booth, where a ranger will collect a small parking fee. Once parked, you’ll walk through a grove of seagrapes and other tropical vegetation to emerge on the shore of one of the last undeveloped barrier islands in the area. It’s the perfect spot for reading, napping, and an occasional bout of floating on your back in the sea.
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Snorkeling off Bahia Honda Key
It’s fitting that the best place to submerge yourself in an exotic undersea world is in the remote Florida Keys. Bahia Honda State Park sits at mile marker 37, more than two-thirds of the way down to Key West (locations in the Keys are often denoted by mile markers, starting at zero in Key West and going through 127.5 once you hit the mainland). The park offers twice-daily departures for snorkeling tours of Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, home to an enchanting reef featuring elkhorn and star coral.
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People Watching in South Beach
In Miami’s South Beach, the European pastime of promenading is given a flamboyant twist as joggers, roller skaters and power walkers traipse along the boardwalk that begins on 5th Street and runs for four miles to the north. Beautiful beachgoers against a backdrop of Art Deco architecture make it the perfect place to people watch. Lace up a pair of skates and join the fray or, for the more reserved, pull up a chair at an Ocean Avenue café and admire the spectacle over a leisurely drink.
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Sanibel and Captiva by joncoxphoto
Barefoot beach by Milan Boers
Bahia Honda Key by Stig Nygaard
South beach by Phillip
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