A Let’s start at the tippy-top of Florida’s northeast coast where you’ll find the treasure that is Amelia Island with its 13 miles of pristine beaches and some sand dunes that reach as high as 40 ft. Amelia Island is so popular that for the seventh consecutive year, this barrier island was voted “Top 10 Islands in the United States” by Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Amelia Island is also home to the Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival held on Fernandina Beach every May.
B Florida’s beaches are made for beach bums. From the gulf coast to the east coast, the unlimited sun beckons beachgoers to either sit back and do nothing while soaking in the rays or grab a stand-up paddleboard and head out into the water. Cocoa Beach, located on a barrier island just six miles long and one mile wide, is where beach bums can sit back and watch surfers hit the waves. The Cocoa Beach Pier is a visitor’s hotspot extending 800 ft. out over the Atlantic, and with restaurants, bars, gift shops and live musical entertainment, the pier definitely beckons and is also a prime spot to watch surfers “hang ten.” Another beach bum destination, this one located along Florida’s Panhandle, an area known for its sugar-soft sand, is Mexico Beach, a beachside community known as the “Unforgettable Coast.”
C A fun family activity can be found in Cape San Blas in Gulf County, a 17-mile-long barrier peninsula that curves around St. Joseph Bay in Florida’s Gulf, a destination known for its clear blue (sometimes green) water and gentle lapping waves. What’s most popular here is scalloping: searching in shallow waters within the bay’s grass flats for these succulent seafood delicacies—all you need is a snorkel mask, a mesh bag (you can only collect two gallons of whole scallops) and your hands! Scallop season is on from July to September.
D Even if your clients have never been to Florida, they’ve heard of Daytona Beach. This world-famous beach destination is best known for its partying spring breakers and the automobile racing trials held here in the early-20th century on the beach’s hard-packed sand. No longer can cars race down the shoreline, but they can cruise at about 10 mph (tide permitting). Daytona Beach offers visitors and locals 23 miles of the Atlantic Ocean in an environment that resembles a park atmosphere with bicycling, volleyball, and vendors selling everything from food to various items that are necessary to create a perfect day at the beach.
E For an easy-paced beach vacation, try the Emerald Coast. The area is made up of a few popular beach communities: Santa Rosa Island, Ft. Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island and Destin, a destination that was named “Best Beach for Families” in a poll conducted on the Travel Channel’s website. Best for family fun is Okaloosa Island, a barrier island between Ft. Walton Beach and Destin, where it’s claimed that the sand is so clean it squeaks under your feet. John Beasley Park, located on Okaloosa Island, is a great spot to spend a day out in the sun as it offers shade with two large pavilions, 12 picnic tables and restrooms.
F What’s best about visiting Florida’s Space Coast is that you can combine a day at the beach—72 long miles of Florida coastline, all of it prime beachfront property perfect to plant a beach chair and umbrella—with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center (but more on that in the “Family” section of this guidebook). The whole of Florida’s Space Coast combines the coastal towns of Melbourne, Palm Bay, Titusville and Cocoa Beach. Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park Beach is 4.5 acres of unspoiled, underdeveloped beach and the last land ships see before they depart to the open ocean. While there, lucky beachgoers may see a mega cruise ship or U.S. Navy vessel embark out to sea. Also, if your clients forget their beach chair, there are vendors on site renting everything from chairs and beach umbrellas, to kayaks and paddleboards.
G Coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman, also known as “Dr. Beach,” listed St. George Island State Park, located on St. George Island, as one of the “Top 10 Beaches in the U.S.” last year. Located just 80 miles southwest of the state’s capital in the northwest Panhandle in Franklin County, the state park offers nine miles of beach to explore. Along with picnic pavilions and beach house facilities, the park also includes grills and boardwalks; and the best part, pets are allowed to enjoy the day too as long as they are on a leash.
H Strolling down a boardwalk with shops and restaurants on one side and a beautiful turquoise ocean on the other is a must-do leisure activity when in Hollywood Beach, located in the Greater Fort Lauderdale area. Hollywood’s boardwalk stretches 2.5 miles long and is great for people-watching, eating alfresco and then heading into the temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Fort Lauderdale offers 23 miles of beach to choose from such as Deerfield Beach, Hallandale Beach and Pompano Beach, but Hollywood Beach is a tad cooler as it’s here where parts of the movie Marley & Me were filmed.
I Indian River County is a mix of beaches, outdoor activities, nature, and arts & culture. So if you have clients who like to lie out on the beach before hopping into a kayak or canoe, or visiting a wildlife park like the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, then Indian River County is where they should go. From top to bottom, along the east coast, Indian River County encompasses about 26 miles of beaches and is located just south of Florida’s Space Coast, which means the surfing here is pretty popular, too. Vero Beach is a must-visit and surfers enjoy Sebastian Inlet State Park, considered one of the best surfing sites on the eastern seaboard.
J Put away the skateboards and rollerblades because the only activity happening at the Jacksonville Beach Fishing Pier is just that—fishing. Anglers of any skill can find their personal railing and set up their bait and tackle along the pier to fish from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Extending a quarter-mile out over the Atlantic Ocean, the pier offers stunning views of the Jacksonville Beach coastline. Not into fishing? No problem. Take a stroll on the pier or skip it all together and enjoy the beach. Admission is $1 for pedestrians, $4 for fishermen.
K Florida’s central east coast is prime for watersports activities, including kiteboarding and surfing. Located between Daytona Beach to the south and St. Augustine to the north, Palm Coast and Flagler Beaches stretches for 19 miles and is ideal for kiteboarding enthusiasts, as is New Smyrna Beach, providing 13 miles of white sandy coastline.
L Sunsets and calm, warm waters await beachgoers at Lido Beach and Longboat Key, located in Sarasota County. Jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico, North Lido Beach is where visitors can birdwatch, as local and migrating birds nest in the area, while at main Lido Beach Park, visitors can scour the sand for seashells or cannonball into the public swimming pool. Just north of Lido Beach is Longboat Key where visitors can enjoy two beach parks: Whitney Beach and Beer Can Island, which can be accessed at low tide only.
M It’s all about the party scene down in Miami Beach. Nightclubs, restaurants, bars, high-end shopping, a thriving LGBT community, and of course, the Atlantic Ocean, truly make this South Florida destination a must-visit for travelers. Grab a cocktail from a bar on Ocean Drive then take your party down to the sand in South Beach, an area of Miami Beach where it’s all about people watching. At 12th Street and Ocean Drive, visitors can mingle with the local gay community at the gay beach, and farther up the coast, just north of Miami Beach, is Haulover Beach Park, a 1.5-mile beach with a clothing-optional section.
N Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades embody the best of a beach and island lifestyle with a bit of nature and wildlife experiences. Families should not miss a visit to Marco Island’s Tigertail Beach. Along with the soft lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, visitors can enjoy a stroll through the butterfly garden to catch a glimpse of numerous bird species. The beach is located along the Great Florida Birding Trail and is one of the most popular beaches in Collier County. Keewaydin Island is a barrier island located between Naples and Marco Island with nearly eight miles of deserted, white-sand beach only accessible by boat; boat rentals are available at several marinas in Naples and Marco Island.
O Ormond Beach, located only five miles north of Daytona, is a quaint beach community on Florida’s east coast. Families and visitors should not miss a day spent at Andy Romano Beachfront Park. With water fountains for children to splish-and-splash; pavilions with individual BBQs; restrooms; and the open ocean front-and-center, Ormond Beach is a great alternative to Daytona Beach.
P Known as the “Wreck Diving Capital of the South,” Panama City Beach offers plenty do to above and under water. As scuba divers explore historic wrecks and artificial reefs in the depths of the ocean, snorkelers can skim the surface seeking tropical fish and an abundance of marine life. Landlubbers can also admire the 27 miles of beach where the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay converge. Pasco County, located on the west coast about 30 minutes north of Tampa, is best for beach and nature lovers. From kayaking to canoeing and birdwatching, this area features about 30 nature parks and beaches on the gulf. Advise a day trip to Robert K. Rees Memorial Park for swimming, fishing, picnicking and dolphin watching at an observation tower.
Q From gray to brown, orange and pure white, the sand found on Florida’s beaches are distinct in color and shape and give each beach destination its own feel (literally). But it’s the quartz sand that truly dazzles the eye. White and fine-grained, this sand, contrasting with the turquoise waters of the ocean, can be found, and felt, in a few notable beach spots like St. Andrew’s State Park near Panama City Beach; Casey Key in Sarasota; and Clearwater Beach.
R Rosemary Beach is a picturesque neighborhood radiating Old Florida charm where walking and biking is the ideal way to discover its town square, cottages reminiscent of New Orleans architecture, shops and restaurants. It’s located in South Walton, whose slogan is “Find Your Perfect Beach,” and this destination along the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle actually boasts quite a few perfect beach towns with charming names like Seascape and Watercolor. In fact, there are 15 beachside neighborhoods and 26 miles of sugar-white beaches to explore here.
S Shelling along Florida’s beaches is another great way for families to spend quality time together while vacationing in the Sunshine State. Some beaches like Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key, both in Pensacola, are prime for collectors looking for seashells and sand dollars. In Martin County, an area along Florida’s eastern coast known for its flawless and less-congested beaches, shelling is quite popular at Stuart, Jenson and Hobe Sound beaches, while on the west coast, Sanibel Island is considered one of the best spots to find stunning shells. Once the shell searching is done, these beaches are also made for snorkeling, fishing and surfing.
T Beautiful seashells are not all your clients will find hidden in the depths of Florida’s sand. Some lucky diggers may come across a fossilized shark’s tooth. But for serious shark tooth collectors, Venice is the place to be as it hosts the annual Venice Shark’s Tooth Festival. Held April 11-13, 2014, the festival brings together collectors and those interested in seeing these sharp teeth of all shapes and sizes. Along with food, entertainment and activities for the kids, the festival also features artwork from local artists. Admission is $3 and kids under 12 are free.
U For beachgoers who prefer a quieter, deserted-island beach experience, Florida does feature areas with miles of undeveloped shoreline. In Charlotte Harbor & the Gulf Islands, located about 50 miles south of Sarasota, 84 percent of the shoreline is protected from development and with four barrier islands and two state parks the crowds are few but the wildlife (dolphins, sea turtles, birds) isn’t; recommend Stump Pass Beach and Don Pedro Island state parks. While Fort Myers is bustling with activity, local law in Sanibel Island states that a building cannot be higher than the tallest palm tree—that means nothing but undisturbed sunsets and endless sunshine.
V For clients who like to mix history with a bit of beachside pleasure, recommend a stay at Vilano Beach, a cozy beach community rich in history and charm—ferries and horse-drawn trolleys were once the only mode of transportation to the beach. It’s located in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches on the northern end of this historic area. Visitors can also spend some time frolicking at Crescent Beach, Summer Haven and St. Augustine Beach before heading into St. Augustine to sightsee and enjoy some historical tours.
W Another beach along Florida’s Panhandle, known, and raved, for its soft, white sand is Santa Rosa County’s Navarre Beach. The beach is found on Santa Rosa Island where locals and visitors converge to watch the sunset or maybe play a game of volleyball. For those into preservation, The Gulf Islands National Seashore, located between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach, offers eight miles of federally protected, undeveloped shoreline and is said to be the longest continuous stretch of protected beaches in northwest Florida.
X Back in our letter “K” section, we mentioned New Smyrna Beach, and here we mention it again only to highlight its messy, but fun, Xtreme Mud Warrior Race held at Omega Ranch, which is located about 20 minutes from the surf and sun of New Smyrna. “Warriors” hurdle themselves through military-style obstacles, swim in lakes, climb over walls and trudge through the muck to the finish line—this is far from the typical 5K run. The Xtreme Mud Warrior Race will be held Feb. 4. Admission is $84 for adults; $37 for “youth warriors,” ages 8-12.
Y A day in Hollywood Beach can include much more than a family-friendly experience under the sun. At Young Circle Park, a 10-acre circle park located in the heart of Hollywood, art installations, entertainment, music, water features, a children’s playground, and arts pavilion where spectators can watch a live glass-blowing demonstration, give families and visitors a fun alternative to the nearby beach, or kick-start a great day before finding that perfect spot on the sand.
Z It was a bit taxing trying to find a beach-related phrase that started with the letter “Z,” but the good people at St. Lucie County shared with us some fun tidbits about their county, an area with its own 21 miles of coastline and nature preserves. It so happens that Fort Pierce is the resting place for Zora Neale Hurston, a famous African-American author best known for writing “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Hurston spent her later years in Fort Pierce working as a journalist, teacher and novelist.
Five Top Beach Hotels
1 TOPS’L Beach & Racquet Resort (wyndhamvacationrentals.com) is made for tennis enthusiasts and beach lovers, too, so don’t forget to tell your clients to pack a bathing suit and tennis racket when they book at this resort located in Destin. The resort ranked No. 10 in the world by Tennis Resorts Online in their “Top 100 Tennis Resorts & Camps” for 2013, and with 12 clay tennis courts, 10 of which are lit for nighttime play, access to northwest Florida’s pristine beaches, a nature trail, multiple pools, onsite dining options, and several accommodation options (2-, 3-, and 5-bedroom luxe condos, 2-story villas, single-family homes), TOPS’L offers the best of outdoor fun and recreational activities.
2 Rosemary Beach on Florida’s Emerald Coast sets the perfect stage for the recently opened 55-room luxury resort, The Pearl (thepearlrb.com). Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, The Pearl features plush accommodations with private balconies, in-room spa products, a stocked fridge, and complimentary valet parking for overnight guests. Guests can choose from Traditional rooms with one king or two queen beds; Cabana rooms that open to a private poolside cabana and spa area; or the signature Pearl Suite offering a bedroom, sitting area and private balcony with views of the Gulf. The Pearl also features an onsite restaurant and spa and is only 20 minutes from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City.
3 With 404 oceanfront guestrooms, miles of beaches to explore, golf, tennis, nature activities from crabbing to edible plant and wildflower tours, nine restaurants, a spa, and family movie nights, it’s no wonder the Omni Amelia Island Plantation (omnihotels.com) is naming its $85 million renovation a “re-imagination.” Located at the tip of Amelia Island in northeast Florida, this 1,350-acre resort also boasts the largest multi-tiered pool deck in northeast Florida. The outdoor area features a fire pit and adults-only infinity edge pool; a 10,000-sq.-ft. pool; a Splash Park water playground for the kids; and two hot tubs.
4 The glitterati scene that is Hollywood, CA, will be moving to the east coast in the likes of The Redbury South Beach (theredbury.com/southbeach). Featuring 69 rooms and suites, a 12,000-sq.-ft. roof pool area, and offering guests access to beach and pool amenities at the nearby SLS Hotel South Beach and The Raleigh, The Redbury South Beach will also provide guests with the Redbury App, allowing guests to order meals or wake-up calls via their smartphones or tablets. In-room amenities include 300-thread-count Italian linen and a record player complete with a vinyl collection.
5 For clients heading to Naples and looking for a boutique-style getaway not far from the Gulf of Mexico, recommend the newly renovated Inn on Fifth (innonfifth.com). In December 2012, the Inn completed an $18 million renovation project that included the addition of 32 new Club Level Suites, located in a new building directly across from the Inn. Guests lodged in this new 3-story building have 24-hour concierge service, a private rooftop hot tub and sunbathing area, and separate check-in along with breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cocktails and appetizers. Suites range from 550 to 1,160 sq. ft. Other amenities include the Spa on Fifth, 24-hr. fitness center and open-air courtyard ideal for weddings and cocktail receptions.
1 Heads up! Watch for flying mullets during the 29th Annual Interstate Mullet Toss and Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party held at the Florida-Alabama state line from April 26-28, 2014. This wacky event is hosted by Flora-Bama Lounge in Perdido Key, a beachside bar and oyster house located on the state line between Florida and Alabama. For $15 pp, contestants on the Alabama side grab a dead mullet, a local fish, and from a designated circle, toss it into Florida—the winner with the best arm receives a trophy and Flora-Bama gift certificate.
2 Cocoa Beach, one of the best surfing spots on the east coast, is host to the 50th Easter Surfing Festival. From amateur surfers to professionals, anyone can participate in this 3-day festival, happening April 17-20, 2014 and bringing spectators and surf fans together for fun, food and high-energy surfing. The event also includes an Easter egg hunt and evening entertainment with movies and live music, as well as skimboarding and stand-up paddleboarding contests.
3 Conch is king in Key West, so much so that some people like to blow into this pink shell and create (beautiful?) music out of it. The Annual Conch Honk is a local event where contestants are judged by how loud and long (quality and duration are factors as well) they can blow their conch shell. Held at Key West’s Oldest House (322 Duval St.) on March 1, 2014, the event is free for spectators and participants. Conch shells are also for purchase.
4 For music of another kind, Sunny Isles Beach, located north of Miami Beach, is hosting its 7th Annual Sunny Isles Beach Jazz Fest. Held every fall, this 3-day event celebrates the best in jazz music featuring past and present jazz musicians. Main performances are held at the city’s brand-new Heritage Park, offering ample space for families and jazz music lovers to gather for a night of music and entertainment.