Florida is aptly known as the "Sunshine State," but it can really be called the Beach State. There are more recreational beaches and barrier islands in Florida than any other state in the nation. Most of the top-rated beaches are found on barrier islands; Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys is an exception, being another National Winner. Florida has over 8,000 miles of shoreline, and beaches are found just about everywhere except where the Everglades meets the Gulf of Mexico and the Big Bend area, which is the juncture between the Florida panhandle and peninsula.
People come to Florida to relax, thaw out and enjoy a 360-degree horizon. Florida is sunshine, beaches and palm trees, and more Americans vacation in Florida than any other state in the nation. While Disney World in Orlando is the single largest draw, beaches are the number one destination for tourists by far. In fact, the state of Florida can be thought of as a souffle-soft in the middle and hard around the edges. Except for Orlando, the real money in Florida is located on the coastline.
The state was named La Florida in 1513 because of the profuse, blooming flowers that the great explorer Ponce de Leon encountered while looking for the elusive fountain of youth. Florida has a rich history, stoked in tales of pirates, hurricanes, and shipwrecks of treasure. War has played a major role in Florida's heritage as the names of some of the most familiar cities attest (such as Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, and Fort Walton Beach). Railroad tycoon Henry Flagler was the first to recognize Florida as a vacation paradise, and he played a major role in developing the state. Flagler put Palm Beach on the map with the construction of the classic Breakers Hotel, and he built a railroad to Key West, which was unfortunately destroyed by the 1935 hurricane.
Florida draws visitors year-round, but I recommend the bumper seasons of spring and fall, when things are the quietest and off-season rates can be had at the hotels. The best time to visit the panhandle beaches is October, when the crowds and bugs are at low ebb and the water is still warm but the summer swelter has abated. The high season in South Florida is the winter, which spans from roughly Christmas to Easter. The water is warm enough in the Florida Keys to swim just about anytime that the sun is shining. At these low latitudes, the sun's rays can be very strong even in the winter, reflecting off the white sand and water surface. It is advisable to wear hats and sunglasses and use sunscreen liberally, especially during the summer months.
Amelia Island is the first beach you encounter traveling south, and this is Florida's first developed resort island. The lovely Victorian mansions still grace the landscape, and those vintage homes now serving as B&Bs are my choice for an overnight stay. Along Amelia Island's 13 miles of beach, the most natural and usually uncrowded spot is at Fort Clinch State Park. Here a wide beach and rolling dunes prevail, and the views are not obstructed by high-rise condominiums. The sand is fine, whitish to tan in color, and fairly hard packed.
Beach erosion has been a problem at Amelia, and you can often recognize a "nourished beach" by the admixture of quartz sand and crushed shells, many with jagged edges because the surf has not had enough time to tumble them smooth. Such places are often good spots for collecting smaller, whole shells and shark teeth.
There are many attractions to Amelia Island. A must see is the Palace Saloon, which is Florida's oldest operating bar. A Ritz-Carlton on the south end provides the service and grandeur to those patrons who can afford the best. This experience is to be contrasted with Fernandina Beach to the north, which is a real working community of shrimpers and fishermen. The island is also home to a historic African American settlement at American Beach, but dangerous rip currents here have caused some drownings in recent years.
St. Augustine is my favorite small coastal town in Florida. This historic town has the distinction of being the oldest, continuously settled city in America. People in South Florida like to go for a weekend visit as an escape from the hustle and bustle of the Gold Coast. Ever since Ponce de Leon's time, this small town has been the center of war and fighting as flags have been raised and lowered by a succession of countries. The St. Augustine Historical Society occupies an enormous building that was started in 1672 by the Spanish; this impressive fortress (that was never captured) is constructed of coquina-a rock made out of the calcified and hence solidified remains of millions of small clams and other shelled marine organisms. Coquina has also been used to build most of the public buildings and many private homes in St. Augustine. You can find this rock poking out of the beach face along the shoreline from St. Augustine to Palm Beach, testifying to the ongoing beach erosion problem. The best swimming opportunities locally are to be found on the isolated and undeveloped seashore at Anastasia State Park.
Daytona Beach is one of the most unique beaches in the world; it is the only place I know of where driving the family sedan along the beach is relished and even celebrated. While I give such activity low marks in terms of the best overall beach, this beach cruising is why Daytona is called the "World's Most Famous Beach." The fine, hard-packed sand along this incredibly wide beach was once used for car racing, attracting such notables as Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet who came to test their engines, trot out the new models, and set new speed records. Daytona Beach is still the world center for racing, but today the cars roar at high speeds on a proper, paved racetrack inland; the beach speed limit is set at 10 miles per hour. In the last few years, beach driving has been banned on two areas on the north and south ends of this 23-mile stretch of sand.
Cape Canaveral is a geologic wonder. Looking carefully at the map, you will see that there is the real cape, where the barrier island comes to a point, as well as a "false cape" to the north. Also, there are two chains of islands with the JFK Space Center built on the interior one. The formation of this double barrier, dual cape system is still not well understood.
The Cape Canaveral area is now dubbed the Space Coast because of the launch of space rockets from these shores. I must say that watching the liftoff of one of the giant space shuttles was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences that I have ever had; it is especially spectacular at night when the red flare of the rockets is visible for a hundred miles. The beaches at Canaveral National Seashore, which extend unbroken for some 25 miles, are some of the best in the region. Because of the miles of desolate beach, Canaveral is a favorite of nudists even though it is forbidden by law (but the clothes optional enthusiasts know that rangers cannot be stationed on every dune). Nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a totally natural area and haven for numerous species of birds, contrasts with the space-age wonders nearby.
Cocoa Beach to the south is a much coarser grain beach that steeply slopes into the water and is favored by surfers. You can't miss the Ron Jon Surf shop - it is the colorfully painted building on the main drag and reportedly open 24 hours a day. Cocoa Beach itself is a study in contrasts from the possibility of dining next to an astronaut to bumping into the Harley-Davidson crowd at a country music lounge. I always think of the show "I Dream of Jeanie" with gorgeous Barbara Eden when I visit the Space Coast, but this TV series was actually filmed in Hollywood.
The central Florida coast from Sebastian Inlet to Fort Pierce Beach is called the Treasure Coast because beach-combers occasionally find a Spanish doubloon or old piece of silver washed ashore. In 1715 a fleet of Spanish treasure ships was sunk by a hurricane, presumably wrecked against an offshore reef. From this point south to the Florida Keys, coral reefs become more abundant and the ocean water becomes progressively clearer and takes on an emerald green tint; the Gulf Stream also comes close to the coast.
Sebastian Inlet is the top surfing beach on the East Coast south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. On any given day, the waves will either lap peacefully on the shore or roar as they plunge, curl and finally break in a dramatic fashion. The best surfing in recent times was during the Halloween Day Storm of 1991, which generated 15 to 20-foot breakers for days. The time interval between the waves was 20 seconds or more, which is very rare for the Atlantic Ocean; these giant swells were more like the great surfing waves of Southern California. Sebastian Inlet hosts both national tournaments as well as local surfing contests on any given weekend. Great surfing days mean poor to dangerous conditions for swimmers because of the wave turbulence, rip currents, and danger of being hit by a surfboard. Inlet fishing from the jetties and offshore reef fishing for red snapper, dolphin and grouper is also superb here. When most people think of this coast in terms of superlatives, they think of Indian River citrus - probably the finest grown in the world.
Bathtub Reef Park at Stuart Beach on Hutchinson Island is a geologically interesting formation and a good place to take the kids for bathing behind the protection of the nearshore reef. The old reef, which was alive during earlier times when sea level was higher than present, originates under the island, and then protrudes from the beach face as you proceed southward. The beach curves inland as the reef maintains its straight line into the ocean, providing an interesting area to explore for sea creatures in shallow water. Keep in mind that children must always be watched as the ocean is not a swimming pool, and drownings have unfortunately occurred while parents were distracted by other activities.
At most Florida beaches, a flag system is used to warn people: green means good swimming conditions, yellow for caution, and red is the alert for no swimming. Orange is sometimes used to denote no surfing, while blue means Portuguese man-of-war are present. One day at Stuart Beach the surf was low, yet a yellow flag was flapping in the breeze. I was amazed to see that the nearshore waters were turned dark with schools of minnows; some were jumping out of the water onto the beach. I enjoyed catching them, then tossing them back into the water. I didn't venture into the water because I knew that something really big had to be scaring the hell out of these little fish. Later, I ventured on down the beach where the coast was clear and took a refreshing dip.
One of the biggest problems from spring through summer in recent years has been the outbreak of sea lice, affecting the coast from Fort Pierce to Key West. There is no flag system for this tiny critter, actually the larvae of thimble jellyfish, which get caught in swimsuits. Their venom causes rashes and itching that can drive you crazy. Skinny-dipping is one way to avoid sea lice, but nudity on state beaches is illegal. Your best bet is to check with lifeguards about conditions before entering the water, and shower immediately after getting out.
Palm Beach, named for the palm trees that grace this coastline, is the heart of the Gold Coast and the world-famous winter stomping grounds of the rich and famous. Even during the steamy summer months, a cooling sea breeze and shade from the scorching sun make for bearable, if not comfortable, living. People always think that it gets hotter the farther south that you go, but the prevailing Trade Winds blowing onshore from the Atlantic Ocean cool things down. The Gold Coast rarely experiences days above 90 degrees, while Washington, D.C. can be frying in almost 100-degree heat.
Palm Beach was developed by Henry Flagler, who liked it so much that he made his home here. Other wealthy northerners followed and this gold-plated beach community quickly became the place to own a second home - or shall we say mansion on the shore. These private estates remain hidden from view by tall, dense hedges that line the roadways.
The famous, five-star Breakers Hotel is a Palm Beach landmark and well worth the stay if you can afford the bill. When I was checking in a few years ago, the fellow in front of me who was just leaving had rung up a bill of over $4,000. I wasn't sure how long he had stayed or what special amenities he had ordered, but I quickly checked my travel agenda for a confirmation of the tour rate.
There isn't much beach at Palm Beach, which is the reason why this opulent coast does not rate highly in my annual Best Beaches survey. The shore is lined with seawalls, and the beach has been squeezed out of existence in many areas. One of my billionaire clients wished to have their seawall rebuilt, which protruded into the ocean. I suggested removing the seawall or at least relocating it further landward in order to allow room for a sandy beach. I was told in no uncertain terms that there were two large swimming pools on the estate, no one really liked salt water or sand, and the relatively deep water off the seawall stopped the trespassers and gawkers. So much for my idea of rehabilitating the beach.
The city of Palm Beach has tried nearly everything to stop the incessant beach erosion and regain their recreational beach. Recently, a multimillion dollar offshore breakwater was removed because it was accelerating erosion locally and inducing dangerous currents to boot. I have heard former mayors decry the erosion problem, saying that they would even throw virgins on the beach if they thought it would do any good.
The automobile rules the Gold Coast, with the traffic on I-95 from Palm Beach to Miami becoming heavier and more congested the further south one goes. For decades Fort Lauderdale was the top spring break beach in the country, but city fathers no longer wanted the annual madness and decided that the area needed a more upscale image. Now only a trickle of spring breakers head for these shores; the top destination today is Panama City Beach on the Florida panhandle.
Fort Lauderdale has an incredible 165 miles of canals within city limits; the main watercourse is the intracoastal waterway (ICW) that roughly parallels the outer ocean shoreline. An incredible 35,000 boats are registered in the county, which gives Fort Lauderdale the dual titles of "Venice of the East Coast" and "Yachting Capital of the World." Virginia Beach with its lacework of canals may quip with the first accolade. A water taxi is definitely the way to get around, especially during rush hour. The bridges across the ICW go up nearly every hour for the boat traffic. In addition to the other two titles, the Swimming Hall of Fame is found on these highly developed shores.
Miami Beach is the southern anchor of the Gold Coast. While Miami often gets a bad rap for crime, the Beach has been revitalized in the last few decades and the upscale trend is continuing. I remember being on Miami Beach in the late 1970s when the waves lapped at the hotel's seawall at high tide. There was little to no beach, and the same could be said for tourists. The mayor lamented that Miami Beach was turning into a waterfront slum. Then came the most massive beach restoration project in the history of the world up to that time. Over 13 million cubic yards of sand were pumped from the offshore sea bottom through a pipeline onshore to build a new beach over nine miles long and 300 feet wide. This was an incredible amount of sand, considering that an average dump truck holds 5 to 10 cubic yards of sand. The airline magazines and other media heralded the new beach, and the tourists returned, speaking German, French, Spanish, and other foreign languages. Miami has always been a favorite of Europeans, and it is often said that Miami is the capital of Latin America.
The second big boost to the Miami area was the top-rated, prime-time TV series "Miami Vice". While actor Don Johnson chased and busted people every week in this action-packed show, the audience had the opportunity to see how really beautiful the area is. Air quality is high as the developed area is a relatively thin corridor between the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades. Miami is a tropical paradise without the air pollution of downtown Los Angeles, and the ever-present Trade Winds bring fresh, cooling air onshore.
Miami Beach is a world-class beach; it is rated the top City Beach in the Southeast with its fine promenades, wide sandy beach adorned with palm trees, and trademark hotels like the Fountainbleau. High rises dominate the landscape. The place to see and be seen is South Beach, which is the hottest beach in the country. This Art Deco area along fast-paced Ocean Drive has been restored since the early-80s to its former glory and designated a historic district; it is now the heartbeat of Miami Beach, with movie stars, fashion models, and rollerbladers mixed in with the beach party crowd. The natural backdrop of SoBe (South Beach) makes it a prime area for shooting movies, ads, magazine covers, and the like; don't be surprised to see TV cameras on the beach most any day. Sylvester Stallone and Madonna make their home in Miami, and star sighting is good sport at South Beach. If you walk the beach on a nice sunny day, you will spot a number of scantly clad and topless women at SoBe; this European style of sun bathing is apparently permitted between about Fifth and 14th Streets.
The beach itself is light greyish to white sand, composed of coral with some quartz and shells, which ranges in size from medium to fairly coarse. The high water line is often marked by shells, washed-up seaweed, coconuts, and other natural debris that beachcombers enjoy sorting through. Tar balls can be a problem on occasion as some ships illegally change oil offshore by flushing out their engines. The beach is several hundred feet wide, and volleyball nets are just about everywhere. While the beach nourishment project has been a resounding success, it is surprising that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not screen the sand before pumping it onto the beach because it contains a number of rugged coral heads. The large and sometimes sharp debris is concentrated in the step where the waves last break on the beach face. It is a problem getting past this step comfortably to the deeper water when waves are breaking with any size.
Just south of Miami Beach is Key Biscayne, reachable by boat or car via the Rickenbacker Causeway. Here is a beautiful island that is so close to Miami, but a world apart. President Nixon had a place here, and Key Biscayne has a small town feel except for the high rises that line the mile or so of developed coast. Luxury townhouses that rival famous Brickell Avenue in Miami are being built; penthouses sell for $2 million plus. The village beach is mostly private, but there are two major parks on either end of the island - Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area and Crandon Park.
Cape Florida SRA, at the south tip of Key Biscayne, is one of the best beaches in the country, regularly making the top 20 list in my annual Best Beaches survey. With its clear, emerald-colored waters and gentle surf on a fine, white coral sand beach, it is the Best Swimming Beach in the Southeast. A large sand shoal offshore knocks down the waves, and rip currents are nonexistent except perhaps during stormy weather when only a fool or dedicated surfer would be in the water anyway. The water drops off so gradually that the beach is safe for small children.
The Cape Florida Lighthouse stands proudly at the south end of the beach, having survived the storm waves and surge of Hurricane Andrew in August, 1992. This category 4 hurricane did considerable damage to the subtropical forest that formerly enveloped the area, providing shaded trails for hiking and exploring. The park staff are actually glad that the Australian pine forest was decimated so that native vegetation could be planted in its place; the vegetative canopy is returning nicely.
Crandon Beach at the entrance to Key Biscayne is a much larger park with ample parking and many volleyball nets. The sand is light gray and the beach is incredibly wide, forming almost a tombolo near the south end. This seaward bulge of the beach is controlled by offshore sand shoals that can knock waves down to big ripples. By contrast, the sand is much coarser, the beach demonstrably steeper, and kids surf on the nearby beach at the SoBe jetty; what a difference there is between two beaches that are so close together.
Crandon's clear turquoise water is great for bathing and the beach offers a fine view of the giant cruise ships leaving the Port of Miami (the Cruise Capital of the World) en route to the Caribbean - and vice versa. But the bottom is so gradually sloping that it is hard to find swimming depth water at low tide until you are far offshore. There is also little wave energy here so that sea grass grows close to shore, and the very fine sand on the bottom is mixed with mud in some areas, making it less appealing to bathers. My kids loved watching the small sting rays skirt away as we walked out to them in the shallow water.
Florida's Atlantic coast is a study in contrasts, from the highly developed, hard-packed and driven-upon Daytona Beach to the pristine soft coral sand beaches in the Florida Keys. The Keys run for over 100 miles from Key Largo down to Key West, which is a world unto itself. Actually the Florida Keys are not known for their beaches, but there is one great beach at Bahia Honda Key, which was the National Winner in 1992.
The Florida Keys are a great area for vacationers from afar to visit but they also serve as the breathing space for South Floridians who live in the megalopolis of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, which count 4 million people as residents. There is something truly special about islands - the feeling of really getting away from it all. When I lived on Cape Cod, we used to roll down the windows and suck in the fresh air as we crossed the Sagamore Bridge (even in the winter as traditions must be maintained). The Florida Keys serve the same role. Some people seem addicted to islands, especially where the landscape is not dominated by high rises with the wildlife squeezed out of existence. People who live on islands certainly do have a special sense of place - a place apart from the rest of the world.
There are two high seasons in the Florida Keys. Christmas to Easter is the peak for visitation because of out-of-state tourists as well as the influx of South Florida residents who love to come down here to escape the urban scene. The summer vacation is the time that parents with school children often make the trip. The Keys cuisine includes a conch chowder or fritter appetizer and baked lobster dinner, topped off with the traditional Key Lime pie.
Key Largo is best known for John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which is the only underwater park in the continental U.S. The living coral formation, running in a curving arc about five miles offshore of the Keys, is an easy boat ride in the flat seas behind the protective reef. Because this reef comes close to the surface there is insufficient wave energy to form proper beaches except in a few locations. There are several options available to explore the reef. If you don't want to get wet, then try the glass bottom boat. Scuba diving is the best way to completely immerse yourself in the scenery.
I prefer to go snorkeling in the protective lee of the coral reef and then free dive to see the many tropical fish and other sea creatures near the bottom. It seems that I invariably come face to face with a large barracuda; it is pretty scary looking at that big mouth full of teeth, but I have never had any problems as they lose interest and quickly swim away. I don't wear my wedding ring when swimming because barracuda and sharks are attracted to shiny things underwater. Another fun thing to do is to catch your own dinner by using a net to trap the clawless spiny lobsters. Sometimes they get away and hide in the holes in the coral reef. Some people just reach in and pull them out, but you might come out with a moray eel latched onto your hand if you are unlucky. On windy and wavy days, the visibility in the water drops quickly due to turbidity, and you might as well plan another activity. Remember not to touch any of the coral because not only will you be killing a living organism, it can cause a nasty sting.
Bahia Honda Key is blessed with two wonderful beaches: Sandspur Beach on the oceanside (1992 National Winner) and Caloosa Beach near the Seven Mile Bridge. This is really a piece of the Caribbean as evidenced by the crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms. The ocean water stays warm year-round, making it a beach for all seasons. The beach at Sandspur drops off gently, and the lack of waves make it ideal for bathing by young children and for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking for everybody else. My only complaint about this great beach is that seaweed occasionally piles up on the beach. I realize the ecological importance of the Sargasso weed and the food it provides to inhabitants that call it home (shorebirds), but I believe that the park managers should clear out a short span of beach for the public. This would make the beach much more user friendly and not really affect the beach ecology one iota. I prefer staying at one of the cottages (which require early reservations), but most people bring their campers.
The road south continues until you hit Key West, which is the southernmost city in the continental U.S. This is not the end of the world, but it feels like it after so many bridges and stepping-stone keys. "Laid back" does not begin to describe the totally relaxed attitude of the natives. Cutoffs and bare feet are considered dressed. The president of Key West Community College said that he does not even talk to anyone wearing a tie; the Feds who operate the National Marine Sanctuary have a lot to learn about this area. By contrast, you have the Mel Fishers who hate the sanctuary designation because they can no longer suction dredge in these waters in their quest for sunken treasure. Fisher claims there is still billions of dollars of treasure shallowly buried in the sea bottom off the Florida Keys.
Smather's Beach, which is manmade, is the largest beach at Key West. Beaches are not a major attraction for the area first connected to the world by Flagler's railroad and later made famous by Ernest Hemingway. Duval Street is the place to see the sidewalk parade. Sloppy Joe's, which was Hemingway's favorite bar, is a prime viewing location. Key West is like Provincetown - except with year-round summer and palm trees - and is a favorite stomping ground for gays. This is one of the best places in the country to watch the big red ball drop over the horizon. I have enjoyed a number of spectacular sunsets at Mallory Square.
Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation
P.O. Box 1100
Attention Visitors Services
Tallahassee, FL 32302