Best Florida Beaches Locals Want to Keep Secret
Follow the locals to these Florida beaches that are off the beaten path.
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Soak up the sun on Florida beaches
Pass-a-Grille Beach, St. Pete Beach
When the elbowroom at its more famous neighbor, Clearwater Beach, becomes scarce, take advantage of the free Suncoast Beach Trolley and move right over to Pass-a-Grille, one of the best Florida beaches. This laid-back island is more fishing village than luxury hideaway, which means plenty of mom-and-pop fish camps, adorable beach bungalows, and a handful of quaint inns with killer water views. While the water is as calm and translucent as Clearwater Beach, the beach is wider here, allowing you even more room to spread out and let the kids run wild. In fact, you’ll have four miles of windswept, undeveloped beaches to explore, making Pass-a-Grille one of the best family beaches.
What to do: Stroll quaint Eighth Avenue, with its coast-inspired galleries, shops, and restaurants. For amazing sunset views, visit the Hurricane Seafood Restaurant.
Where to stay: Close to the beach, bars, restaurants and shopping, accommodations at the Coconut Inn come with fully equipped kitchens and complimentary bicycles.
Santa Rosa Beach
One look at the Kelly green water, and it’s clear how Florida’s Emerald Coast earned its name. But the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico is not all that makes this one of the best Florida beaches. The sugar-soft sand is not really sand; it’s a fine quartz that filters down from the Appalachian Mountains—this being its final stop before being swept out to sea. Another bonus: The warm, calm water is perfect for paddleboarding, as well as swimming with younger kids. You’ll want to grab one of the best beach umbrellas and hang out all day. For when the sun goes down, the area is packed with vacation rentals, boutique shops, and restaurants in charming seaside villages, each with their own distinct architecture and vibe.
What do to: Visit in the spring during the Digital Graffiti Festival, when artists project their work on the stark white walls of the Bermuda-inspired Alys Beach community.
Where to stay: The WaterColor Inn & Resort is amazingly kid-friendly, with treat suites on every floor, a well-managed kids club, and free bicycles, kayaks, and canoes for use by guests. It’s also within walking distance of the beach, villages, and restaurants.
The Beaches at Caladesi Island State Park
You’ll feel like you’ve fallen off the grid when you reach Caladesi Island, a barrier island reachable only by boat. Take the scenic 20-minute ferry ride from Dunedin, a fishing village less than hour’s drive north of Tampa, to explore Caladesi’s three miles of natural, picture-perfect Florida beaches. Upon arrival, pick up picnic supplies and beach chairs at the snack shack. From there walk your choice of nature trails to the beach, where you’ll be rewarded with views of an endless horizon. The only sound is of the occasional boater whizzing past. It’s utter peace, like the most gorgeous pink sand beaches in the world.
What to do: Collect seashells, hike the three-mile nature trail that winds through tropical mangrove forests or rent a kayak at the snack shack and explore three miles of paddling trails. It’s a slice of Old Florida that’s harder to find these days.
Where to stay: You can’t stay overnight on the island, but the Hotel Fenway is right there in Dunedin, and comes with a complimentary shuttle to take you to Clearwater Beach.
Sometimes the best thing about a beach is what you won’t find there: On 24-mile-long Playalinda Beach in Titusville on Florida’s East Central “Space Coast,” there are no buildings nor motorized watersports. What you will find on this quiet stretch of the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, however, is one of the great Florida beaches, and a picturesque sanctuary. The area is also home to many of the best beach camping spots.
What to do: Drive through the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, home to bald eagles, manatees, and loggerhead turtles hiding in wetlands. This long swath of undeveloped shoreline is rarely crowded, but what sets this beach apart is its proximity to the refuge, so you can explore trails in the morning and bodysurf in the afternoon.
Where to stay: About an hour south of Merritt Island and located minutes from Port Canaveral, the Royal Mansions Resort offers a variety of condos with oceanfront views. It’s centrally located for all the Space Coast attractions, such as the Kennedy Space Center.
Boca Grande Beach
Nestled between Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico sits lush, no-rush Gasparilla Island and its perfect Florida beaches. It only takes an hour from Fort Myers and two from Tampa to reach it, but once here, you won’t need your car. Grab a stylish beach bag and hit the road. Bicycles and golf carts are just fine for zipping around this seven-mile-long paradise in southwest Florida.
What to do: Visit the southern end of the beach here, where driftwood is strewn about like nature’s artwork and a unique two-story lighthouse built in 1890 is open for visits. Offshore you’re as likely to see fishermen as dolphins playing in the surf. The Boca Grande Pass has been referred to as one of the world’s top spots for tarpon fishing. In the spring you can attend the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, a catch-and-release, traditional drift-fishing tarpon tournament that represents Boca Grande’s fishing culture.
Where to stay: One of the oldest resorts in Florida, the Gasparilla Inn & Club is also a premier family destination. It was named the #1 Resort in Florida by Travel + Leisure Magazine and is located within walking distance of many restaurants and bars in Boca Grande.
The beaches of Amelia Island
Just off the northeast Florida coast, this barrier island offers 13 miles of ocean beaches, calm waters, and Southern hospitality. Fine, soft sand, the lull of the Atlantic Ocean’s waves and a cooler winter climate makes this the only one of the best Florida beaches where you’re likely to see bonfires. Simply set up one of the best beach towels, grab a beverage and relax while staring into the crackling flames.
What to do: Amelia Island is also one of the only places in Florida where you can go horseback riding along the shore. The family-owned Kelly Seahorse Ranch offers guided tours.
Where to stay: Reserve a private bonfire for you and your fam complete with a s’mores kit (with all the fixings) when you stay at the Omni Amelia Island Resort, a massive resort complex complete with a spa, golf course, and restaurants.
Siesta Key Beach
Nestled on a barrier island in southwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, these family favorite Florida beaches have smooth, bright white sand that’s as soft as talcum powder on your feet. Part of a county park, the beach itself is wide, with plenty of room for building sandcastles or kicking back with a good beach read without bumping into your neighbor. It’s common to see dolphins playing just offshore. There’s a reason Siesta Key Beach is one of the best island vacations in the United States.
What to do: Book a sunset sail with a local guide or visit on a Sunday when the Siesta Key Drum Circle kicks off one hour before sunset.
Where to stay: The Siesta Key Palms Resort gives you everything you want out of a Florida beach vacation: Tropical gardens, kids’ and adults’ pools, tiki torches, fire pits, and hammocks, all within half a mile of the beach in a renovated mid-century charmer.
The Beaches at Bahia Honda State Park
Named by Spanish explorers for its “Deep Bay,” Bahia Honda State Park in Marathon is actually an island and home to three beaches nestled inside a 500-acre tropical sanctuary. Loggerhead Beach on the south side is home to a sandbar just offshore that’s perfect for families looking for Florida beaches.
What to do: Explore the park’s shelly trails or slip on a mask and fin and snorkel just offshore. The calm water here is also perfect for both kayaking and paddleboarding.
Where to stay: Rent a rustic waterside bungalow (read: no air conditioning) or book a campsite and unplug for a few days.
Next, read this list of the best beach boardwalks in America and see how many you’ve visited.