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Choosing the Best Florida Beach for your Vacation
Every year I get dozens of emails from people who are comparing the merits of various islands and trying to choose a beach for their vacation. So I'm going to give you some things to think about while you plan your Florida beach vacation.
First, understand that you'll probably have to compromise. Make a list of expectations, wants and needs. Then get together with your family and prioritize the list. Separate the items into things you MUST have vs. what would be nice but not necessarily essential. If you are having trouble prioritizing, consider how much time will be devoted to various activities.
Be realistic. If your two top priority items are quiet, secluded natural beaches AND lots of shopping and fine dining with plenty of non-beach activities to keep the kids busy, you're kidding yourself. Those two things don't co-exist. Pick one and consider making a day trip to enjoy the other.
Consider how much of your vacation time will be devoted to:
Other things to consider when planning your beach vacation:
Do you prefer a quiet beach vacation where natural surroundings are important? Or do you prefer all of life's amenities close by and convenient? Do you need night life? Or do you prefer to just take a stroll on the beach at night and enjoy the stars and moon? Will you have a access to a car? Or do you need to be able to walk or take public transportation? What type of water activities will you be interested in. Surfing? Snorkeling? Kayaking? Fishing? Swimming? Shelling?
If you want a wide selection of restaurants and plenty of shopping close by, you'll want to pick a place with more commercial development. However, you will have to give up some serenity and put up with more traffic and more congestion and longer wait times in restaurants than if you picked a less developed area.
Examples: St. Pete Beach is a good example of a beach vacation area that offers a wide selection of hotels, restaurants, attractions, shopping, an inexpensive trolley for transportation, and a great beach. But the beach is lined with hotels and condos, not greenery. And the traffic can get pretty heavy.
On the other hand, the beaches between Melbourne Beach and Sebastian Inlet on the Atlantic Coast offer long stretches of secluded beaches with a few rental condos here and there (no hotels). You could really have a quiet get-away in that area, but you'd have to drive half-an-hour to Melbourne Beach or Indialantic for restaurants and shopping.
Florida Beaches with Tropical Coconut Palms
If you want beautiful graceful coconut palms on the beach, you'll need to go as far south as the Fort Myers beaches / Sanibel area beaches on the Gulf Coast, or the Fort Lauderdale/Miami beaches on the Atlantic side. Coconut palms only grow well in the warmest areas. Don't expect a beach with beautiful coconut palms in places like Destin, Daytona, or Clearwater Beach. Go south.
Florida Beaches with Clear Water
If you want crystal clear water, generally you'll want to consider the Florida Panhandle beaches like Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Seaside, Panama City Beach, or Grayton Beach. These areas are famous for clear emerald waters. They are also our most northern beaches, so they are most suitable for the months of April through early October. Winters can be pretty chilly.
Other beaches that often (but not always) have very clear waters are:
Florida Beaches for Snorkeling
You can enjoy swimming with your mask, snorkel and fins on any Florida beach. However, some beaches are better than others for a variety of reasons.
Beach areas with the following conditions are not the best for snorkeling:
The best snorkeling is found on beaches with:
Some of the best conditions for snorkeling in Florida occur in the Florida Keys and along the lower southeast Atlantic coast, south of West Palm Beach.
Secluded Florida Beaches
Secluded beaches are secluded because they are a long distance from the crowds, the restaurants, the attractions and stores. To find a really secluded beach you'll usually need to get in your car and drive to a National Seashore, National Park, or State Park. Even the state park beaches are getting crowded now. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Canaveral National Seashore, Caladesi Island State Park beaches, Cayo Costa State Park beaches, Bahia Honda State Park beaches, Archie Car National Wildlife Refuge beaches all offer secluded beaches. Don't expect to find a secluded beach right in the middle of Daytona.
Renting Florida Beach Accommodations
Some beaches have lots of hotels right on the beach. Others don't. Instead they might offer condominium rentals by the week. Some have beach houses, others offer large resorts. Examples: Anna Maria Island offers beach cottages and small single or two-story resorts. Cocoa Beach offers lots of hotels. Siesta Key offers beach condos, a few resorts and a few houses.
In almost any beach community you can find a house to rent a block or two from the beach. But finding a house right on the beach can be different, depending where you are. Destin, for instance, has very few beach hotels, but lots of large houses for rent right on the beach.
If you want to rent accommodations right on the sand overlooking the ocean or gulf, you need to specify that. Many rental communities have all kinds of tricky language to make you THINK you are renting a place overlooking the water, when you are actually half-a-block away or even across the street. For instance, a unit might be advertised as "oceanside," which makes you think it is beside the ocean, right? But no, if you want to be right on the ocean, you need to ask for "oceanfront." Or it could be "beachside" vs. "beachfront," or some other variation on that theme. Lots of advertisers will put photographs on their website that make it look like the unit is right on the beach when in fact it is not. There is nothing wrong with renting a unit that is a block from the beach, but you need to know what you are getting up front. It isn't a nice surprise to think you are going to walk out on your balcony and see the ocean, but find out after you arrive that you have to actually drag your beach gear up the street to get a look at the water.
Camping on Florida Beaches
It is very difficult to find a place where you can camp right on the beach sand. In most places, even the most secluded beaches, it is not allowed because it interferes with turtle nesting and other aspects of nature. Even State Parks with beaches usually locate their campgrounds behind the dunes, not right on the beach. It is generally against county or city ordinances to build ground fires on the beach. For more details and a list of beaches where camping is allowed on or near the beach, check out my page about camping on Florida beaches.
Florida Keys Beaches
The focus in the Keys is on fishing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving. However they do have some nice beaches down there. The best beaches do not offer hotels or condos. You have to drive to the beach from wherever you are staying. Sombrero Beach, Bahia Honda, and Smathers Beach are the three best beaches in the Keys. You can actually get a hotel across the street from Smathers Beach in Key West. For more details, visit my pages on Florida Keys beaches.
One of the main considerations in choosing the best place is your expectation about weather. From May through October, any of the beaches in Florida are just fine. In other words, the air and water temperatures, and daily weather patterns are essentially the same throughout the state.
Beginning in November, the weather starts to get more variable as cold fronts begin to penetrate further and further south in Florida. It is still quite possible to have a week of 85 degree weather in November or December, but you can't always depend on it unless you are in the Ft. Lauderdale / Miami area or in the Florida Keys.
By January, it can get pretty chilly and stay that way for several weeks. January and February are the coldest months (and March isn't much warmer). By April, we start seeing quite a few warm, sunny days. May is usually downright hot and tends to be dry.
So, from November through April you might consider choosing a beach further south, to maximize the warmth. Fort Myers Beach, Naples, and Marco Island have the warmest beaches on the Gulf. When I say warmest, I mean that the temperature difference between Clearwater Beach and Marco Island might be as much as 8 to 10 degrees or more. The water temperatures could be as much as 4 to 6 degrees warmer on Marco Island than on Clearwater Beach.
On the Atlantic side you'll find the warmest water below West Palm Beach. The Florida Keys also have the warmest water.