A:If you’re looking for the seclusion of a private beach with the affordability of a state park, but want to do more than kick off your flip-flops and sunbathe, these are the five Florida beaches for you.
The beaches on this Gulf Coast island are the real versions of those you daydream about: white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees swaying in the breeze, a lone beach chair beckoning from the shore. After you’ve taken in the scenery, gone for a swim, and lounged a bit, more awaits: Sanibel Island’s Tarpon Bay, in the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a must-see stop on the Great Calusa Blueway, a 190-mile marked canoe and kayak trail that follows a centuries-old “highway” once used by the Calusa Indians along the Caloosahatchee River and between several coastal islands.
This Atlantic barrier island beach sits on the southern edge of the Canaveral National Seashore, with access to the adjacent Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. These protected lands, of course, have natural value aplenty, but they also provide a buffer around the Kennedy Space Center, located to the south. Perhaps because access is restricted during launch periods, the shores here are off the radars of most beach seekers. On Playalinda, and along the seashore, nesting sea turtles are in more abundance than people—but be aware that the humans you encounter may be sunbathing topless (that’s either a bonus or a deterrent, depending on your perspective). The national wildlife refuge counts more than a thousand species within its borders, including the microscopic, bioluminescent water organisms that make this area a destination for night kayaking.
Santa Rosa Beach
Set along the Emerald Coast in northwest Florida, this fine beach’s proximity to other ones helps make it a top pick. Santa Rosa itself boasts soft sand, clear waters, and few visitors. The beach segues to Point Washington State Forest, which offers ten miles of hiking and biking trails. Just eight miles from Santa Rosa, Grayton Beach State Park has pristine sands and a nature trail through magnolia stands. At Dune Allen, you can explore three coastal dune lakes, which exist in only a few other places on the globe.
Caladesi Island State Park
This Gulf Coast island has three miles of wide, undeveloped beaches. These aren’t manicured (raked and cleared), which means that they have more marine vegetation, like seaweed, than usual. On the other hand, they offer an authentic experience. Once part of Honeymoon Island, until a 1921 hurricane split the stretch in two, Caladesi Island, made up primarily of the state park, is now accessible via ferry from its sister island. You may see dolphins en route. Once on land, you can check out the three-mile nature trail and the marked kayak trails through shaded mangrove mangles before heading to the ocean, at the ready for snorkeling in its clear, calm waters.
Bahia Honda Key
Most visitors to the Florida Keys, an archipelago connected by the Overseas Highway, zip past Bahia Honda Key on their way to the more famous Key West to the south. But this other key, home to an eponymous state park, is an off-the-beaten path destination you don’t want to miss. For swimming and sunbathing, there are three beaches to choose from. And the Bahia Honda cay, which boasts a variety of sea life in the shallow coral reef just a few hundred feet from land, is known for its near-shore snorkeling. For longer snorkeling excursions, boat to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.