Kid-friendly beach days
A Whoa, Momma! reader writes:
I am a second-generation Floridian and have two sons (ages almost 5 and almost 1). I grew up on the east coast with winds in my hair and loved being at the beach with my friends when I was in grade school, but I never went with my family. ... Now as a mother of two with summer approaching, I would like to take them to the beach – I think. Do you have any suggestions? I have no clue where to begin – which beaches are the more child-friendly, is there a protocol for what to pack, how would I keep all the sand out of my car? I realize this might be a bit much to ask but I greatly appreciate any assistance you can offer.
Not too much to ask at all, dear reader. Lucky you, I am a great lover of our Gulf beaches and haunt them as much as I can. And with Memorial Day coming up, this might be a good time to get your feet wet. At the bottom of this post you'll see a list of some of our favorite kid-friendly beaches in the area, but first I want to give you some of my tips on what to pack and how to minimize the discomfort and sand.
What to pack: In my huge beach bag I have a bedsheet to sit on (it's easier to shake out later), towels, hats, sunscreen and lots of quarters for parking meters and toll booths. Put the sunscreen on at home so it has a chance to absorb and you don't have to wrestle wiggling ones on the beach. I pack spray-on sunscreen for touch ups, because it's much easier to hit a moving target with those. I bring chairs and sometimes an umbrella, but I don't bother lugging so much stuff unless we are staying all day.
For beach toys, I keep them in a net bag, like this coach's bag found in the sporting goods aisle. They are easy to carry and you can run the whole bag under the shower to wash off sand.
And most important for little ones like yours, pack a set of dry clothes and keep it in your car. When you leave the beach, shower off and change. This cuts down on sand in the car and they will no doubt conk out on the drive home, and you can just put them to bed.
When to go: For little ones like yours, plan it around the nap times. I preferred leaving early so we could be on the beach by 10 a.m., staying through lunch, showering and changing and then driving home for a nice long afternoon nap. The other option I like is going later in the afternoon and having a sunset picnic (bring bug spray). It's not as hot out and the beach isn't as crowded.
Where to go: It likely depends on where you live and whether you feel like making a long haul for a nicer beach. Here's some best bets from around the region.
My favorite in Pinellas is Pass-a-Grille beach because you can park near the bathrooms and city playground and it's not a long haul from the car to the beach like it is at some parks. Bring lots of quarters. Fort DeSoto is a world-class beach but when you have little ones with you it's easier to use the closer East Beach (turn left at the park entrance) instead of the beautiful but more remote North Beach. Don't forget to stop at the fort where kids can climb on a real cannon.
Gulfport is a bay beach instead of a Gulf beach, which means the shelling isn't so good, and there's lots of seaweed, but for little ones it's a nice choice because the wave action is less violent and there's a great playground right on the beach (shown here at left). There's lots of good restaurants nearby, too.
Clearwater Beach has it all. Bathhouses, boat ramps, concessions, fishing piers, full-time lifeguards, picnic areas, playgrounds, restrooms, showers and wheelchair access. It's got sand as soft as baby powder and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is also a nice stop while you are in the area.
Just because there isn't a Gulf coastline in Hillsborough, doesn't mean there's no beach scene. My colleague Susan Thurston did this nice roundup of the top non-beach beaches in the Tampa area. Chief among them was Picnic Island. If you don't mind driving past gasoline silos and other gritty industrial buildings at the south end of Commerce Street in Port Tampa, you'll find a long swimming beach, fishing pier, canoe launch, dog beach, restrooms, children's playgrounds and picnic shelters galore.
Pasco County's Gulf waters are kind of shallow for swimming, but many folks enjoy Robert K. Rees Memorial Park, formerly known as Green Key, in New Port Richey and Hudson Beach, though they seem to have more than their share of warnings about bacterial counts for swimming there. They both have play areas and are quite kid-friendly. And the Anclote River Park in Holiday offers a beach, picnic area, a playground and restrooms.
Keep an eye out for the re-opening of Fred Howard Park off Tarpon Springs this fall. The beach has been closed because of causeway repairs but it remains a popular destination for Pasco County and north Pinellas residents.
-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne
[Top photo: coach's bag from Amazon.com; playground: city of Gulfport]