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Top beaches near Tampa Bay? We pick our favorite bay and gulf beaches

Anna Maria Island has soft sand. Bring chairs and a cooler.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2007)

Anna Maria Island has soft sand. Bring chairs and a cooler.

The sand, the sun, the water and the tropical breezes all beckon us to frolic in their gentle caress, but how many times do residents let the seaside sunshine wash their blues away? We offer an insiders' guide to get started.

ANNA MARIA ISLAND

Travel: AMI, as it's known locally, is a little farther away than Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, but takes roughly the same time to reach from the Brandon area (an hour by car) thanks to Interstate 75. From the interstate, the island is a straight shot down State Road 64 W (Exit 220).

Parking: Not surprisingly, parking could be a nuisance here, as at any Florida beach. It's free and spaces abound for areas south of State Road 64, but the lots fill quickly. It's best to arrive by 10 a.m. and start your hunt near the Anna Maria Island Beach Café, which sits at the end of State Road 64 at Manatee Beach in the city of Holmes Beach. If you're out of luck there, head south a mile or two on Gulf Drive to Cortez Beach (a.k.a. Bradenton Beach) or Coquina Beach. Both have ample parking. Parking is limited mostly to side streets for Anna Maria Beach at the island's north end.

Amenities: While Cortez Beach lacks lifeguards and other amenities, Manatee Beach, about 2 miles north of Cortez, features a snack bar, ice cream parlor, public restrooms, a playground, lifeguards and umbrella and chair rentals. Coquina Beach, just south of Cortez, has restrooms, a snack bar and lifeguards but lacks umbrella and chair rentals.

Sand AND Water: The sand here is of the off-white variety, soft but not quite powdery, with a nice, satisfying crunch under flip-flops. Signs warn beachgoers if there's a bacteria problem or Red Tide.

Eats: If beer, burgers or barbecue are your thing, AMI abounds with plenty to satisfy. Here are a few recommendations: Skinny's Place, 3901 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach (don't let the name fool you); Mr. Bones BBQ, 3007 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; the Rod & Reel Pier at North Shore Drive and Alamanda Road in Anna Maria City (the name is especially apt); and the Sandbar Restaurant, which sits right on the beach at 100 Spring Ave.

Etcetera: None of the above-mentioned beaches allow pets, but if bringing Fluffy on your excursion is a must, try the pet-friendly mile-long causeway between Bradenton and Anna Maria Island. There's parking and even a couple of launch sites for personal watercraft. That's it as amenities go, however. Bring chairs and a cooler.

Rich Shopes, Times correspondent

TREASURE ISLAND

Travel: Drivers have two choices when traveling to Treasure Island: the Howard Frankland Bridge or the Gandy Bridge. Brandon residents could choose either and be at the beach in about an hour. Both ways lead to southbound Interstate 275. Exit near downtown St. Petersburg and take Central Avenue west until pavement gives way to sea in central Treasure Island. Beware of rush hour traffic that could slow down the trip.

Parking: There are several city-owned lots along Gulf Boulevard with metered parking spaces. Keep an eye out for the blue and orange signs identifying them. Most accept credit cards, and rates start at $1.50 an hour with discounts for all-day parking. Valet park at Caddy's on Sunset Beach for $5 all day.

Amenities: There are restrooms and showers at Sunset Beach Pavilion (8000 W Gulf Blvd.), Gulf Front Park (10400 Gulf Blvd.) and Municipal Beach (11200 Gulf Blvd.). Gulf Front Park also has a snack bar, beach rentals, a 36-foot inflatable slide and a rock-climbing wall.

Sand and Water: Treasure Island beachgoers must make a choice between the popular and busy stretch of sand near Gulf Front Park or the more secluded and less commercial areas at Sunshine Beach to the north or Sunset Beach to the south. The beach in the middle is the widest and all feature white sand with lots of seashells.

Eats: There are lots of casual places to eat along the shore with most of the restaurants and bars located in the central area. Want an easy picnic lunch? Head to the Publix across the street from Gulf Front Park for a custom-prepared sub sandwich and some chips. On the south end, Caddy's (9000 W Gulf Blvd.) at Sunset Beach offers the typical beach fare with burgers and fish alongside frozen tropical drinks.

Etcetera: Treasure Island is one of the only places on the sand where alcohol is permitted, though there are exceptions. No drinking is allowed in the Sunset Beach area between 85th and 99th avenues on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The beach is closed from 1 to 5 a.m. Want to stay the night? Chain hotels and decades-old motels dot the beach. If you're looking for more privacy, check into a rental house or condo on the north or south ends of the beach.

Shelley Rossetter, Times staff writer

FORT DE SOTO PARK

Travel: From the Brandon area, take Interstate 75 south, merge left on 275 north toward St. Petersburg, then take Exit 17 to the Pinellas Bayway. From there, it's a quick few minutes down Bayway. Drive time is about an hour (or 54 miles).

Parking: Parking is $5 per car and easily accessible throughout the park. Park in the main lots at North Beach or East Beach if you plan on camping with your towel for the day. Park at the fort for easy access to the gift shop and cafe area.

Amenities: Restrooms and showers are just a short walk from the beaches, as are picnic tables, shade trees and playground areas. Visitors can rent kayaks or bikes to use in designated zones. The park also has a dog-friendly beach and a grassy pet play area. Overnight tent and RV camping is offered on the beach and inland (just keep a look out for raccoons).

Sand and Water: The white sand at North Beach is smooth enough for a barefoot stroll. The sand at East Beach is a bit shell infested, so watch your step. The water is great for taking a dip but not clear enough to see the bottom.

Eats: A cafe serving up burgers, hot dogs and ice cream is located at the center of the park. Seating is outdoors, so if you're in search of air-conditioning, be warned that this is not the place to go. One option is to drive back out to the Pinellas Bayway and dine at the local Subway on Sun Boulevard.

Etcetera: If you love to fish, drop your line off one of two piers at Fort De Soto. Snapper and snook are among the fish waiting to bite, and both piers are open 24 hours a day. There is no fee to fish if you bring your own bait, equipment and state license. Outside of the park, stop by the Bayway Country Store & Butcher Shop at 5401 Leeland St. for snacks, drinks and soft-serve ice cream that comes in a variety of flavors, including mint chocolate chip.

Sarah Whitman, Times staff writer

HONEYMOON AND CALADESI ISLAND PARKS

Travel: Honeymoon Island State Park is located at the extreme west end of State Road 586, north of Dunedin. Find your way to Hillsborough Avenue — be mindful of the traffic — and go west as it moves into Pinellas County and becomes Tampa Road. The road forks at State Road 586 (Curlew Road). Take the fork to the left (Curlew Road) and follow directly into the park.

Parking: It's $8 per vehicle with two to eight people and $4 for a single occupant. Once in the park, there are ample parking spaces. Pedestrians, bicyclists and extra passengers are charged $2. Picnic pavilions can be rented for $30 a day.

Amenities: There are men's and women's restrooms at both ends of the beach. Boardwalks lead beachgoers from the sand to centrally located showers. There's a dog beach at the south end of Honeymoon Island. The air-conditioned Rotary Centennial Nature Center is a respite from the sun where one can learn about the history of Honeymoon and Caladesi islands. Along with the beach, there's a 2.5-mile nature trail on Honeymoon Island. Honeymoon Island is an eagle incubator. For $14, catch the Caladesi Island Connection ferry to Caladesi Island State Park.

Sand and Water: Honeymoon Island comprises approximately 4 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico. It's a family-friendly beach that's great for walking and shelling. There's a gift shop and cafe where bicycles and kayaks can be rented. Caladesi Island can only be accessed by boat, and the 600-acre park is one of the last undeveloped barrier islands left in the state. The beach has some of the whitest sand in the area.

Eats: Both the Café Honeymoon and Café Caladesi serve a standard menu of fish and chips, burgers and fruit smoothies. Cold beverages are also available.

Etcetera: Both Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island are the perfect places to watch the sunset. Schools of dolphin are common in both locations. Caladesi Island was "Voted Best Beach 2008."

Demorris Lee, Times correspondent

CLEARWATER BEACH

Travel: Slog through traffic and lights through Tampa and make your way to the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Stay west on State Road 60. If you're feeling impatient, skip over to one of the less traveled roads that runs parallel to it. Be careful in the marina roundabout.

Parking: On-street spots and city parking lots dot the beach strip, with some fees varying by season. Visitors also make use of private garages and restaurant valets. Hop on the Jolley Trolley to explore different areas of the expansive beach without the hassle of finding parking again.

Amenities: This beach boasts public bathrooms and outdoor showers galore, plus the pavilions near Pier 60. Making a longer vacation of it? You have your pick of name-brand hotels. As we move from peak season into the summer months, look for top-tier rates to drop by about $100 per night. For weekend stays, you'll likely still shell out between just under $200 and just over $300 daily.

Sand and water: Beach staples of umbrella rentals and volleyball nets populate powdery sand. Like you would at most gulf beaches this time of year, do your dance: the Stingray Shuffle.

Eats: Frenchy's Rockaway Grill doesn't take reservations, but who's bothered by a beach-side wait? Take in the views a little farther north while dining at the Palm Pavilion. Or head south to check out happy hour deals at Shephard's — if you don't mind that one-man "Wonderwall" guitarist who seems to collect tips in the form of $2 Bud Light cans.

Etcetera: There's no shortage of things to do at this Disney World of beaches. Forget your watch? Tell time by the sundial. Feeling lucky? Cast a line off Pier 60. Need a fun family diversion? Catch a free Friday night movie at the pier. Calming an angry sunburn? Duck indoors at the nearby Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer

PASS-A-GRILLE/ST. PETE BEACH

Travel: This is one of the easiest beach drives: a straight shot down Interstate 275 into Pinellas County. Take the Pinellas Bayway exit and head west. Be ready for a 50-cent SunPass or cash toll. (You'll pay again on the way home.) For Pass-a-Grille, hang a left by the pink Loews Don CeSar Hotel. For St. Pete Beach, turn right at the landmark hotel.

Parking: Pass-a-Grille visitors park in spots along both sides of Gulf Way and around nearby parks. St. Pete Beach sunbathers can leave cars in a municipal lot off Gulf Boulevard, north of 46th Avenue. Pay stations accept most major credit cards. The tradeoff: Fickle buttons easily frustrate. Pay $1.50 per hour or $12 for 12 hours.

Amenities: On the south end of Pass-a-Grille, a snack shack offers public bathrooms, changing stalls and outdoor showers. Bonus: A small shop sells the sunscreen, towels or flip-flops you forgot to bring. The St. Pete Beach access offers bathrooms and outdoor showers near parking kiosks.

Sand and water: A shelly strip between sand and water at Pass-a-Grille delights collectors but hurts bare feet. In waist-deep water, dig toes into sand to excavate big abandoned clam shells. Extremely tan people at St. Pete Beach rent lounge chairs, umbrellas and two-person cabanas for $5 to $25, with discounts after 3 p.m.

Eats: The historic Hurricane is a must, a picturesque spot to watch the sunset. Or grab a quick bite at the Paradise Grille snack shack, which also serves breakfast. Beach dives and diners speckle Gulf Boulevard (think Crabby Bill's or similar).

Etcetera: The cherry on top of the family-friendly, relaxed vibe: Water-sport enthusiasts add a different kind of people-watching. Splurge on summer deals at upscale hotels such as the TradeWinds Island Grand, when daily rates dip below $200. Those on a budget might opt for an always economical motel on Gulf Boulevard at a fraction of the price.

Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer

CLOSE TO HOME

The South Shore area offers a different type of beach experience. At the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve, 6760 Surfside Blvd., visitors are not permitted to swim, but you can watch for manatees and dolphins in the bay. Dogs are welcome at this small, quiet beach and there are bathrooms if you want to make a day of it. Just be aware that parking is limited, and if you visit the beach at high tide, there is little room for chairs and beach towels.

The Resort & Club at Little Harbor in Ruskin (611 Destiny Drive) has a small public beach area open to swimmers and sunbathers. Most of Little Harbor is private but this small patch of sand, to the left of the Little Harbor's Sunset Grill, is a good place to catch some rays if you're not looking to drive far. The resort's inn offers overnight accommodations. For dining, Little Harbor has the grill as well as the Sunset Lounge and the Tiki Bar. The Tiki Bar features live entertainment Wednesday through Sunday.

The original developers of Ruskin's E.G. Simmons Park carved the popular spot out of mangroves and open lands. It offers picnic areas and campgrounds with nice ocean vistas. It also includes a bird and wildlife sanctuary. The park's public beach may not rival bigger beaches, but you can enjoy sunbathing and swimming. Plus, there's a boat launch and kayak and canoe rentals.

There are two other off-the-map locations that deserve a mention. Shaped like a beer bottle, Beer Can Island off of Apollo Beach offers walking, shelling and sunbathing during the week. On the weekends, it turns into a gigantic party place with locals setting up tents and grills. But the only way you can get there is by boat.

Doo Wah Diddy is another hidden destination. It's a freshwater spring on the north side of the Alafia River east of the U.S. 301 bridge. It has a small beach area. You also will find rope swings there.

Sarah Whitman and Skip O'Rourke, Times staff writers

Top beaches near Tampa Bay? We pick our favorite bay and gulf beaches 04/23/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 2:21pm]

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