The real fun of being in Florida in winter is the beaches. The sand here is as soft and white as baby powder. Here's our tips for hitting the beach like a local.
FOR THONG WATCHING AND PARTIES
Clearwater Beach: You can see professional level volleyball players at play here and hard-bodied playas at Shephard's Beach Resort, 619 Gulfview Blvd. Get some she-crab soup at Frenchy's or join the party at the sunsets at Pier 60, where you can find fire breathers, arts and crafts for sale and live music daily. Take State Road 60 and head west until it dead ends at the ocean at Clearwater Beach.
The Undertow, 3850 Gulf Blvd. on St. Pete Beach, is a waterfront singles bar with reggae music and volleyball courts for diversions. Ask for the Planter's Punch, a rum and pineapple treat. The parking lot is minuscule so plan to hike from the public lot down the street.
Gandy Beach: This beach along the south side of the Gandy Bridge between Tampa and Pinellas County is called the Redneck Riviera because of its well-earned reputation for parties. You can drive to any spot off the road, plop down with a cooler and watch thongs, dogs and jet skiers at play.
Madeira Beach: After a day in the sun, stop in the Daiquiri Deck at 14995 Gulf Blvd. for a "Decksickle." It's an orange-and-vanilla concoction that can make your brain freeze in more ways than one. They also have lively parties.
Sunset Beach: This tree-lined spit of land on the south end of Treasure Island offers a quiet spot for romantic strolls without being overrun my nose-coated tourists. At Caddy's nearby, they'll set out a lounge chair for you and serve cold beer and fried shrimp while you dig your toes into the sand.
Dunedin Causeway: Take a beautiful nighttime walk across the bridge that leads to Honeymood Island State Park. The lights of Clearwater reflect on the water to make beautiful views for the 2-mile stroll. Hand-holding is encouraged.
Gulfport: This charming artsy haven has terrific restaurants and a pier that offers a sumptuous view of Boca Ciega Bay along Shore Boulevard. There are even swings made for two that encourage snuggling.
We get the attraction of thongs and cold beer, but for the pure love of plump pelicans, sugar white sand and blue water, it's very hard to beat the Tampa Bay area. We're so good that Dr. Beach's list of America's best beaches had to retire two of them so the rest of the country can stand a chance.
Fort De Soto Park won the top spot of honor in 2005 by coastal expert Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, the director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research. It's also tops with TripAdvisor, the huge online travel community. It's not just that North Beach has a pure white stretch of soft sand, the park is a huge piece of public property with a bike path popular with inline skaters, an old fort that kids love to climb around and kayaks and canoes for rent. Take Interstate 275 to the 54th Avenue S exit and follow the signs to the Pinellas Bayway.
Caladesi Island is the second Pinellas County beach that took the top spot (and got retired) when Leatherman dubbed this undeveloped barrier island off of Dunedin the best beach in the country this year. You can find it by driving west through Dunedin on Curlew Road (SR-586) until you end up at the entrance to Honeymoon Island park (where the shelling is terrific and there are lots of nature trails) and taking a ferry ($10; $6 for kids). If you stick with Honeymoon Island, it's a $5 park fee per car or $3 one hour before sunset.
Pass-a-Grille. On the south end of St. Pete Beach, bring lots of quarters for the hungry meters but enjoy the view and quiet setting. Then stop by the Hurricane with its famous rooftop view and grouper sandwiches.