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Planning a Florida vacation? Here's a best beaches guide

The Florida beaches are always good for a relaxing lounge in the sand, but sometimes, you want more than a long walk.

The 825 miles of Florida beaches offer a diversity of activities to suit every taste, from the expected (beach volleyball tournaments, surfing contests) to the unexpected (a "mullet toss" in northwest Florida, a "paddle tennis" tournament in St. Augustine).

Here's our roundup of just about everything under the sun.

Northwest Florida

In Franklin County, which boasts St. George Island and Carrabelle Beach, the sea and sand are just two of the attractions. St. George hosts the region's largest chili cook-off in March. The more adventurous can return on the second Saturday in June to see how are far they can fling the mullet. Learn more at saltyflorida.com.

In Port St. Joe, Pensacola Beach, Perdido Key and surrounding waters, fishing tournaments from April through July lure anglers and sports fishing fanatics of all ages. For more information, visit kidswinfishing.com and saltwaterclassic.com.

In Destin, the two-month long World Championship Cobia Tournament attracts more than 15,000 competitors. On shore, the Destin 50 Beach Ultra Marathon is a February weekend of running – from five miles to 50 – and benefits the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. St. Joe Beach hosts the Beach Blast Sprint Triathlon & Duathlon in late April.

Those breezes coming off the Gulf in April do more than keep sunbathers cool. The 8th Annual Kitty Hawk Kites Beach Kite Festival on Okaloosa Island is a must-see. Dolphin watching is also a spectator sport.

They say you hear the story of the ocean if you put a shell to your ear, or come to Cape San Blas in early March for the storytellers at Shells and Tales.

Perdido Key celebrates a 2,000-year-old tradition each April with dragon boat races. Teams of rowers compete in colorful wooden boats.

On Fort Walton Beach, Burning Up the Beaches is a May weekend fundraiser of cars, cruising and parties. In the Gulf and on Choctawhatchee Bay, the first-person adrenaline rushes include parasailing, pontooning, waterskiing, sailing, windsurfing, kiteboarding and jet skiing. Visit emeraldcoastfl.com.

Finally, the Florida Lighthouse Challenge invites energetic history buffs to visit and or climb four lighthouses in northwest Florida over two days: Cape St. George Light on St. George Island, Crooked River Lighthouse in Carrabelle, St. Marks Lighthouse in St. Marks and Cape San Blas Lighthouse on Cape San Blas.

Gulf Coast

On Pine Island Beach near Spring Hill, one Saturday a month, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., dogs and their owners can spend a morning playing fetch on the sand or splashing in the water at Alfred McKethan Park's Pine Island Beach. Call (352) 754-4031 or visit hernandocounty.us/parks_rec/ for details.

At Clearwater Beach, adventurous types can try parasailing with Sky Screamer Parasail or, for a more grounded experience, there's a paddleboard and kayak rental shop behind Shephard's Beach Resort. Paddlers can rent single or tandem kayaks, or they can take a guided paddleboard tour. Visit clearwaterbeach.com.

On St. Pete Beach at the well-known TradeWinds Island Resort, guests and visitors can play a game of cornhole, horseshoes or bocce ball on the beach or gather a group for volleyball. Beachgoers can also cruise the coastline in a WaveRunner or see dolphins playing on a Dolphin Watch cruise.

Fort De Soto Beach, touted as one of America's best beaches, offers seven miles of waterfront at Fort De Soto Park and include almost three miles of white, sandy beach and waterside sites for camping. Treasure hunters can obtain permits for metal detection at the park's headquarters. Fort De Soto also has a dog beach, plus two fenced-in areas near the beach for large and small dogs with water stations. Learn more at pinellascounty.org/parks.

Anna Maria Island/Bradenton: In addition to kayaking, parasailing and Segway tours, the area offers a less conventional way of enjoying the waterfront: on horseback. Riders can trot along the shores of Palma Sola Bay before taking their horses into the saltwater for a swim. Visit beachhorses.com.

Siesta Key Beach, Sarasota: Born from a spontaneous event that started with a few locals banging on bongos, the community drum circle at Siesta Key Beach (another of Dr. Beach's favorite places) gathers every Sunday about an hour before sunset, just south of the main pavilion on Siesta Public Beach. The area also hosts a number of volleyball tournaments, usually held in late spring. Cyclers can rent a beach cruiser from Siesta Sports Rentals to explore the coastline. In the summer months, a one-mile run for kids takes place every week at 6:30 p.m. Nearby, runs for grown-ups are held on Wednesday nights at the Venice Fishing Pier. Learn more at sarasotafl.com.

Englewood Beach/Port Charlotte Beach: Kids 5 to 12 can learn how to fish the first Saturday of every month at Englewood. Children and their parents bring their own rod, reel and tackle box and learn about catch and release and fishing safety for $10. For the adults, Port Charlotte holds occasional sunset cocktail parties, and families can participate in a community beach cleanup a couple times a month. Visit charlottecountyfl.com or call (941) 681-3742.

Sanibel Island: Thought to be one of the best shelling beaches in the world, Sanibel and Captiva islands' Shellabration in March includes demonstrations, shell displays, food and live music.

Tigertail Public Beach, Marco Island: Sand sculptors of all types can join in the annual July 4 sandcastle-building contest, open to everyone. Visit paradisecoast.com.

South Florida

Palm Beach: From Tequesta to Boca Raton, 13 oceanfront and inlet parks are guarded year-round by Ocean Rescue lifeguards. If it's a guarded beach, that means no dogs, Frisbees or kites that might endanger other sunbathers. Ocean County Rescue's Rob Rogerson says there are still plenty of areas adjacent to the guarded beach where you can play volleyball or toss a football.

On President's Day weekend, don't miss Pat Harsch from Team Sandastic, the award-winning Sarasota-based sand sculptors. Jupiter Beach Resort and Spa has a unique limestone shoreline and 1,000 feet of private beach. Voted a top U.S. resort last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers, it has a near shore reef with more than 100 species of fish, lobster, crabs, coral and sponges that are great for snorkeling and diving.

Broward County

Family Fun Week, in June, offers hotel specials, free movie and music nights on the beach and sea turtle education. Events will range from yoga on the beach to skim board lessons and sand castle contests.

The inaugural Lauderdale Air Show is April 28-29 at Fort Lauderdale Beach. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will headline a four-hour lineup of some of the nation's premier military and civilian acts.

At sea level, the Dig the Beach volleyball tournament is June 23-24.

Did you know 90 percent of the sea turtle nesting in the United States takes place in Florida? March to October is sea turtle nesting season, and several Broward County Beaches offer programs for visitors to learn more about these nocturnal nesters. For more information, visit sunny.org/visitors/beaches/seaturtles/.

Greater Fort Lauderdale has 23 miles of coastline, including six award-winning beaches that were certified as Blue Wave Beaches by the Clean Beaches Council of Washington, D.C. (These Broward beach profiles are provided by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.)

Fort Lauderdale Beach: Thanks to a $25-million renovation project launched in the 1990s, Fort Lauderdale Beach has been transformed from a spring break hangout into a bustling resort Mecca of open-air shops, seaside cafes, decadent spas and high-end accommodations. A white wave wall, two miles long, flanks the beachfront promenade, creating an iconic backdrop for strolling, skating and people watching.

Fun fact: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Fort Lauderdale Beach's Bonnet House Museum and Gardens encompasses a 1920 plantation-style home still filled with its owners' artwork and 35 acres of pristine barrier island landscape.

Hollywood Beach: Only swaying palms and sea grass separate the sands of Hollywood Beach from its 2.5-mile brick-paved promenade, the Broadwalk, which creates a car-free fun zone for all ages. The retro-cool beach is not only a popular spot for biking and rollerblading, but it also has an abundance of open-air cafes, an organic market, a child-friendly park and a 500-seat beachfront theater that features live bands and dancing under the stars.

Four-legged family members can frolic off-leash at the Dog Beach of Hollywood, between Pershing and Custer streets. It's near the spot where Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston and a team of Labradors filmed the 2008 big-screen hit Marley and Me.

Pompano Beach: The area takes its name from the saltwater fish found in abundance in the area. Home to the annual Pompano Seafood Festival and Fishing Rodeo, the water on this stretch of coastline is some of the warmest and clearest in South Florida due to a bend in the Gulf Stream.

Deerfield Beach: King mackerel are the top catch here. The county's northernmost beach is also conveniently positioned for accessing excellent offshore dive sites.

Lauderdale-By-The-Sea: The half-mile-wide village is known as the "Shore Dive Capital of South Florida." Divers and snorkelers can splash into the Atlantic from the beach just south of Anglin's Pier at Commercial Boulevard and easily swim to coral reefs populated with colorful tropical fish, nurse sharks and rays.

Hillsboro Beach: When the need for tranquility strikes, head off the beaten path to Hillsboro Beach at the northern point of Florida's coral reef system. This sliver of a peninsula north of Pompano Beach is home to only 1,500 residents and provides a quiet sanctuary for nesting sea turtles. The most powerful lighthouse on the eastern seaboard stands sentinel here. Completed in 1907, its beacon is visible for 28 miles.

Hallandale Beach: Greater Fort Lauderdale's southernmost sunbathing spot is also home to two top South Florida gaming facilities. Thoroughbred racing takes place at Gulfstream Park from January through April, and slot machines whirl year round. Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center, which has lively poker tables and slots, showcases greyhound races November through June.

Dania Beach: A natural, wildlife-rich oasis, Dania Beach combines scenic sea oat-lined dunes with the mangrove-lined tidal waterway of John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent at the park, carrying visitors close to wading birds and possibly even an endangered manatee in the Whiskey Creek sanctuary.

Miami-Dade

You can't visit Miami's beaches without stopping at Lummus Park, along Ocean Drive from Fifth to 14th streets. This is where the beautiful people meet for volleyball, in-line skating, jogging and people-watching.

The park runs parallel to the ocean, sandwiched between dozens of sidewalk cafes and restaurants and the sea. Expect all kinds of sound systems going at once. (The city says no "excessive, unreasonable, unusual or unnecessary noise." Sure!)

The next big event there is the South Beach Food and Wine Festival which begins today and runs through Sunday.

In the northern part of the county, there's Haulover Beach Park, a 1.4-mile beach that even has a designated "clothing optional" area. Tucked between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, it has shaded picnic facilities, sand dunes and concession stands. It's a great spot for surfing.

Its open space and fresh breeze makes it one of the best places for people to fly kites in South Florida. Skyward Kites' kite shop has operated out of Haulover Park for nearly 18 years.

Haulover also has a separate dog park for just $2.

No. 10 on Dr. Stephen Leatherman's list of Top 10 beaches in America for 2011 is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park.

Leatherman is professor and Director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. But everyone just calls him "Dr. Beach." He says Bill Baggs "provides clear, emerald-colored waters and gentle surf. This fine, white coral sand beach is great for swimming, as waves are knocked down by a large sand shoal offshore."

The park, at the southernmost tip of Key Biscayne, is the home of a historic lighthouse built in 1825 – the oldest-standing structure in Miami-Dade County. Visitors sunbathe, swim and picnic on this mile-long stretch of Atlantic beachfront. Bikes, hydrobikes and kayaks can be rented while anglers throw their lines from the seawall along Biscayne Bay.

Key Biscayne's Crandon Park, a former pirate hideaway and coconut plantation, now boasts golf and tennis, unique eco-adventures and a two-mile beach that's considered one of the best in the nation. This park is a little different than most beaches because it has various barrier island ecosystems, such as dunes, mangroves and coastal hammock and sea grass beds. There are herons, ospreys, brilliant butterflies and rare and beautiful plants like the beach peanut, Biscayne prickly ash and the coontie.

The Bear Cut Preserve is a designated natural Environment Study Area. Swimmers are protected from the crashing surf by an off-shore sandbar. The lagoon-style waters make for a low-surf impact beach.

Matheson Hammock Park has a man-made atoll pool. The mini-beach makes for a headache-free afternoon with the concession stand, bathrooms and parking just steps away. The county parks department calls it "a great place for beginners."

Also away from the South Beach tourist throngs are Homestead Bayfront Park in the south and Oleta River State Park in the north, which both offer sandy beaches on Biscayne Bay. Oleta is popular for kayaking and even has sleepover cabins.

The Florida Keys

The Key West Travel Guide demystifies why there aren't many beaches in the nation's southernmost point: Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys are coral islands – former reefs, from when the ocean was deeper.

"Today the ocean is shallower and the reefs are six miles offshore, providing a barrier to wave action. Thus, with little sand to begin with, and a lack of wave action to deposit more, beaches in the Keys are a bit of a rarity."

The guide's experts rank the Fort Jefferson beaches at the Dry Tortugas National Park the "best thing to do in Key West." The day-long snorkel trip is 90 miles away by ferry, and includes breakfast, lunch and a tour of the historic fort.

Back on the mainland, Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is the locals' favorite. The 87-acre state park has a pre-Civil War fort and gorgeous sunsets. With its mix of sand and coral rock, the beach is rockier than most, so bring your sand shoes. Lots of shade and picnic tables make it a good spot for lunch.

Smathers Beach is where you'll find most of the bikini-wearing, volleyball-playing flocks that come to enjoy tanning and beach sport rentals like parasailing and jet skiing. This half-mile stretch along the island's southern shore has ample parking, volleyball nets and food trucks.

About 35 miles north of Key West is Bahia Honda State Park, a public beach that the Travel Channel rated one of the 10 best beaches in the country. It has some of the best near-shore snorkeling in the Keys and is known for its extensive campgrounds. Part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, Bahia Honda also offers wonderful opportunities for bird-watching.

East Coast

Daytona Beach: This expansive beach of hard-packed sand feels like a playground, with parasailing, banana boat rides available and scooters and bicycles available for rent – right from the sand. Cars are allowed on some stretches of Volusia County beaches, although with limits of 10 mph, this isn't Daytona International Speedway. "We like to say we have an ocean park atmosphere because the hard-packed sand allows a lot of recreational diversity," says Tangela Boyd, director of communications for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Every April, onlookers can watch while NCAA cheerleaders compete in an oceanfront beach pavilion. Also in the spring, runners line up for the Easter Beach Run, an Easter weekend run that dates to 1967.

Flagler Beach: Surfing culture is found in pockets along Florida's Atlantic Coast, and the Tommy Tant Memorial Surf Classic honors the memory of a 24-year-old local surfer and raises money for several organizations, including a scholarship in Tant's name. The event generally takes place in mid-November.

Cocoa Beach: Farther south, the Ron Jon Easter Surfing Festival includes competitions for men, women and children as young as 6. The April event draws hundreds of thousands, yet both parking and admission are free.

Melbourne Beach: For $10 and an advanced reservation, you can stroll the beach during sea turtle season and watch and learn about the threatened loggerhead sea turtles that nest on the beaches of this barrier island. The evening program begins at 9 p.m. and is offered just two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, during June and July. Click here to learn more.

Northeast Florida

Jacksonville Beach: Blues performers and barbecue combine to make Springing the Blues at the Sea Walk Pavilion a nationally recognized music festival.

St. Augustine Beach: From the Pier Pavilion, weekly evening concerts are provided on Wednesdays through September. A local restaurant also offers a meal at the event for under $10. Visit thecivicassociation.org.

Never heard of paddle tennis? It's pretty much what it sounds like: Players are separated by a tennis net and play with paddles instead of racquets. The ball is essentially a punctured tennis ball. Only two tournaments take place nationwide, and the National Beach Paddle Tennis Championship is the only one that takes place on the sand. The 40-year-old event takes place Memorial Day weekend in St. Augustine.

Fernandina Beach: Sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the Great Southern Tailgate Cookoff lures professional teams as well as amateurs who cook up their best barbecue at the Main Beach on Amelia Island. The event generally takes place the last weekend in August.

This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com

Planning a Florida vacation? Here's a best beaches guide

02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 1:03pm]
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