There’s more to a beach vacation than sand and surf.
Distilled to those basic elements, every Florida beach getaway might seem the same. Yet there are also infinite variables that imprint distinct personalities to stretches of the state’s 1,250 miles of coastline:
Breathtaking sunsets on the Gulf Coast. Atlantic Ocean waves that have launched the careers of world-class surfers. Remote dunes dotted by sea oats that offer the perfect spot for a book and a blanket. Fishing piers that are magnets for afternoon anglers. Bustling beaches within walking distance of shops, galleries and nightspots.
So if the view of the blue horizon seems to be the same, look over your shoulder: There’s probably something cool right behind you.
BLUE WATER & BLUE ANGELS
From South Florida, the road trip to Pensacola Beach is a daunting drive, especially the final leg across the seemingly endless Panhandle west from Tallahassee on Interstate 10.
All that windshield time is worth it, however, to catch the first glimpse of sunshine reflecting off the waters of Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico from the Bob Sikes Bridge. It’s the gateway to one of the state’s old-fashioned beach towns, with a rustic flip-flop vibe that persists despite the occasional high-rise condo or beachside resort.
The most recognizable landmark is still the giant beach-ball tower, which casts its shadow on the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier (41 Fort Pickens Rd., 850-934-7200, fishpensacolabeachpier.com). The 1,500-foot pier offers fishing, entertaining people-watching and a gorgeous sunset view. The more-secluded Opal Beach, with its quiet dunes, is about seven miles west.
There are plenty of shops and restaurants within shouting distance of the pier and adjoining Casino Beach, the busiest piece of Pensacola Beach. For breakfast, sample the breakfast burrito ($5.95) at Native Cafe (45A Via de Luna Dr., 850-934-4848, thenativecafe.com) — and make sure to top it with the homemade salsa.
At lunch, try a dozen oysters ($7.99), a grouper sandwich ($8.75) and a beer at Peg Leg Pete’s (1010 Fort Pickens Rd., 850-932-4139, peglegpetes.com), where it’s possible to avert the inevitable wait for a table by snagging a spot at one of the two character-laden bars.
For a break from the sun, head to the mainland and the National Naval Aviation Museum (1750 Radford Blvd., 850-452-3604, navalaviationmuseum.org) at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. It’s free admission, with more than enough exhibits to occupy an afternoon.
The base is home to the Navy’s Blue Angels stunt squadron and the museum offers a close-up look at those famous jets, as well as a chance to step inside a Marine One presidential helicopter.
SIESTA & THE CIRCUS
Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, named Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the nation’s best in the 21st edition of his annual rankings in 2011. Even to Floridians accustomed to coastal views, the contrast of blue water and white sand at Siesta Beach is something worthy of a postcard. The beaches are clean (no smoking is allowed) and a gentle surf adds to the family-friendly atmosphere. The upscale homes and beautiful landscapes make pleasant sightseeing year-round.
The tasty grouper sandwich at the Siesta Key Oyster Bar (5238 Ocean Blvd., 941-346-5443, skob.com) is worth the tricky task of finding a parking spot on the narrow, attractive streets.
There’s more elegance at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (5401 Bay Shore Rd., 941-359-5700, ringling.org), where the permanent collection of works by Rubens, Velazquez, Van Dyck and others offers a quiet, air-conditioned respite from the beach. Admission also includes a tour of Ca’ d’Zan, John and Mable Ringling’s Venetian gothic mansion that reflects the couple’s opulent lifestyle in the 1920s.
Nostalgia is the main attraction at the Ringling’s Circus Museum, also on the grounds, with artifacts that celebrate the careers of icons such as high-wire artist Karl Wallenda and elephant trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.
Compared with the more famous Gulf Coast beaches in Clearwater, the two unassuming waterfront parks in tiny Tarpon Springs often go unnoticed.
The big draw here is the history of the Greek immigrants who settled the town in the late 19th century and established it as a hub for sponging, an industry that still exists — though mainly as a tourist attraction.
In the downtown district around the docks, the shops, bars and restaurants exude an old-world feel that’s rare in Florida. Family-owned Greek eateries such as Costas Restaurant (521 Athens St., 727-938-6890, costascuisine.com) serve authentic fare including moussaka ($10.99) and octopus charbroiled with olive oil, lemon and garlic sauce ($12.99).
There’s ample access to the Gulf of Mexico beaches, especially at Fred Howard Park (1700 Sunset Dr.). In addition to the swimming area, connected to the mainland by a one-mile causeway, there are also a wooded retreat, sheltered pavilions, playgrounds and fishing access.
As its name suggests, the smaller Sunset Beach (1800 Gulf Rd.) is best known as a spot to watch the dimming of the day. Sunset Beach has a boat launch, picnic area, barbecue grill and a pavilion that hosts occasional sunset concerts by local acts.
Although the waves in Vero Beach attract surfers, an assortment of high-end shops and businesses exude an upscale mood.
Sexton Plaza, at the intersection of Beachland Boulevard and Ocean Drive, hosts the beachfront Ocean Grill and Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill and offers a starting point for a stroll among the salons and galleries.
Beach access is family-friendly at Jaycee Park (4200 Ocean Dr.), with its wide wooden boardwalks next to a playground and pavilions accented by coconut palms.
Off the beach, the Vero Beach Museum of Art (3001 Riverside Park Dr.) is worth a tour and nearby McKee Botanical Garden (350 U.S. 1) is a good place to unwind in a setting that’s a throwback to pre-Disney attractions.
The beaches are more remote just north on U.S. 1 in Sebastian, with fewer options for dining or diversions. Still, it’s worth walking the pier at Sebastian Inlet, where even non-surfers can appreciate the awesome power of the waves.
BEACH WITH A BEAT
From the beachfront Freebird Cafe to the inevitable Lynyrd Skynyrd tune blaring from an outdoor cafe, there’s a rock ’n’ roll heartbeat to Jacksonville Beach.
The hub of activity is Latham Park and the adjoining SeaWalk Pavilion. There are a few bars and dining spots equipped with outdoor tables along the paved walkways. The Freebird (200 N. First St., 904-246-BIRD, freebirdlive.com), with a name that references one of Skynyrd’s famous songs, attracts touring rock acts to a music hall only blocks from the beach.
It’s a short walk to the Jacksonville Beach Pier, a 1,320-foot structure that provides a good view of the coastline and the Atlantic. Art galleries are within walking distance. For dining, it’s a short drive to Mojo Kitchen (1500 Beach Blvd.), a barbecue restaurant that loosely resembles the House of Blues, with primitive art on the walls and a stage for musical acts.
Even at dinner, this beach likes to rock.