Clearwater, Siesta Key, Playalinda and Pass-a-Grille in top 5
In the battle for the title of Best Florida Beach, the Gulf Coast reigned supreme as home to four of the top five winners. Throughout four weeks of voting, it was neck and neck between Gulf Islands National Seashore and Clearwater Beach. The undulating talcum sands of the panhandle near Pensacola won out in the end, and Gulf Islands National Seashore is our winner, with Clearwater Beach runner up.
Lovers Key State Park Ft. Myers
Every bit as romantic as it sounds, Lovers Key boasts a wedding pavilion on the sands where hundreds get married every year and hundreds more renew their vows on Valentine’s Day. The isolated cluster of islands that make up the park holds unspoiled beaches that birds love as much as sun-worshippers. A tram takes visitors from the parking lot to one of its three beaches, but the walk across estuary to the Gulf of Mexico is a don’t-miss part of the experience. Photo courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Henderson Beach State Park Destin
For those who want to experience the white, dunesy beaches of the Panhandle without the ethereal remoteness of some parts of it, Henderson is easily accessible from Destin and offers plenty of creature comforts including camping, a playground and proximity to an adults-only inn. Popular with families, its beaches overlook typically calm Gulf of Mexico waters populated with fish, dolphin and sea turtles. Photo courtesy of Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau
Fort de Soto Park Tierra Verde
Fort de Soto Park's eponymous century-old Spanish-American War fort serves as a centerpiece for the multi-faceted county park with two separate white-sand beaches. The park lies between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay and is known for its birds and complete facilities, including picnic shelters, two fishing piers, a dog park and concessions. Extensive recreational activities include hiking, biking, kayaking, boat excursions and camping. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park Port St. Joe
Hidden far off the flip-flopped path, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park juts into the Gulf of Mexico to benefit from both gulf and bay water fronts, meaning excellent fishing and birding, and beaches so quiet even the ghost crabs are spooked. The beach flaunts the white sugar sands trademark of Northwest Florida. Clear aqua waters invite swimming and kayaking into the Wilderness Preserve that occupies the park’s west end. Photo courtesy of COLIN HACKLEY / Visit Florida
Caladesi Island State Park Dunedin
Accessible only by boat (although you can sometimes walk across from Clearwater Beach at low tide), Caladesi Island State Park remains lightly populated despite its reputation for plush white sands and unspoiled demeanor. A ferry from nearby Honeymoon Island State Park makes the short trip to Caladesi for sun-lovers, fishermen, nature trail hikers and picnickers. Docks accommodate boat-in visitors, and a playground keeps the kids happy. Photo courtesy of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater
Pass-a-Grille Beach St. Petersburg
This quirky community south of St. Pete Beach has a renegade history of rum- and drug-smuggling. Today, its public beach welcomes families with expansive widths of sand, a gradually sloping sea bottom and mellow Gulf of Mexico waves. A number of restaurants and bars lie on the beach or a few steps away. The beachy town has an artistic verve with a string of galleries and shops along Eighth Avenue, the main drag just off the beach. Photo courtesy of Bill Serne / Visit Florida
The most easily accessible beach along the Space Coast’s undeveloped Canaveral National Seashore, it nonetheless requires a drive through the wildlife refuge and gorgeous sand dunes that buffer the NASA space complex to the south, which you can see in the distance. A number of parking lots accommodate sun buffs, surfers and nature lovers. Bathrooms are the only facilities. Photo courtesy of Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism
Siesta Beach Siesta Key
For decades, Siesta Key has been winning awards for whitest and softest sand in the world. The thick carpet of sand is made up of quartz crystals that wash down from North Florida beaches. Siesta Key Beach is a wonderland of the pearlescent sand, as popular with couples as with families for its recreational facilities – from volleyball to soccer – and gorgeous sunsets. Photo courtesy of Visit Sarasota County
Clearwater Beach Clearwater
Pier 60 anchors the island’s main beach and is the site of a nightly sunset celebration hailed with musical performances and artisan vendors. Roomy and cushy, Clearwater Beach is part of a recent $30 million Beach Walk renovation project that makes the beachfront modern and thoroughly pedestrian friendly. A cool playground, shops, great restaurants, fine resorts and volleyball courts: Everything is convenient to this urban beach. Photo courtesy of Colin Miller / City of Clearwater
Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola
Undulating with the Panhandle’s patent dunes of talcum sands, this continuum of platinum sandscape feels otherworldly and primitive. It stretches from Perdido Key on the state’s westernmost waterfront and continues at Pensacola Beach’s Fort Pickens National Park and the Santa Rosa Area – the most secluded. Crossovers take visitors from parking to the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There’s just nowhere quite like it in the world for swimming, birding, camping, fishing and exploring history and nature. Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola
The brilliant white beaches of Siesta Key, located just off the coast of Sarasota, snagged the third place spot, while it's over on the Pacific Coast – the Space Coast to be exact – where you'll find the fourth place winner, Playalinda. Quirky Pass-a-Grille Beach finished in fifth position.
The winners in the 'Best Florida Beach' contest category for USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice are as follows:
Lauren Tjaden joined VISIT FLORIDA, the Sunshine State's official tourism marketing corporation, as the Beaches & Adventure Insider in 2007. She has visited – and filmed – almost every beach in Florida, and enjoys adventures that include skydiving, Scuba diving and windsurfing. She helped the U.S. Women’s Team win silver in the 2006 Women’s World Hang Gliding Championships. Tjaden shares her experiences via blogs, articles and videos on VISITFLORIDA.com and in social media, and answers questions from visitors to the website. Tjaden is co-author of the book "Bombproof Your Horse" and is a frequent contributor to magazines. She lives with her husband in Groveland, Florida.
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
Chelle Koster Walton
Chelle Koster Walton – the Local Expert for Naples, Florida and the Caribbean – has been covering the destination for 30 years. Her top-selling Sarasota, Sanibel Island, and Naples guidebook (Countryman Press) is in its sixth edition. She was contributing editor for Caribbean Travel & Life for 12 years and has written guidebooks on the Bahamas.
A veteran travel writer, Chelle has published thousands of articles for Miami Herald, USA TODAY, Latitudes; has written/contributed to a dozen guidebooks, and produces travel shows for the local PBS station.
Aimee Heckel’s passion for storytelling has brought her around the world as a journalist, writing award-winning articles about Haiti and Uganda. Aimee studied international journalism at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and she majored in journalism and German at Colorado State University. When she's not covering Colorado for Fodor’s Travel Guides and writing for SpaTravelGal.com, she travels and volunteers for Think Humanity, her family's nonprofit that helps refugees in Africa.
Heckel also blogs for HuffPost Weird News and writes feature stories, a fashion column and fitness column for the Boulder Daily Camera in Colorado.