Just 500 yards across the Key West Harbor, Sunset Key's private crystal white beach beckons visitors with its hammocks and thatched tiki huts. The beach is reserved for resort guests, who have the luxury of staying in quaint cottages along the shore. If you're not a guest, you can taste a slice of this 27-acre paradise at Latitudes Cafe where Chef Todd Holender serves up island fare with a Caribbean flare, using a seasonal menu. With its upscale toes-in-the-sand ambiance and Gulf views, it's the perfect spot for a long lunch or romantic sunset dinner. Their elegant spa is also open to non-guests and features well-appointed treatment suites and a full range of services. Their Sunset Romance Package is the epitome of indulgence. Couples unwind in a thatched-covered cabana beachside during eighty-minute massages, followed by a private dinner. Reservations required.
Recommended for Beaches because: Reservations for Latitudes or The Spa are required to board the ferry. The dress code for dinner is upscale resort wear.
Claudia's expert tip: On-the-sand dining at Latitudes or beachside massages at The Spa, make Sunset Key a treat for guests and visitors alike.
This elegant boutique hotel boasts a large private natural-sand beach and a picturesque pier with a gazebo extending over the Atlantic. If you're a guest, you'll be treated to sunrises each morning--if you wake up in time. You can relax in lounge chairs on the sand and let the staff pamper you with frozen towels, popsicles and refreshing drinks. Not staying at the hotel? You can still enjoy the watersports activities with Barefoot Billy's. For over 20 years Barefoot Billy's has been providing recreational equipment rentals and tours. Rentals include Jet Skis, paddle boards, kayaks and Hobie Cats. They're best known for their two-hour Island Jet Ski Tour, which takes riders on a high-octane sightseeing tour around the entire island.
Recommended for Beaches because: This elegant boutique hotel boasts a large private natural-sand beach and a picturesque pier over the Atlantic. Watersports at Barefoot Billy's are open to all.
Claudia's expert tip: Book your Barefoot Billy's Island Jet Ski Tour on-line and save 10% off the regular price.
This mansion-style resort boasts 1,100 feet of private beach dotted with palms and swaying hammocks. If you're lucky enough to stay at this timeless beauty, listed on the National Register for Historic Places, your beach concierge will handle all the details. He'll set you up with a chair and towel, while the staff plies you with tropical cocktails and cool cucumber slices for your eyes. Even if you're not a guest, you can still indulge in a deep-tissue massage or aromatherapy by the lapping waves at Spa al Mare. Follow with a lunch filled with the local catch and watermelon mojitos at Sun Sun, before learning how to make sandcastles with Sand-Isle. Set your alarm, so you can take in the colorful sunrise.
Recommended for Beaches because: This historicc resort boasts 1,100 feet of private beach dotted with palms and hammocks. Their spa, cafe and sandcastle classes are open to the public.
Claudia's expert tip: Spa al Mare offers a full menu of services, but their Ocean Breeze massage right on the water can't be beat.
Some refer to it as "The Jurassic Park of the Florida Keys," but the Marquesas comprise a doughnut-shaped chain 25 miles west of Key West. The 10 uninhabited islands are the only natural atoll (ring shaped coral reef) in the Western Hemisphere. The islands were formed by a meteorite that created a two-mile wide lagoon encircled by mangroves and bright white beaches that are a little slice of heaven. The task is getting to these isolated beaches if you aren't a fisherman that frequents the waters. If you don't have your own boat, companies like Adventure Watersport Charters offer fishing and diving trips.
Recommended for Beaches because: While these remote islands are a challenge to reach, the deserted beaches and abundant wildlife are worth it.
Claudia's expert tip: Bring your snorkel gear! The channels between the islands are filled with fish and wildlife.
Not far from Duval Street in Old Town Key West is Higgs Beach, a popular spot to soak in some rays and take a dip in the shallow water. Amenities include tennis courts, volleyball courts, children's playground and a dog park, and White Street Pier extends far past the sand for stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. (The end of the pier is also a great spot for kids to toss bread in the water for the fish). Tropical Water Sports, a beach concessionaire, offers a broad array of beach accessories for rent including beach chairs, umbrellas, kayaks and paddle-boards. Don't miss the Key West AIDS Memorial, as well as the African Cemetery where victims of the Transatlantic slave trade are buried. If you're feeling peckish, check out Salute on the Beach, a lovely seaside bar and restaurant.
Recommended for Beaches because: While not be the best beach in Key West, Higgs makes up for it with shallow waters, volleyball courts, playground, pier and water sports.
Claudia's expert tip: At times, large amounts of seaweed can wash ashore (at any of the beaches in Key West). Check the weather conditions before planning your day.
Key West's largest beach has all the ingredients for a golden tan: picture-perfect stretch of sand, chair rentals, volleyball courts and a calm breeze. Located on the southern shore of the island, the man-made beach offers calm shallow waters and a slew of water activities from Sunset Watersports. Rentals include Hobie Cat sailboats, windsurfers, paddle boards, kayaks, Sun Fish sailboats and jetskis. They also offer a parasailing, where you can see the entire island from the air. The beach itself is free and has restrooms (open until 4:00 p.m.), showers, snack bars, bike paths and picnic tables. Like most Keys beaches, the waters can be a little rocky, and seaweed washes up on shore. It's a popular wedding spot, so don't be surprised to see multiple wedding parties jockeying for position at sunset.
Recommended for Beaches because: Key West's largest beach has all the ingredients for a golden tan: picture-perfect stretch of sand, chair rentals, volleyball courts and a calm breeze.
Claudia's expert tip: Sunset Watersports offers an All Day Beach Pass that gives you use off all the equipment and a parasail ride for $69 online.
Located at the end of Duval Street on the Atlantic Ocean, South Beach is one of the smallest public beaches in Key West. This 200-foot-long stretch of sand is flanked by the Southernmost Beach Resort and the South Beach Pier. It's backed by the Southernmost Cafe, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at reasonable prices. Resort guests get complimentary use of the chairs, but rentals are available to non-guests. There are no public restrooms, and coolers aren't allowed. This makes it a convenient stop for a dip in Old Town, but not the best place for a day trip. It's said that playwright Tennessee Williams came to South Beach for a swim almost every day he lived in Key West. If you wake up with the roosters, you can catch one of Key West's breathtaking sunrises either from the beach or the pier.
Recommended for Beaches because: This public beach may be small, but it's conveniently located at the Atlantic end of Duval Street. The on-site Southernmost Cafe is a bonus.
Claudia's expert tip: Catch your rays in the morning to beat the crowd and follow with a scrumtious lunch at the cafe.
Fort Zachary Taylor is blessed with a well-maintained, sandy beach with chairs, umbrellas and water sports equipment for rent. Completed in 1866, the fort played important roles in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, and visitors can tour the National Historic Landmark at 11 a.m. daily. This 54-acre state park is also home to several nature trails, a stunning coral reef for snorkelers, picnic tables and a beachfront café. Fishing is permitted in certain areas. The three-story fort once held the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the U.S. (many of which are still there). Admission to the park is $6.00 per vehicle or $2.50 per person when walking or biking.
Recommended for Beaches because: Enjoy a sandy beach, stellar snorkeling, beachfront cafe and nature trails all in the shadow of a three-story brick Civil War Fort.
Claudia's expert tip: On the third weekend of each month, see the fort come alive as local re-enactors engage the public in historic demonstrations.
About 70 miles from Key West lies Dry Tortugas National Park, seven islands that straddle the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. The shallow waters surrounding the islands are perfect for snorkeling amid the ruins of Fort Jefferson. Tour the fort to learn about its construction and Civil War prisoners like Samuel Mudd--the doctor who assisted John Wilkes Booth after his injury. This remote park is only accessible by seaplane or ferry. A half-day trip by plane runs $329 per adult, but offers a stunning bird's eye view. The Yankee Freedom II is only ferry to the park, starting from $175, which covers entrance, meals, snorkeling and the tour of Fort Jefferson.
Recommended for Beaches because: Take a seaplane to the Dry Tortugas where it's easy to pretend you're castaways in paradise.
Claudia's expert tip: Before you go, visit the Dry Tortugas Park website for a list of do's and don'ts as well as what to bring.
The three soft sandy natural beaches at Bahia Honda State Park would be enough to set it apart from the rest of the Florida Keys. But when you add in the nature trails, unparalleled reef snorkeling and a piece of railroad history, you get one of the most unique state parks in the country. Located 37 miles north of Key West, the park is a camper's dream--if you can score one of the coveted spots. At Sandspur Beach, which is the largest on the island, dump your gear at a picnic table under one of the three pavilions. Grab a floatie and hit the clear shallow water. On the southern side of the island, Calusa Beach rests in the shadow of the steel trestle railroad bridge--a remnant of Henry Flagler's railroad destroyed in the 1935 hurricane.
Recommended for Beaches because: Soft sandy shores, calm crystalline waters and historic trestle bridge--from the ill-fated railroad--led Dr. Beach to deem the park America's Best Beach.
Claudia's expert tip: Book early if you want to score one of the coveted camping spots.