Florida beaches prove excellent vacation spots

03/03/2013 7:10 AM

03/03/2013 7:13 AM

Long before Orlando was transformed from a modest citrus-and-cattle town into Theme Park Central, folks vacationed along the fringe of Florida — its beaches.

The state has the second-longest coastline, after Alaska, and all the beachfront is open to the public, up to the average high-tide mark, where private-property rights begin. That means you can stroll along the sand almost everywhere. Plus, the state has more than 40 parks on beaches, and most coastal counties also have their own beach parks.

Too many choices? Here are some suggestions:

For spring break

It’s been 52 years since “Where the Boys Are” introduced America to the collegiate spring break. While the movie was set in Fort Lauderdale, then the epitome of spring break, city officials ultimately felt overrun and moved to revamp Lauderdale’s image.

Jumping in to offer sun, sand and suds, Panama City Beach, in Florida’s Panhandle, became popular for year-round merrymaking. More than 20 years ago, MTV hyped the party scene in Panama City Beach, which, in turn, increased the coastal community’s popularity. Crowds now keep the 27 miles of area beaches — which are clear of oil residue from the 2010 Deep Horizon blowout — hopping in the daytime and the shore-side bars throbbing at night. Also close at hand: amusement parks and golf courses.

Former resident Jimmy Buffett wasn’t singing about Key West in “Margaritaville,” but there is plenty of attitude changin’ available in the self-named Conch Republic. You’ll feel it as you ride a rental bike or moped on the residential streets. Visit Ernest Hemingway’s home (pet the six-toed cats), have a drink at Capt. Tony’s (frequented by both “Papa” and Buffett) and eat at the iconic Blue Heaven, where roosters sometimes strut under the outdoor tables. Then head to Smathers Beach, Higgs Beach or Fort Zachary Taylor State Park for small waves, tanning, volleyball, sailing or just ogling the hard bodies.

For families

Clearwater Beach is a three-mile stretch of soft white sand on the Gulf of Mexico, about 25 miles north of St. Petersburg. Beach volleyball is quite popular; concessionaires rent boats; captains take folks on dolphin-watching cruises. Or you can see a real-life movie star: Winter, the dolphin whose tail was lost to fishing nets and who now has an artificial one, was featured in the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.” Winter lives in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Locals and visitors alike stroll the 1,080-foot-long Pier 60, especially to watch magnificent sunsets.

Daytona Beach draws about 8 million visitors annually to 23 miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline. At low tide, the beach is up to 500 feet wide. At the east end of Main Street sits the 1,000-foot-long pier, great for admiring the coastline, fishing or relaxing with a drink. The boardwalk offers an arcade and places to grab a slice of pizza or a corndog.

For peace and quiet

The name Canaveral National Seashore is familiar because of the neighboring Kennedy Space Center. But the seashore is a step back into Florida as it was centuries ago. The 58,000-acre park is on a barrier island that is a habitat for 14 species of animals considered either threatened or endangered. They coexist with day trippers who come to swim, surf, hike backcountry trails or relax along the 24-mile coastline. The national seashore is about 28 miles south of Daytona Beach.

You can rent a bike, canoe or kayak to enjoy the nearly 2,000 acres of Grayton Beach State Park in the Panhandle. There’s even a boat ramp into a brackish, 100-acre lake, which allows for wildlife watching or fishing for both fresh- and saltwater species. But you also have a mile-long beachfront to enjoy. A nature trail winds for 4.5 miles through a coastal forest. One of the little pleasures of Grayton Beach is its location: more than 20 miles from Panama City Beach or Destin, the closest towns. That reduces the number of visitors to this park — you might pretend you’re on your own island.

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