Beaches off the beaten path
Published: Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 6:40 p.m.
Winter is behind us, mostly. Ads for the hottest new beachwear are everywhere. Can hitting the beach be far behind?
Almanacs tell us there are nearly 700 miles of beaches on Florida's 1,200-mile coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
The problem for dedicated beachbuffs here in North Central Florida, however, is there is at least one county between us and the salt water. And some of the more popular beaches — Daytona, Clearwater — tend to be a bit crowded.
"The bigger beaches do get a lot of crowds," says John Sancin, founder of floridabeachbar.com, which seeks out and rates, well, the best beach bars in the Sunshine State.
But in his seven-year quest, he and his wife, Chris, have encountered a lot of beaches, too. And a lot of them are smaller, quaint, out of the way; in other words, perfect for those seeking a beach off the beaten path.
"People head to the beaches for a variety of reasons that include tanning, swimming, family outings, partying, surfing, fishing and water recreation like paddle board and boating," notes Sancin, a resident of Siesta Key near Sarasota.
"If you're looking for a special out-of-the-way beach, you'll need to be prepared to do some traveling. But if you are willing to make the trip, there are some quaint and different beaches on either side of the state."
And should we stumble across a charming little beach bar while we're there, he asks that we let him know.
So, with recommendations by Sancin, travelchannel.com, Dr. Stephen Leatherman — aka "Dr. Beach," the coastal expert who ranks the nation's best beaches every year — and beachbums from two newsrooms, we've identified a handful of off-the-beaten-path beaches on both coasts that might be worth a bit of travel.
Fort Island Gulf Beach
At the end of an eight-mile drive through mangroves on either side of Fort Island Trail out of Crystal River is this Citrus County playground.
And it's about as far off the beaten path as you can get, one of the few actual Gulf of Mexico beaches in the long stretch from Tarpon Springs to the Panhandle.
The beach itself was recently renourished with some 1,600 tons of fresh white sand, and bathroom renovations were completed last fall.
Fort Island is "a special little place," says Marla Chancey, executive director of the county's Visitors and Conventions Bureau. "It's an incredible drive out there; you can park right at the beach without having to pay. The sunsets are incredible.
"And it's a great place to read a Kindle," she adds. "It's a sweet spot in this part of the state."
Little Talbot Island
Recommended by beach expert Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, this state park hideaway is great "for a wildlife adventure" — particularly if you're interested in a possible glimpse of Bigfoot.
In 1994, a Fernandina Beach man reported seeing a tall and muscular "bipedal figure" standing at the entrance to the Little Talbot Island State Park. The figure had "long, shaggy hair about its entire body, with a tan to reddish brown appearance," according to his report filed with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.
Park Ranger Kara Brooker, however, scoffs at the Bigfoot report and would prefer to focus on the natural wonder of her beach park — part of a larger complex of islands, wooded preserves and a cultural center just north of Jacksonville, where the St. Johns River empties into the Atlantic.
"It's five miles of the prettiest beach in north Florida," she says proudly. "This is possibly the last undisturbed barrier island in this part of the state."
She recommends a hiking trail through the woods to the beach because it offers "a great overview of Little Talbot Island." In addition to soaking up rays, the beach is great for surfers. It can get a bit crowded on weekends and holidays, but, Brooker says, "during the week you'll probably have the place to yourself."
Honeymoon and Caladesi islands
These two islands off the coast of Dunedin in Pinellas County were one island before a hurricane in the 1920s cut it into two. Today, these side-by-side state parks remain mostly undisturbed — Caladesi, in fact, is accessible only by boat, while a causeway connects Honeymoon to the mainland.
Honeymoon does have condominiums at one corner, a reminder that in the 1960s the island was destined for Miami-like über development; only the dawning of environmental awareness in the late 1960s brought an end to extensive dredge-and-fill development plans for the island.
Dunedin Beach on Honeymoon offers four miles of sugar sand beach, paved parking, showers and a couple of small pavilions with eats and sundries. It also provides a separate pet beach as well as a shuttle boat over to Caladesi. Playful dolphins often escort the shuttle boat.
Dr. Beach rates Caladesi, one of the state's older public parks, as one of the top 10 beaches in the nation. It features even more miles of undisturbed beach.
"The white sand is soft and cushy at the water's edge, inviting one to take a dip in the sparkling clear water," Leatherman writes on his website. "Caladesi is a real getaway beach." Moreover, he notes these beaches are the closest to Tampa, yet residents there barely are aware of them.
Just north of the constant carnival of Daytona Beach is Ormond Beach. And it seems the farther north you go — as in the farther away from Daytona — the quieter beach life gets.
This time of year, Volusia County beaches go dark. Sea turtle nesting season runs May 1 through Oct. 31, so artificial light — be it from flashlights or lights from hotels/motels — is prohibited from spilling onto the sands at night to allow only moonlight to guide the large, nesting turtles.
The lack of artificial light adds a bit of zen to evening beach strolls, and visitors may even encounter a sea turtle trudging on shore to lay eggs. Stay way back. Stay very quiet.
During the day, Ormond offers good shelling and waves perfect for boogie boarders of all ages. There are dunes with sea grass. Cars are not allowed on the beach. There is a popular family park with playground near Coral Sands, an old-Florida beach resort and motel that attracts many Ocala families.
And it's only a short drive to Daytona, so families can dine near the pier or catch a show or play mini-golf before heading back north to a serenity you can almost feel in your lungs.
The best of this area starts where State Road 40 ends at the Atlantic Ocean and then stretches several miles north.
Washington Oaks Gardens and Anastasia state parks
On either end of the long barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and Mantanzas River off St. Augustine, beaches at these two state parks are alike yet stand in stark contrast.
Alike in that both are undisturbed, serene, meditative; different in that Anastasia is a length of white oceanfront sand north of St. Augustine Beach while the oceanfront in Washington Oaks Gardens is more reddish brown sand with the coquina rock formations on the Atlantic, making it look almost more like New England than Florida.
According to Anastasia Park Manager Paul Crawford, a beach renourishment project began in February, so some areas of the beach are off-limits.
Many visitors to Washington Oaks come to explore the 20 acres of formal gardens established by Louise and Owen Young before they donated the property to the state.
Between the two state parks are the more mainstream Marineland Beach and Crescent Beach, making this a barrier island strip with some appeal to all.
Fort DeSoto Park
Though this multi-island park at the mouth of Tampa Bay makes it onto Dr. Beach's Top 10 list from time to time, it tends to be more of a hangout for the locals in southern Pinellas County.
On weekends and holidays it can get crowded, but most of the time Fort DeSoto pretty much belongs to seabirds; some 290 species have been sighted here.
Fort DeSoto boasts three miles of white sandy beaches in its seven-mile waterfront. Along with hiking, picnicking, camping and a dog park, Fort DeSoto also boasts something few beaches can: an actual fort.
Rick Allen can be reached at email@example.com. Entertainment Editor Dave Schlenker contributed to this report.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.