A PRESCRIPTION FOR SAND, SUN, AND FUN
by Lynn & Cele Seldon
There’s something soothing and healing about a beach and that’s especially true in the Sunshine State, where one thousand-plus miles of coastline and more than 650 miles of beaches await sand, sun, and fun seekers. Florida beaches beckon as a prescription for anything that ails anyone. Just ask Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman.
Renowned Dr. Beach is a (fittingly) Florida-based beach expert who is Chair Professor and Director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. As an internationally known coastal scientist, Leatherman has published 20 books and hundreds of scientific articles about ways to improve beach health and safety, storm impacts, and coastal erosion. His website (see “Resources”) is also an excellent reference for beach lovers of all types in Florida and beyond.
Since 1991, Leatherman has selected the annual “Top 10 Beaches” in the United States, a very popular list that often features many Florida beaches. He uses 50 criteria to evaluate the nation’s beaches. More than ever, emphasis is being placed on environmental management and beach safety. Bonus points are awarded for prohibition of smoking on beaches, with non-smoking beaches becoming more and more prevalent in Florida.
Dr. Beach’s annual survey of more than 640 public beaches on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts (he calls the beaches his “patients”) uses a sliding scale from one to five to measure beach quality for each of the 50 criteria, which include: beach width at low tide; beach material; beach condition; sand softness; and much more.
Leatherman says an unexpected inquiry in 1989 got him started with beach ratings. “I received a telephone call from a travel magazine writer who wanted a listing of the top 10 U.S. beaches. Pressed by the reporter, I rattled off the first ten wonderful beaches that came to mind.”
When the glossy travel magazine story was published, Leatherman was contacted by one of the “winners” he’d listed (Sanibel Island in Lee County, Florida) that wanted to issue a press release about their beach’s high rating. He also remembers being contacted by Daytona Beach tourism officials asking why Daytona hadn’t made the cut. “They wanted to know why their beach was not on the list, because everyone knows that Daytona is one of the greatest beaches in the world—it even says so on the town water tower.
“All of the hoopla made me think about how seriously Americans take ratings. We rate everything from hotels to restaurants to graduate programs in universities, so why not beaches?”
Leatherman developed his 50 criteria and his first survey took two years to complete. The list was released over Memorial Day weekend in 1991 and the calls started coming in immediately. “My assistants tried to field the calls, but the phone was ringing off the hook,” he recalls. Newspapers, TV producers, and radio hosts all wanted to run the story and the media blitz continued for quite some time. “Since 1991, I have released the list of ‘America’s Best Beaches’ on Memorial Day weekend, marking the beginning of beach season. My ratings have become a regular feature of the morning TV shows, as well as newspaper and magazine articles.”
Leatherman says he’s received thousands of letters and phone calls from people wanting more information about beaches, like, “What makes the water a beautiful emerald-green color in the Florida Panhandle?” Leatherman’s answer to this common question is, “The color is partly due to the very purity and hence crystal clarity of the water that allows such incredible visibility and light penetration. The other factors include the shallowness of the water and the very high reflectivity of the sun off the ivory white sand. Instead of the crystal-clear blue color of the deeper waters, the nearshore waters are characterized by the emerald-green color, making the water sparkle like a gem.
“I believe that this type of water, which is also found at some Hawaiian beaches, especially Lanikai on Oahu, is the most beautiful,” continues Leatherman. The answer to this question and many others prodded Leatherman into writing the popular (and highly-recommended) book, America’s Best Beaches.
Of course, Florida’s top beaches were featured in the book and have often been on Leatherman’s lists over the years. The 2016 top ten list included three Florida beaches: Sarasota’s Siesta Beach (#2); the Panhandle’s Grayton Beach State Park (#6), near Santa Rosa Beach; and Caladesi Island State Park, near Clearwater and Dunedin.
Over the last quarter-century, Florida has placed dozens of beaches in Leatherman’s top ten lists and many Sunshine State strands have won top honors, including (note the presence of many state parks): Bahia Honda State Recreation Area (1992; now Bahia Honda State Park); Grayton Beach State Recreation Area (1994; and now also a state park); St. Andrew’s State Recreation Area (1995; again, now also a state park); St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (2002); Fort De Soto State Park (2005); Caladesi Island State Park (2008); and Siesta Key Beach in 2011.
But Dr. Beach isn’t the only one who loves Florida’s beaches and their prescriptions for sand, sun, and fun. A wide range of rankings always rate Florida’s beaches among the best in the nation—and even the world. For instance, the 2016 Travelers’ Choice “Top 25 Beaches” rankings for the United States from well-respected TripAdvisor® had an incredible 10 Florida beaches on the list (three more than Hawaii and five more than California), including: top-ranked Clearwater Beach at #1; Siesta Beach (#3); St. Pete Beach (#4); Pensacola Beach (#7); St. Augustine Beach (#9); the Beach at Panama City (#10); Henderson Beach State Park (#11); Fort Myers Beach (#18); Las Olas Beach (#20); and Navarre Beach (#23). Plus, at #20, Clearwater Beach was the only beach of the nation’s 50 states to make TripAdvisor’s top 25 “World” beaches for 2016 (St. John’s Maho Beach in the United States Virgin Islands also made the list at #11).
Lots of state parks in the extensive Florida state parks system feature great beaches. In fact, more than 40 of Florida’s 160-plus state parks feature beaches, with a wide range of activities and pursuits (or lack thereof).
The following admittedly subjective lists provide ideas for a variety of Sunshine State beaches to meet any interests. The categories and recommendations are not meant to be comprehensive and many of the beaches could easily be listed in several categories (for instance, several state parks feature white sand beaches).
White Sand (Gulf Coast in general)
- Fort Myers area beaches
- Florida Panhandle beaches
- Siesta Key (Sarasota)
- St. Petersburg/Clearwater beaches
- Barefoot Beach Preserve (Bonita Springs)
- Blowing Rocks Preserve (Hobe Sound)
- Canaveral National Seashore (New Smyrna Beach/Titusville)
- Clam Pass Park (Naples)
- Dry Tortugas National Park (about 65 miles west of Key West)
- Fort De Soto Park (Tierra Verde)
- Gulf Islands National Seashore (near Pensacola)
- Navarre Beach (Milton)
- Peanut Island Park (Riviera Beach)
- Santa Rosa Beach (South Walton)
Perfect for Couples
- Amelia Island
- Captiva Island
- Honeymoon Island (Dunedin)
- Indialantic (north of Melbourne Beach)
- Vilano Beach (St. Augustine)
Fun Day & Night
- Fort Lauderdale beaches (Las Olas Beach and more)
- Fort Myers Beach
- Jacksonville Beach
- Key West beaches
- South Beach (Lummus Park)
- West Palm Beach
- Clearwater Beach
- Daytona Beach
- Fort Walton
- Huguenot Memorial Park (Jacksonville)
- Lowdermilk Park (Naples)
- Marco Island
- Panama City Beach
Great Beach Towns
- Clearwater Beach
- Cocoa Beach
- Delray Beach
- Fernandina Beach
- Hollywood Beach
- Pensacola Beach
- St. Augustine Beach
- St. Pete Beach
Florida State Parks with Great Beaches & More
- Amelia Island State Park (Jacksonville)
- Anastasia State Park (St. Augustine)
- Anclote Key Preserve State Park (Tarpon Springs)
- Avalon State Park (North Hutchinson Island
- Bahia Honda State Park (Big Pine Key)
- Bald Point State Park (Alligator Point)
- Big Lagoon State Park (Pensacola)
- Big Talbot Island State Park (Jacksonville)
- Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park (Key Biscayne)
- Caladesi Island State Park (Dunedin)
- Camp Helen State Park (Panama City Beach)
- Cayo Costa State Park (Cayo Costa)
- Curry Hammock State Park (Marathon)
- Deer Lake State Park (Santa Rosa Beach)
- Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park (Naples)
- Don Pedro Island State Park (Cape Haze)
- Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park (St. George Island)
- Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park (Dania Beach)
- Egmont Key State Park (St. Petersburg)
- Fort Clinch State Park (Fernandina Beach)
- Fort Pierce Inlet State Park (Fort Pierce)
- Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (Key West)
- Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area (Flagler Beach)
- Gasparilla Island State Park (Boca Grande)
- Grayton Beach State Park (Santa Rosa Beach)
- Henderson Beach State Park (Destin)
- Honeymoon Island State Park (Dunedin)
- Hugh Taylor Birch State Park (Fort Lauderdale)
- John D. MacArthur Beach State Park (North Palm Beach)
- John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (Key Largo)
- John U. Lloyd Beach State Park (Dania Beach)
- Little Talbot Island State Park (Jacksonville)
- Lovers Key State Park (Fort Myers Beach)
- North Peninsula State Park (Ormond by the Sea)
- Oleta River State Park (North Miami Beach)
- Oscar Scherer State Park (Osprey)
- Perdido Key State Park (Pensacola)
- Sebastian Inlet State Park (Melbourne Beach)
- St. Andrews State Park (Panama City Beach)
- St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park (Port Salerno)
- Stump Pass Beach State Park (Englewood)
- H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (Port St. Joe)
- Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (Santa Rosa Beach)
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park (Palm Coast)
www.visitflorida.com: This helpful website has many great resources for researching Florida beaches and much more. The “Florida Beach Finder” feature is especially helpful, where users can “rank” sliding scales of importance.
www.floridastateparks.org: As outlined, the Florida state parks system has a large variety of beaches, with a wide range of offerings (or lack thereof). There’s an interactive “Find a Park” search feature that allows visitors to search for beaches, activities, and much more.
www.drbeach.org: In addition to his annual lists, articles, books, and more, Leatherman’s great website provides lots of insights about beaches in general, as well as U.S. beaches.
www.thousandtrails.com: Here you can book your next stay near some of America’s best beaches!