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Best Florida Beaches

Stephen Leatherman. Photo courtesy of


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.

Stephen Leatherman. Photo courtesy of

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.”

Daytona Beach

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.”

Roseate spoonbills

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.

Fish off the Panama City Beach coast

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).

Grayton Beach

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)

Few People

Perfect for Couples

Fun Day & Night

Multi-Generational Fun

Great Beach Towns

Florida State Parks with Great Beaches & More

RESOURCES 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. 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. 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.comHere you can book your next stay near some of America’s best beaches!

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