August 30th is National Beach Day
Visit four fabulous Authentic Florida beaches – all within pristine natural surroundings, have fewer crowds, and are close to delicious Florida seafood.
Florida sand dollar
You’ve set down your beach chair, your feet are well ensconced in the sand, the sunscreen has been dutifully applied and now you can focus on the sparkling blue water. Warm Florida sunshine pours over you. In a state of tranquility, you are enjoying the perfect day, with not a care in the world for the moment.
At Authentic Florida, we have three requirements for a great beach day or beach vacation:
1. A fabulous beach
2. Surrounded by Florida nature and
3. Tasty Florida seafood nearby
These requirements actually define the perfect day, no, make that the perfect life – lived just for today.
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, read on … we hope to convince you that this bliss is possible even during these challenging times.
Let’s start with a fabulous beach. Yes, most Florida beaches are beautiful – with sand, sunshine, water, and waves. Simple enough. But we’ve always thought that a really good beach was one that is unspoiled, undeveloped, spacious and wide-open. And, not crowded. We prefer one without rows of condos, resorts, homes or urban sprawl; one where we don’t have to zig-zag through a gauntlet of beach towels, chairs and umbrellas to get to the water. We are talking about one where we can actually hear the laughing calls of gulls and the sound of gentle surf rather than radios and traffic.
Are we crazy now we’re experiencing a global pandemic? We think not as long as you follow the CDC COVID-19 guidelines.
We hope to convince you that it is very possible. Florida has many best-kept-secret beaches. They are the ones located within or near state parks or preserves with sandy stretches almost always surrounded by beautiful nature – pine forests, scrub, mangroves, and oak hammocks. In many Florida parks, you will find beaches and “real” Florida all in one package.
With these three requirements in mind – great beaches, surrounded by Florida nature with great seafood nearby – we have selected four special recommendations for you.
Four of Our Favorites
St. George Island State Park beach
The first is a special beach on Florida’s Panhandle near Apalachicola. Just south of the lovely little town of Eastpointe, lies St. George Island. Cross the bridge onto the island and you will find a fairly typical Florida beach vacation destination with the usual amenities – accommodations, restaurants, and shops. But head to the east end and you’ll find the lesser-discovered, delightful St. George Island State Park.
St. George Island State Park can be summed up in one word: Pristine.
You’ll be captivated by the natural beauty of miles of lovely white sand beaches, towering sand dunes, fallen oak trees, and an array of untouched natural Florida that is becoming rare. Add activities like camping, fishing, kayaking, hiking, and biking to the mix and you’ve got a lot of fun in one place. It’s not only spectacular, but it’s also just minutes away from great seafood.
St. George Island State Park sand dunes
On the south shore of this east-west island is the Gulf of Mexico with non-stop beaches and plenty of room to take long walks, with only a few people sharing it. The gentle waves soothe and relax while you discover miles of unspoiled sand and water. The park amenities are some of the best anywhere – providing extra clean bathrooms, showers and walkways to the sandy shore.
The north side of the island faces Apalachicola Bay, which separates the island from the mainland. Some of the world’s finest oysters are harvested here, providing a “daily catch” of the delicacy to area restaurants.
After a spectacular day sunning, swimming and adventuring, you have certainly earned a good meal. Head back to the west end of the island for seafood. It’s safe to say most St. George restaurants, or those in the towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint (across the bridge), will have fresh oysters – on the half shell, steamed, grilled, or in chowder. Fresh shrimp is another great local choice, and there’s plenty of good fish on the menus too. Or try Doug’s Seafood Truck, found in a parking lot west of the St. George Lighthouse.
NOTE: Effective July 2, 2020, Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park is open. The park is open at 75% of capacity. Restroom availability may be limited. Visitors are expected to maintain distances of at least six feet apart.
Canaveral National Seashore
Between Daytona Beach and Cocoa Beach is another rich and uniquely diverse slice of Authentic Florida. Miles of pristine Atlantic coastline, a 140,000-acre wildlife refuge, and long expanses of natural Florida will astonish you while visiting the Space Coast. Historically, the area has been known as home to the Kennedy Space Center, but you’ll also find some of the best beaches around.
The wide-open undeveloped Florida coastline seems to stretch out forever along sandy dunes covered with luscious beach vegetation. The Atlantic Ocean kicks up with seafoam green waves meeting a horizon of cerulean sky often filled with a panorama of beautiful cloud formations.
Need some room to just unplug? Head to Titusville to access the Canaveral National Seashore. Enjoy the shorebirds, gulls, terns, and a pleasant salty breeze. This is a great beach to “let it all go” and enjoy peaceful solitude. In fact, in some stretches, you’ll walk along the water’s edge without seeing a soul.
Canaveral National Seashore
Summer is sea turtle season. On summer evenings, these massive, prehistoric-looking sea creatures lumber onto the beaches, drag themselves beyond the high-water mark, dig a nest and lay one hundred or so ping-pong ball-sized eggs, then bury them deep beneath the sand before returning to the ocean. Months later a new generation of little turtle hatchlings will emerge and scamper to the water.
While at the Seashore, consider some hiking within the park. You can check out Native American shell middens, especially the 60-foot high Turtle Mound. Today these middens provide archaeologists with glimpses into Florida’s past cultures. If you want to continue walking, consider hiking the Eldora Hammock and Castle Windy trails, both one-half mile long.
For some fresh seafood, try Dixie Crossroads Seafood Restaurant in Titusville. Fifth-generation Floridian Laurilee Thompson runs this well-known family establishment boasting a menu filled with fresh, local seafood, specializing in shrimp. For a true authentic Florida meal, try Loyd Have Mercy for blue crabs, mullet, sheepshead, catfish, fried green tomatoes followed by sweet potato cake.
Beginning August 29, 2020, Canaveral National Seashore will resume normal operating hours of 6 am to 8 pm. This includes Apollo Beach and Playalinda Beach districts. The Apollo Visitor Center will return to operating hours of 9 am to 5 pm daily, and Backcountry Island Campsites will reopen with reservations and use. Special Use Permits may be issued with possible group size limitations, this includes Backcountry Hiking permits into Klondike Beach. Please remember to recreate safely and responsibly! Avoid high-risk outdoor activities, practice social distancing, and follow leave no trace principles. Following CDC guidance will help to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. So please maintain a distance of at least six feet from others, cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, wash or sanitize your hands often and stay home if you feel sick.
Caladesi Island State Park boardwalk
Now that you have experienced a Florida island before the existence of homes, condominiums, crowded beaches, traffic, and parking lots, you’ll likely want more. Scenic. Natural. Inviting. Like it used to be when most of Florida’s barrier islands were fringed with miles of glistening white sandy beaches and surrounded by bluish-green water. Native flora grew everywhere, tropical birds nested by the thousands and wildlife was abundant. It was a thriving ecosystem.
Got the picture?
While much of that Florida is gone, all is not lost. Real Florida continues to beckon at Caladesi Island State Park. North of Clearwater and south of Tarpon Springs, Caladesi Island is one of the very few remaining coastal barrier islands still in its “natural” state. And here’s the best part – there’s easy access.
Things To Do – Caladesi Island State Park
The Caladesi Island Ferry, a boat shuttle service, runs daily from the nearby Honeymoon Island State Park. The two islands were once connected but were split by a 1921 hurricane. To get to Honeymoon Island, take the Dunedin Causeway off Alt. U.S. Hwy. 19. There’s a nominal park fee to get onto the island. Look for the ferry service on your left after passing through the gate. An alternative is to paddle or sail the half-mile water route between the islands. Try a rental (kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, etc.) from an outfit called Sail Honeymoon on the Dunedin Causeway before you get to the park gate. Of course, if you have your own boat, you can cruise to Marker #14 and follow the signs.
The ferry service will drop you off at the Caladesi Marina. Equipped with plenty of boat slips, a ranger station, bathing facilities, picnic pavilions, and concessions (kayak and bike rentals), the marina offers most everything you need. Get an island map to help plan your stay. A boardwalk leads from the marina to the beach. Named #1 beach by “Dr. Beach” in 2008, its unspoiled beauty will mesmerize you. Dolphins are usually spotted offshore, shelling is popular and wooden benches provide a place to relax and enjoy the Gulf beach view. Opposite the beach, cabbage palms, palmettos, and sand dunes covered with sea oats and beach morning glories face the Gulf of Mexico.
Reddish Egret, Caladesi Island State Park
A 2.5-mile self-guided nature walk follows an island trail and is well worth the trek. Be sure to take the coastal hammock loop. Shady pine Flatwoods, live oaks and bromeliads provide a nice respite from the sun while hiking on a cushioned pine needle pathway. You may see gopher tortoises, armadillos, rabbits, a great horned owl’s nest, and more. Part of the trail is considered “coastal strand” characterized by sandy trails, prickly pear cactus, wildflowers, palmetto, and Florida’s state tree, the sabal palm. Cat’s Eye Pond provides a nice stop where you can view wading birds, especially reddish egrets, herons, and ibis.
The north end of Caladesi holds an amazing plethora of birds. Follow the trail from the marina or walk north along the beach to get there, and don’t forget your camera. American oystercatchers, plovers and terns, yellow-crowned night herons, and loads of shorebirds run the beaches on this part of the island. In fact, it’s part of Florida’s Great Birding Trail. Much of the north end is restricted as a critical breeding ground, but the beach walk is open. Turtle nests are cordoned off and marked with stakes from May through October. An array of wading birds such as great egrets, herons, and ibis gather on the tidal mudflats on the bayside. Ospreys are everywhere, diving for their food in the St. Joseph Sound.
For a perfect end to the day, try an old local seafood favorite that has been around for a long time, the Olde Bay Café & Dunedin Fish Market. It overlooks St. Joseph Sound with a view of Caladesi Island on Main Street in Dunedin.
So, grab your hat, camera, and sunscreen for an authentic Florida day at Caladesi State Park. It’s definitely one for the bucket list.
Effective July 24, 2020: Caladesi Island State Park is open (see hours of operation and fee information below). Due to local orders, facial coverings or masks are required inside buildings for staff and visitor safety. The beach, picnic facilities, and trails are available. Bike rentals are not available. The north beach restroom is available. All other park facilities are closed. Visitors are expected to maintain distances of at least six feet apart.
Cayo Costa State Park
Lastly, if you are a Florida beachcomber, you’ll quickly learn that it’s not easy to find a beach without rows of hotels and condominiums. But on Cayo Costa, you’ll find a beach that is as pure as its sugary white sand, and a “rare Florida find”.
Cayo Costa is located south of Gasparilla Island and north of Captiva/Sanibel Islands where Charlotte Harbor meets the Gulf of Mexico. To access the island, you’ll have to travel by boat – private or charter. Several charter services service the island and depending on where you board, your drop off point will vary.
Cayo Costa Island State Park
Punta Gorda’s King Fisher Fleet at Fisherman’s Wharf offers full-day cruises to Cayo Costa. You’ll be dropped off at the island’s north dock where the park staff will shuttle passengers to the beachside. Another location for departure would be from Pine Island where Tropic Star Cruises transports guests to the same drop off point. Meanwhile, Captiva Island offers tours through Captiva Cruises depositing beachcombers off on Cayo Costa’s south end past scenic storm-ravaged trees on the Gulf side.
Cayo Costa Island’s south end
Either way you go, prepare to be awestruck by a wide-open bright white beach set against the shimmering blue-green Gulf of Mexico and deep blue sky. More than six miles of sparkling beaches rim the island – perfect for a refreshing dip in the Gulf. If lucky, you may see pods of dolphins, manatees, and many birds while you stroll along the expansive beach. Shelling is superb as people come from far and wide seeking rare shells found on the water’s edge.
Don’t forget, you’ll be out there for a while – so take plenty of drinks, snacks, sunscreen, towels, and gear.
Most of the island resembles Florida as it once was – with pine forests, oak-palm hammocks, and mangrove swamps. If walking any of the trails, be sure to glance upward to the treetops, as you are likely to see osprey and bald eagle nests. Hiking and biking the trails or beaches are popular. Visitors can also camp on Cayo Costa in rustic cabins with nearby facilities.
Effective July 2, 2020, the beach at Cayo Costa State Park is open. Access is by boat only on the beachside. Restroom availability may be limited, all other park facilities are closed. Visitors are expected to maintain distances of at least six feet apart. The campground is operating at a reduced capacity to support social distancing.
If you traveled by private boat, consider lunch at the nearby Cabbage Key, a famous Old Florida island with a restaurant and hotel. Cabbage Key is rumored to be the site where Jimmy Buffett penned the song “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” Alternatively, upon returning to Punta Gorda, for the freshest seafood try Peace River Seafood. The Lazy Flamingo restaurants offer fresh-off-the-boat seafood on Captiva/Sanibel or Pine Islands.
There’s so much to do at the beach, and it’s all enjoyable – even if you do nothing but sit on the sand, letting the salt water, the sounds of the gulls, and the warmth of the sun take you to a place of true serenity. Above all, no matter what your interest, authentic Florida – beaches, nature, and seafood – will keep you coming back.
St. George Island State Park beach walk
Here are a few more articles you may enjoy:
- Eleven of Our Favorite Dog-Friendly Beaches and Parks in Authentic Florida
- 12 Authentic Things to Do on the Palm Coast and Flagler Beaches
- Get Authentic on Anna Maria Island and Cortez Village
- Experience Authentic Pensacola (Pensacola Beach)
- Caladesi Island Earns Spot On Dr. Beach’s 2018 Top 10 Beaches List
AuthenticFlorida.com was named Best Travel Blog two-times at the Florida Sunshine Awards.
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