I’ve set down my beach chair, my feet are well ensconced in the sand, the sunscreen has been dutifully applied and I am focused on the sparkling blue water. Warm Florida sunshine pours over me. In a state of tranquility, I am enjoying the perfect day, with not a care in the world.
I have three requirements for a great beach day or beach vacation:
1. A fabulous beach (of course)
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, I hope to convince you that this bliss is possible.
Florida Sand Dollar
Let’s start with a fabulous beach. Yes, most Florida beaches are beautiful – with sand, sunshine, water, and waves. Simple enough. But I’ve always thought that a really good beach was one that is unspoiled, undeveloped, spacious and wide-open. And, not crowded. I prefer one without rows of condos, resorts, homes or urban sprawl; one where I don’t have to zig-zag through a gauntlet of beach towels, chairs and umbrellas to get to the water. I am talking about one where I can actually hear the laughing calls of gulls and the sound of gentle surf rather than radios and traffic.
Am I crazy, or is this possible in a state that is such a Mecca for Tourism?
I 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 – I have selected four special recommendations for you.
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.
I can sum up St. George Island State Park in one word: Pristine.
You’ll be captivated by the natural beauty of nine 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.
To start, there are nine miles of lovely white sand beaches. You’ll be captivated with towering sand dunes, fallen oak trees and an array of untouched natural Florida beauty that is becoming harder to find. Add 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, 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.
Try Eddie Teach’s Raw Bar, or Doug’s Seafood Truck, found in a parking lot west of the St. George Lighthouse. In either case you are going to get fresh and tasty seafood!
These beaches are truly special. They meet my “beaches, nature and seafood” requirements for the perfect beach day or vacation. And all are 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. In every case these authentic Florida beaches will keep you coming back time after time.
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 sea foam 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 here 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 deeply 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.
If you have any fascination with birding or are even curious about our feathered friends, you may want to return January 2016 for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. This is the country’s premier birding festival. It celebrates the confluence of shorebirds, wading birds, songbirds and raptors. Why? January is a good time for bird watching, especially on the Space Coast, considered one of the best locations in North America.
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.
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 off shore, 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 shore birds 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 mud flats on the bay side. 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.
Cayo Costa State Park
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 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 beach side. Another location for departure would be from Pine Island where Tropic Star Cruises transports guests to the same drop off point. Meanwhile Capitva Island offers tours through Captiva Cruises depositing beachcombers off on Cayo Costa’s south end past scenic storm-ravaged trees on the Gulf side.
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 is popular. Visitors can also camp on Cayo Costa in rustic cabins with nearby facilities
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.
Florida sand castle
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. No matter what your interest, authentic Florida – beaches, nature and seafood – will keep you coming back.
St. George Island State Park beach walk
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