Fun 'N' Sun: Gulf Coast Beaches

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Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach area. There are three major beaches on Anna Maria: Coquina, Manatee Public and Bayfront Park. Coquina, one of the prettiest beaches on Florida's west coast, is a mile stretch of spacious beach popular with both families and kids. It has lifeguards on duty seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer. Showers, picnic tables under the pines, a playground and nearby boat ramps add to the attraction. Parking is free. Manatee Public Beach's 400-yards of beach can get crowded; it boasts a restaurant, picnic tables and an adjacent playground, but no shade. The narrow Bayfront Park offers great views of Tampa Bay, sheltered picnic tables, grills and a playground.

Ben T. Davis Beach, 7650 Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa. This narrow beach on the causeway is OK for those who like to keep their car nearby and don't mind the swift-moving traffic on the causeway. Parking is usually not a problem, and dogs are allowed.

Beer Can Beach, Davis Islands Seaplane Basin. Beer Can Beach (really no more than a tiny cove) is especially popular with dog owners. It's not gorgeous, but the easy-to-access beach offers breathtaking views of the sunset. No restrooms, limited parking.

Caladesi Island, accessed by ferry boats from Honeymoon Island State Park, One Causeway Blvd., Dunedin. Conde Nast Traveler rates this beach the fifth best in the country. An hourly, 70-passenger ferry ride makes the trip to Caladesi Island in 20 minutes (no roads or bridges link it to the mainland). The roundtrip ride costs $7 for adults and $3.50 for children. Snorkelers favor the barrier island's Gulf side waters, which boasts more than 2 miles of beach; the Bay side features mangrove, slash pine forests and maritime hammocks. A 3-mile nature trail wends through the island's interior. Concessions, restrooms, picnic areas, changing rooms and showers are available. Call 727-734-1501.

Clearwater Beach, take Memorial Causeway across Clearwater Harbor. This beach has two sections — the northern part at Palm Pavilion and the main beach at the Holiday Inn/Surfside. This is the hot spot for spring break crowds and other hormone-fixated types; families like it for the shallow water and gentle surf. Beach umbrellas and chairs can be rented. Metered parking costs from 75 cents to $1 per hour. Lot parking by Pier 60 costs $1.50 per hour. Pier 60 Park Pavilion has a spacious playground and snack bar. Call 727-447-7600. www.beachchamber.com.

Egmont Key, a 3-mile-long island located between Anna Maria Island and St. Pete Beach, is accessible only by boat. Part of both the north and south ends have been closed as a sanctuary. Call the state park headquarters at 727-893-2627 for ferry information. Egmont offers some of Florida's best beaches, and lays claim to a 137-year-old working lighthouse and the ruins of Fort Dade.

Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde. These undeveloped local beaches are some of our favorites. Obviously, Conde Nast Traveler agrees, placing Fort De Soto at number nine on its Top 20 Beaches in America list. Serene, raw and rarely crowded, Fort De Soto offers forested areas with picnic tables and great swimming (heed warnings for rip tides). The park has two piers and floating docks for boat access, a 4.5-mile recreational trail and pavilions with grills. Grill reservations are available. Parking is free, but tolls cost 85 cents. Call 727-866-2484 for the park and 727-582-2267 for the campground.

Madeira Beach, off Gulf Boulevard, approximately four miles south of Indian Shores. A rock cooking grill and a few picnic tables are available, and coolers are welcome (no bottles). Archibald Memorial Park offers a snack bar, and nearby John's Pass Village features a fishing pier and boardwalk with stores and restaurants. Metered parking costs $1 per hour. Call 727-392-0665.

Pass-a-Grille, south end of St. Pete Beach. This gay-friendly stretch of sand is one of the nicest beaches in the Bay area, and it's right across the street from the popular Hurricane restaurant. Restrooms and concessions are available. Metered parking costs $1 per hour.

Picnic Island, 7404 Picnic Island Blvd., Tampa. This beach, located at the southern end of Tampa Bay near MacDill Air Force Base, is a small stretch of sand not noted for its beauty, but it offers grills, shelters and tables.

Redington Beach, Gulf Boulevard at 182nd Avenue, Redington Shore (in Pinellas County). Quiet and secluded, this beach is great for swimming or reading a book without interruptions. The beach is in a residential area, and visitors need a sticker to park. Call 727-391-3875.

Sand Key Park, South of Clearwater Beach, Clearwater. A quieter alternative to the rowdy Clearwater Beach, Sand Key is a good spot for families. Umbrellas and cabanas can be rented, and the beach features restrooms but no concessions. Metered parking costs $1 per hour ($1.25 on Saturday and Sunday), and lifeguards are on duty every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call 727-588-4852.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands, 23 miles WSW of Fort Myers, off I-75. These islands, approximately two hours south of Tampa Bay, are well worth the drive. Rated among the best shelling grounds in the world, these islands may boast the most beautiful beaches in Florida. Bowman's Beach, on Sanibel's northwest end; Gulfside Park, off Casa Ybel Road; and Lighthouse Park, at Sanibel's southern end, all offer public access. Sanibel is the more rustic of the two, while Captiva has more rowdy beach bars and restaurants. Parking is 75 cents per hour on Sanibel Island beaches, free at Captiva Beach and Turner's Beach.

Sunset Beach, West Gulf Boulevard, St. Petersburg. This beach, sometimes difficult to find, is located between Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach. Beach Nutts makes a good landmark. This beach's charm is partially attributed to its inaccessibility. It's a popular spot among surfers. A limited number of metered parking spaces are available for 30 cents per hour. Although it has no public facilities, there are some bars and restaurants nearby.

St. Pete Beach, along Gulf Boulevard. St. Pete Beach offers a 1-1/2-mile-long beach located just north of the Don CeSar and conveniently situated near a variety of popular beach bars and restaurants. A favorite spot with the locals. Parking meters cost $1 per hour. Call 727-367-2735.

St. Petersburg Municipal Beach, 11260 Gulf Boulevard, St. Pete. The municipal beach is one of the widest in Florida, stretching a quarter mile from the water to Gulf Boulevard. The beach has 10 volleyball courts, wheelchairs that can be used free of charge and restrooms. Parking costs 50 cents per hour.

Treasure Island Beach, Gulf Boulevard and 112th Avenue. Treasure Island's beach is wide and busy. It offers a snack bar, showers, cabana rentals and volleyball, along with a selection of restaurants and shops. It feels like a little piece of the Jersey shore right here in Florida.

Visit http://gulfbeaches-tampabay.com or www.surfsun.com/florida.html for updates. Also, the Gulf Beaches of Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce offers general beach information by calling 800-944-1847.

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