Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach area. There are three major beaches on Anna Maria: Coquina, Manatee Public and Bayfront Park. Coquina (West Side of Gulf Drive/S.R. 789) is a 96-acre stretch of clean 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, restrooms, pine tree-shaded picnic tables, a playground and nearby boat ramps add to the attraction. Parking is free. Manatee Public Beach (S.R. 64 and Gulf Drive) gets crowded easily; it boasts lifeguards as well, restrooms, picnic tables, an adjacent playground and concessions, but no shade. The narrow Bayfront Park (310 North Bay Boulevard) offers great views of Tampa Bay, restrooms, sheltered picnic tables, grills and a playground. All of the beaches also allow fishing. Call 941-742-5923.
Ben T. Davis Beach, 7650 Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa. This narrow beach on the causeway is ideal for those who like to keep their car nearby (or tan on the hood) and don't mind the swift-moving traffic on the causeway. It's also quite a scene for jet skiers. Parking is usually not a problem, and dogs are allowed. 813-282-2909.
Beer Can Beach, Davis Islands Seaplane Basin (Severn Avenue and Martinique Avenue). 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, but seldom very crowded.
Caladesi Island, accessed by ferry boats from Honeymoon Island State Park, One Causeway Blvd., Dunedin. 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 (free for kids under 4). 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 $1 per hour during the week, $1.25 per hour Saturday and Sunday. Lot parking by Pier 60 costs $1.50 per hour ($10 for the day). Pier 60 Park Pavilion has a spacious playground and snack bar. Call 727-562-4800.
Egmont Key, a 3-mile-long island located between Anna Maria Island and St. Pete Beach, is accessible only by boat. Part of the island's north and south ends are closed as wildlife sanctuaries. This beach can get crowded, so plan on going early. Egmont offers some of Florida's best beaches, and lays claim to a working lighthouse originally constructed in 1848 and the ruins of Fort Dade. For ferry information, call the state park headquarters at 727-893-2627.
Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde. These undeveloped local beaches are some of our favorites. Serene, raw and rarely crowded, Fort De Soto's five interconnected islands offer forested areas with picnic tables and great swimming (heed warnings for rip tides). The 900-acre park has a 235-site family campground, two piers, floating docks for boat access, canoe and kayak rentals, a 4.2-mile recreational trail and pavilions with grills. Grill reservations are available. Parking is free, but tolls cost 85 cents. Call 727-582-2267.
Indian Rocks Beach, Gulf Boulevard between First and 27th avenues, St. Pete. Indian Rocks features more than 20 beach accesses along Gulf Boulevard, but parking (free and by permit only) is generally at a premium. There are nearby stores, restaurants, restrooms and outdoor showers. Call 727-595-2517.
Madeira Beach, Gulf Boulevard approximately four miles south of Indian Shores. Tourists and locals alike love this large beach. A rock cooking grill and a few picnic tables are available, and coolers are welcome (no bottles). Archibald Memorial Park offers a pavilion, restrooms, showers and parking. Nearby John's Pass Village (129th Avenue East and Gulf Boulevard) features a fishing pier and boardwalk with stores, restaurants and parking. Metered parking costs $1 per hour. Call 727-392-0665.
Pass-a-Grille, Gulf Way between First Avenue and 22nd Avenue, on the 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, including a snack bar with great grouper sandwiches. Metered parking costs $1.25 per hour, $5 for all day. Call 727-363-9247.
Picnic Island, 7404 Picnic Island Blvd., Tampa. Despite its location in an industrial area near MacDill Air Force Base, this beach is quite peaceful. The small stretch of sand is seldom busy, and offers a great view of the Bay. There's a small fishing pier (not that you'd want to eat anything you caught), grills and shelters. Call 813-931-2121.
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, so visitors need a pass to park. Passes are free, though, through Redington Beach Town Hall, 105 164th Avenue, and good for a month. Call 727-391-3875.
Sand Key Park, 1060 Gulf Blvd., 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 65-acre beach features picnic shelters and restrooms, but no food 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 barrier islands, approximately two hours south of Tampa Bay, are well worth the drive. The island beaches are reached via a toll bridge on the Sanibel Causeway for $3 round trip. Rated among the best shelling grounds in the world, these islands boast some of 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 costs 75-cents per hour on Sanibel Island beaches, at Captiva Beach and Turner's Beach. Pets are not allowed on Captiva beaches. Call 941-472-1080.
Siesta Beach, Beach Road on Siesta Key. This 40-acre park is roughly an hour south of Tampa Bay, and contains nature trails, concessions, soccer and softball fields, tennis and volleyball courts, showers, playground and picnicking facilities, and year-round lifeguards. And even though there are 800 parking spaces, you better get there early if you want one. Siesta's pristine white sands are 99-percent quartz, pulverized to a fine powder; the sand's so reflective it feels cool on even the hottest days. Call 941-316-8041.
Sunset Beach, West Gulf Boulevard, St. Petersburg. This beach, located between Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, runs along a small road (West Gulf Boulevard) that continues after Gulf Boulevard turns toward St. Pete Beach. Beach Nutts (9600 Gulf Blvd.), one of a trio of bars that line the entrance to Sunset Beach, makes a good landmark. The beach's charm and popularity as a surf spot is partially attributed to its inaccessibility and difficulty to find. There's a public access parking lot but no facilities. But it's a relaxed beach community, so if you need a bathroom, just buy something at one of the nearby bars and restaurants; it's all good.
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, Treasure Island. 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, concessions, showers, picnic tables and restrooms. Call 727-360-3278.
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. Call 727-547-4575.
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