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/State Road 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 (State Road 64 and Gulf Drive) gets crowded easily; it boasts lifeguards as well, plus restrooms, picnic tables, an adjacent playground and concessions, but no shade. The narrow Bayfront Park (310 N. Bay Boulevard) offers great views of Tampa Bay, with the added bonuses of 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. One long strip of concrete and hard-packed roadside, parking is never a problem. 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. Beginning at 10 a.m., 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). Visitors may stay on the island a maximum of four hours. 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, lockers, umbrella rental 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. Fishing allowed in specified areas. Open sunrise to sunset. 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, docks for launching boats, canoe and kayak rentals, a 4.2-mile recreational trail and pavilions with grills. Grill reservations are available. Leashed dogs allowed in grassy areas; unleashed dogs can run around on the Paw Playground. Open sunrise to sundown. Parking is free, but tolls cost 85 cents. Call 727-582-2267.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH, Gulf Boulevard between First and 27th avenues, St. Petersburg. Indian Rocks features more than 20 beach accesses along Gulf Boulevard, plus 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 4 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 50 cents per hour at John's Pass, $1 per hour elsewhere along the beach. Call 727-392-0665.