Water parks, hiking trails, museums and more

A complete guide to summer recreation on land and water

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SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA ISLANDS, 23 miles W.S.W. of Fort Myers, off I-75 (239-472-1080). These barrier islands, approximately two hours south of Tampa Bay, are well worth the drive. The island beaches are rated among the best shelling grounds in the world and can be reached via a toll bridge on the Sanibel Causeway for $3 round trip. Beach area's include 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. Pets are not allowed on Captiva beaches. Parking is $2 per hour.

SHELL ROAD BEACH, located off Shell Road on Siesta Key. It's hard to find, though the line of cars down to the end of the block offer some indication of where the beach is. No facilities, just a quiet alcove of coastal bliss.

SIESTA BEACH, at Beach Road and Ocean Boulevard on Siesta Key (941-861-7275). This 40-acre park is roughly an hour south of Tampa Bay, and consists of nature trails, concessions, soccer and softball fields, tennis and volleyball courts, playground and picnicking facilities, and year-round on-duty lifeguards. And although 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.

SUNSET BEACH, W. Gulf Boulevard, St. Petersburg. This beach, located between Treasure Island and St. Pete Beach, runs along a small road 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. However, it is 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 (727-367-2735). This 1.5-mile-long beach located just north of the Don CeSar is conveniently situated near a variety of popular beach bars and restaurants. A favorite spot with the locals. Parking meters cost $1.25 per hour or $5 for the day.

ST. PETERSBURG MUNICIPAL BEACH, 11260 Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island (727-360-3278). The municipal beach is one of the widest in Florida, stretching a quarter mile from the water to Gulf Boulevard. The beach has five volleyball courts, a small playground, concessions, showers, picnic tables, grills and restrooms.

TIKI GARDENS BEACH, 10601 Gulf Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach. This popular beach-access park was once a tiki-themed amusement center. It features basic beach amenities, including benches, water fountains, restrooms and a 170-spot parking lot.

TREASURE ISLAND BEACH, Gulf Boulevard and 112th Avenue, Treasure Island (727-547-4575). Treasure Island's beach is wide and busy. A nearby selection of restaurants and stores makes it feels like a little piece of the Jersey shore right here in Florida; access at 10400 Gulf Blvd.

TURTLE BEACH, located on Midnight Pass Road near the south end of Siesta Key (941-861-5000). Picnic shelters, free boat ramps, restrooms, dune walkovers, volleyball, playground equipment and more available. Walk for miles down the beach all the way to Casey Key. Prehistoric petrified sharks teeth buried in the sand make nice little souvenirs. No lifeguards on duty.

VENICE MUNICIPAL BEACH, Venice Avenue W. at the Gulf of Mexico. This is a fully stocked beach that comes complete with restrooms, volleyball courts, picnic tables, a pavilion and a lifeguard station. It's also a great place to hunt for shark's teeth.

Visit tampabaybeaches.com or bestbeaches.org for further info.

PARKS & TRAILS

The following parks and trails are free and open dawn to dusk unless otherwise indicated.

A.L. ANDERSON PARK, 39699 U.S. 19 N., Tarpon Springs (727-943-4085). Dedicated in 1966, this hilly, wooded, 129-acre site overlooks Salmon Bay and Lake Tarpon, and features a boat ramp, a boardwalk and nature trail, a playground, picnic shelters and restrooms. Open daily 7 a.m. to dark.

ALDERMAN'S FORD PARK, 100 Aldermans Ford Park Drive S., between State Road 39 and Lithia Pinecrest Road in Hillsborough County, (813-757-3801). This 1,141-acre site has a history: It was one of the first fording spots on the Alafia River, and the land encompasses the area where the Alafia River branches into its north and south prongs. The park features a popular canoe launch, several picnic areas, a path/biking loop, and a boardwalk and foot bridges. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.

BOYD HILL NATURE PRESERVE, 1101 Country Club Way S., St. Petersburg (727-893-7326). This 245-acre preserve is located along the shores of Lake Maggiore, and features include group camping, picnic and playground facilities, although the focus of the park continues to be the three miles' worth of nature trail and boardwalks, and the environmental education study center and library. Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; 9 a.m.-.6 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun. Trail admission is $3 for ages 17 and older, $1.50 for ages 3-16.

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