Stephen Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, has been rating the world’s beaches for more than 20 years. When he speaks, tickets are booked. Locales in the Sunshine State rate high each year; in fact, thanks to mild weather, good waves, clean water and high-quality sand, he says “there are no bad beaches in Florida.” Still, the longtime director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University has his favorites. Below, the Florida beaches he recommends to families.
For serious beachcombers, nothing matches the islands of Sanibel and Captiva near Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico, which Dr. Beach calls “two of the loveliest barrier islands in the country.” Seashelling is so popular here that locals joke about seeing the tourists do the Sanibel Stoop. Some hotels even offer rooms with special sinks and work tables for washing off and packing up the conchs, cockles, coquinas, whelks, periwinkles, cats-paws and clam shells that families collect each day. Perhaps best of all, though, is what you won’t find: view-blocking high-rises.
Dr. Beach named this beach—located on Siesta Key near Sarasota on the state’s Gulf side—the second best on the planet last year. And that’s after giving it the number one spot in 2011, which earned the wide, crescent-shaped beach international attention for having the “finest, whitest sand in the world.” But that’s not all Siesta has to recommend it: There’s plenty of room for volleyball and other beach activities, it’s a non-smoking beach (a big factor in his ratings in recent years), and the lifeguards are well-trained.
Located on the Atlantic side of the state, the Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Miami features a 1.25-mile stretch of beach complete with a circa-1825 lighthouse and offers swimming, kayaking, biking, sailing and fishing off the Biscayne Bay seawall. It’s about 15 miles—and a world away from—glamorous South Beach, where models, actors, singers, hangers-on and wannabes gather to bask in the neon glow of the nightlife.
Many of Florida’s top beaches, according to Dr. Beach, can be found in state parks. This one, part of Grayton Beach State Park in the Panhandle, features towering dunes, built up thanks to restrictions on developing the area. The park allows camping, and its hiking trails take you past rare coastal dune lakes—dabs of fresh water in a saltwater environment.
Bahia Honda State Park—located at Mile Marker 37 on U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys—offers families 500 beautiful acres to explore, and some of the best snorkeling and beachcombing in the state. Choose between Calusa Beach adjacent to the Bahia Honda Bridge, whose calm, shallow waters are great for little ones, and the mile-long Sandspur Beach, popular among kayakers, just north of the park’s entrance.