By LoAnn Halden
‘Tis not just the season for foliage viewing and digging out winter wear. Florida’s 663 miles of beaches are sun-drenched antidotes to northern chill, thanks to air and sea temperatures entrenched in the 70s through November (or even later at its southern tip).
Consider escaping to these 10 beaches, which complement their top-rated swaths of sand with activities that have all-ages appeal.
Bowman’s Beach, Sanibel Island
Best for: Shelling
Sanibel’s east-west running boomerang shape and the shallow, gently sloped bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at the island’s south end create ideal conditions for shells to roll onshore unbroken. More than 250 species are represented, from scallops and paper fig shells to the rare brown-speckled junonia. Although the entire island is considered shell-collector nirvana, Bowman’s Beach rises to the top. Access requires a good five-minute walk from the parking area, but the reward is sugary-white, shell-strewn sand that feels remote despite its popularity.
Insider Tip: The best time for shelling is early morning at low tide. Walk along the beach where the highest waves stop to snag shells as they wash ashore.
Best for: Learning to Surf
Warm water and consistent breaks make Cocoa Beach inviting for newcomers to the surf scene. Head to this beachfront community on the central Atlantic coast to find the state’s epicenter of lessons and rentals and the eye-popping temple of gear and beachwear that is Ron Jon Surf Shop. Private, semi-private, and group surf lessons are offered year-round at Cocoa Beach Surf Company and with the summer peak over, same-day bookings are possible.
Insider Tip: More experienced surfers flock to Sebastian Inlet, an hour’s drive south on A1A.
Amelia Island State Park
Best for: Horseback Riding
Amelia Island, 33 miles northeast of Jacksonville, is the rare Florida destination to allow horseback rides on the beach. Saddle up at Kelly Seahorse Ranch, conveniently located inside the 200-plus acres of Amelia Island State Park. The relaxing one-hour ride ambles through five miles of hardwood forest and along the park’s Atlantic shoreline. Peak season is over, but it’s still smart to reserve ahead for one of the four daily rides, Tuesday-Sunday.
Insider Tip: Up the trip’s romance factor with a stay at 10-room Amelia Island Williams House, an elegant 1850s B&B in downtown Fernandina Beach.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West
Best for: History
Not only is Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park home to Key West’s best beach, it also contains a mid-1800s military fort that played significant roles in the Civil War and Spanish-American War. The fort’s top two tiers were removed in 1898, but it’s still an impressive structure that boasts one of the largest collections of Civil War-era cannons in the country. Guided and self-guided tours available daily.
Insider Tip: For an expanded history lesson, book a fast catamaran from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park to see massive mid-19th century Fort Jefferson.
Best for: Beach diving
The first two fish-filled reefs in Fort Lauderdale’s three-tiered coral reef system are within swimming distance of tiny seaside village Lauderdale-By-The-Sea. Bring a dive flag (mandatory) and enter the Atlantic from the beach at Commercial Boulevard on the south side of Anglin’s Pier, keeping a safe distance from the fishermen casting lines. Patches of coral come into view before the end of the pier.
Insider Tip: No need to schlep heavy scuba gear. Rent from Lauderdale-By-The-Sea’s Deep Blue Divers, a block from the beach.
Fort De Soto Park, St. Petersburg
Best for: Kayaking
Five interconnected islands form arrowhead-shaped Fort De Soto Park, where almost three miles of white-sand beaches flank Tampa Bay or the Gulf and protected Mullet Key Bayou creates a safe haven for paddlers. Topwater Kayak Outpost rents single and double kayaks or canoes for traversing the park’s 2 ¼-mile self-guided trail over sea grass beds and through mangroves.
Insider Tip: For an added twist, try a three-hour KaYoga or Kayakercise class from St. Petersburg’s Yoga Energy Studio, which melds paddling with either yoga or a more intense boot camp workout on a barrier island beach. Dolphin sightings are common.
Tigertail Beach Park, Marco Island
Best for: Birding
Standing out among the nearly 500 sites that comprise The Great Florida Birding Trail, is Tigertail Beach. Least terns, osprey, plovers, bald eagles, and 80 other species of birds, local and migratory, find sanctuary around the 32-acre park’s tidal lagoon. But it’s also a family-friendly beach with a snack bar and a watercraft concession, making it possible for adults to wield binoculars while the kids pedal giant aquatic trikes in the shallow Gulf water.
Insider Tip: The Conservancy of Southwest Florida leads free weekday morning nature walks on the beach from January through April.
Siesta Key Public Beach, Sarasota
Best for: Swimming
Shallow, calm waters and year-round lifeguards (10am-4:4 5pm; 6:45 pm in the summer) make Siesta Key Public Beach one of Florida’s safest, most family-friendly swimming beaches. The cool, powdery white sand composed of 99 percent quartz rather than crushed coral makes this barrier island beach one of the most beautiful in the entire country, according to respected coastal scientist "Dr. Beach."
Insider Tip: Go early on weekends even in the off-season to ensure a parking space in the public beach lot.
Best for: Fishing
A 990-foot pedestrian pier extends into the Atlantic from the sands of Juno Beach, a small seaside community 12 miles north of West Palm. The $4/person charge for fishing ($1 sightseeing) eliminates the need for visitors to secure a saltwater permit. Jacks, bluefish and mackerel are the most abundant catch of the day. Extended pier hours run Nov. 1-March 1: 7 am to 10 pm, Sunday-Thursday, until midnight Friday-Saturday.
Insider Tip: Cast a line from the first third of the pier to snag Gulf flounder or snook.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Miami
Best for: Bicycling
Perched at the tip of Key Biscayne, Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park is the highlight of the 8.5-mile Rickenbacker Trail that runs over the causeway from mainland Miami to the island’s end. Most of the trail is on-street bike lanes, but the park combines 1.5-miles of paved path and easy to navigate service roads with views of Biscayne Bay, one of Miami’s best beaches, and on-site bike rentals.
Insider Tip: The park’s 1825 lighthouse—the oldest standing structure in Miami—is only open during tours, held at 10pm and 1pm Thursday-Monday.
Photo Credits: Bowmanâ€™s Beach, Sanibel Island: IMG_0611 by Sheila Brennan Attribution License; Cocoa Beach: Joe Stone/Shutterstock; Amelia Island State Park: Courtesy of Kelly Seahorse Ranch; Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West: Laqhill | Dreamstime.com; Lauderdale-By-The-Sea: Peter Leahy/Shutterstock; Fort De Soto Park, St. Petersburg: Courtesy of Topwater Kayak Outpost; Tigertail Beach Park, Marco Island: Eve Wheeler Photography/Shutterstock; Siesta Key Public Beach, Sarasota: Npgal77 | Dreamstime.com; Juno Beach: IMG_2405 by Fish_Dr Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License; Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, Miami: Mariia Sats/Shutterstock