Here’s the thing about Florida: You visit time and again, and you're quite sure you know the state and its glorious sandy stretches pretty well. But there’s always a surprise waiting for those who stray from the classic Panama City–Orlando–Miami–Key West stops. From Atlantic coast enclaves that locals try to keep to themselves to subtropical islands dotting the Gulf of Mexico, most of our picks for under-the-radar Florida beach towns won’t ring a bell, but consider that a good thing. Get away from the vacationing masses for a taste of old Florida in these spots where the simple things—sun, surf, and a no-worries attitude—still reign. —Terry Ward
There’s just one high-rise building—the classy One Ocean Resort & Spa along this primarily residential beach just east of Jacksonville. In-the-know surfers and vacationers converge for an east coast beach vibe that feels more like the Outer Banks than Florida. Bathing suit–clad bikers pedal colorful beach cruisers along the sand at low tide and past the cluster of shops and restaurants along Ocean Boulevard, where Atlantic and Neptune beaches converge. Grab your morning coffee with surfers at Lillie’s Coffee Bar or opt for a sunset cocktail later in the day at the Lemon Bar, right on the beach and attached to the old-school Sea Horse Inn. There’s hardly a chain hotel or restaurant to be seen in these parts, and that’s much of what makes Atlantic Beach so special.
Insider Tip: Head just north of Atlantic Beach (you can bike along the beach or go by car to get there) to Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, which has some of the best mountain biking trails in Florida.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Atlantic Beach Guide
Heading south from West Palm Beach, tourists tend to make a beeline for the vacation destinations of Fort Lauderdale and Miami. But it’s well worth exiting I-95 at Deerfield Beach for a different kind of Florida stay. The new luxury boutique hotel Royal Blues Hotel, which opened on the oceanfront with just 12 rooms in 2014, is a contemporary stunner clad in teak and marble. But there’s still an old-school feel to Deerfield that defies South Florida’s overt bling. The beach here is particularly pristine and has been named a “Blue Wave Beach” by the Clean Beach Council. Every Sunday, a vibrant greenmarket with locally grown produce takes over the Cove Shopping Center. Toss out a line from the 976-foot-long fishing pier that juts into the Atlantic, or enjoy top-notch scuba diving just offshore on the wreck of the Ancient Mariner; head out with Dixie Divers, a 1930s Coast Guard cutter that sits upright in crystal-clear waters loaded with fish.
Insider Tip: Accessible by boat only (with a weekend boat shuttle), Deerfield Island Park has spectacular nature trails draped with mangroves and other native Florida flora.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Deerfield Beach Guide
Located within roughly two hours of both Orlando and Miami, Vero Beach sits along Florida’s Treasure Coast, so named for the Spanish treasure fleets that sank here in the 1700s. After a big storm, you’ll see folks with metal directors in hand strolling along the beach, hoping to get lucky. But even luckier are the vacationers who find their ways to this subdued stretch of sand over the ticky-tacky tourist towns (Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach) to the north. Made largely of driftwood and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, The Driftwood Resort has great rooms for families and a fun restaurant and bar called Waldo’s fronting the ocean. For excellent Cuban food and Caribbean vibes, stop by Wave Kitchen & Bar at the stylish Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. Loggerhead turtles nest here from March through October; you can witness the action on biologist-led tours.
Insider Tip: Sebastian Inlet State Park, just north of Vero, is one of the best spots in the state for both surfing and fishing.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Vero Beach Guide
Just 10 miles south of the hectic spring break and biker scene of Daytona Beach lies one of east coast Florida’s most quaint seaside spots, Ponce Inlet. The Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse—built in 1835, and the largest lighthouse in Florida—is the crown jewel in the town of roughly 3,000, and looks like something you’d spot along the coast of Maine. There’s an observation tower as well as surrounding nature trails to explore. Lighthouse Point Park, on the southern tip of the peninsula, has beaches with sugar-fine sand and calm waters that are often pocked with playful dolphins. Cool off with a rum-spiked cocktail at the Hidden Treasure Rum Bar & Grill, next to the lighthouse, and feast on flopping-fresh Florida fish at waterfront Down the Hatch Seafood Company.
Insider Tip: Stroke a stingray in the touch pool and learn about turtle and seabird rehabilitation programs with a visit to the Marine Science Center, a great family outing.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Northeast Coast Guide
Located about 2.5 hours north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, the low-development cluster of islands that comprise Cedar Key make for a very different kind of Florida vacation. Here, getting back to nature and the simple things are the focus, and Cedar Key feels like the kind of Florida locale where Hemingway would hang his hat. The Cedar Key Seafood Festival, held every October at the start of stone crab season, is a great time to visit, as it’s one of just a few times during the year when visitors can access nearby Seahorse Key (reached by boat), a protected island with a historic lighthouse that’s part of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge. Be sure to try local delicacies like mullet dip, oysters, and clam chowder. You can find traditional wooden stilt houses to rent on vacation rental websites, and plan to head out on guided tours with Kayak Cedar Keys to spot horseshoe crabs, ospreys, and raccoons and visit a 19th-century cemetery.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce
Historic St. Augustine, America’s oldest town, is one of Florida’s top tourist attractions and can feel as crowded as a theme park much of the year. Travelers in the know opt to visit as a day trip then bed down just north in the quieter coastal community of Vilano Beach. Magic Beach Motel is a cool retro hotel with funky murals in the rooms and complimentary breakfast to start you off right for a day of sun and surf on Vilano’s pristine beach. A dinner favorite, with outdoor tables overlooking the Tolomoto River, is Beaches at Vilano. Live music accompanies the sunsets here, and the seafood is second to none.
Insider Tip: The beach at Vilano is one of the best in Florida for finding shark’s teeth. Just sift through the sand at low tide and look for telltale razor-sharp edges glinting among the shell shrapnel.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Vilano Beach
Anna Maria Island
From crème brûlée French toast for breakfast at Ginny and Jane E’s, a restaurant and home furnishings shop housed inside a former IGA grocery store, to pedaling a beach cruiser around the quiet residential streets, Anna Maria Island activities are as good as Florida’s Gulf Coast beach life gets. Located at the northern tip of a barrier island just offshore from swanky Sarasota, AMI, as the locals call it, is almost entirely free of chain stores and hotels. Settle in at a table with your toes in the sand at the Sandbar for beautiful sunsets and killer grouper sandwiches. And head to Beach Bums to rent toys like beach cruisers, SUPs, surrey bikes, and kayaks.
Insider Tip: Pineapplefish Rentals has an incredible selection of artistically decorated bungalows and villas on AMI’s beautiful canals and sugar sand beaches.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit The City of Anna Maria
This small beach community at the southern tip of St. Pete Beach gets its curious name from the French passe aux grilleurs, a reference to the French mariners who used to grill their fish on the beaches here during pirate times. It was the Spanish, however, who first arrived in Pass-a-Grille from the Old World in 1528. Sandwiched between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the small town center, lined with yellow and sky-blue buildings, houses independent shops and restaurants and has been named a National Historic District. The crystalline waters are perfect for swimming nearly year-round (just do the “stingray shuffle” to stave off any unwelcome encounters with these marine animals who are just as drawn to the lovely beach as you).
Insider Tip: As long as you’re in the area, make a point to take a daytrip to Fort DeSoto Park, with its emerald waters and pristine shelling beaches.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Pass-a-Grille
Santa Rosa Beach
Continue about 45 minutes west of Panama City Beach in the Panhandle to reach this far more mellow and classy community along northwest Florida’s sublime Emerald Coast. Families especially love Santa Rosa Beach thanks to the abundance of vacation homes for rent along the sugary sands and calm, clear waters ideal for dipping. From all-encompassing luxury golf resorts like WaterColor Inn & Resort to quaint guesthouses that conjure a Key West vibe (like the Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse), there’s an accommodation for every type of vacationer. Watching the sunset is the only thing on most people’s schedule, along with a seafood feast at one of a handful of atmospheric restaurants that include spots like Stinky’s Fish Camp.
Insider Tip: Paddleboard 30A delivers paddleboards and beach bikes to your vacation rental or hotel, free of charge.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit South Walton
Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island
For an Old South beach getaway located roughly between Tampa and Naples on Florida’s Gulf Coast, no spot quite compares to the festively named Gasparilla Island. The small residential village of Boca Grande here is lined with cottages painted Easter egg hues, and residents tend to dress in matching shades of Lily Pulitzer pink and green. For all the preppy aesthetics, it’s all about relaxed beach days and a no-stress ambiance. With suites and cottage accommodations, the posh Gasparilla Inn & Club is the island’s grande dame hotel here, and there are a handful of smaller historic hotels, too, like the adorable circa-1925 Anchor Inn. When you’re not lounging on postcard beaches, spend your days puttering around the palm-lined streets in a golf cart and soaking up the scenery.
Insider Tip: Catch a party boat from Boca Grande to reach the roadless Cabbage Key, where Jimmy Buffett is said to have been inspired to write his cult classic hit, “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Gasparilla Island Guide