Best Beach Overall - Siesta Key Public Beach
I can't help but keep coming back to this beach. It's only 15 minutes from downtown Sarasota, parking is free, it has a snack bar and restroom facilities and is a short distance from Siesta Village where there are plenty of great island restaurants for lunch or dinner (bathing suits are considered proper attire in many restaurants as long as you have a shirt and at least a pair of flip-flops on your feet). The sand is the softest, whitest sugar sand you will find anywhere and the beach is very wide.
This beach is protected by lifeguards and attracts fairly heavy crowds on weekends and holidays. The beach is very flat and is a popular beach for walking. You can even ride a bike and push baby strollers on the hard-packed sand near the water.
The water is shallow and slopes gently into deeper water. Normally the water is cleaner and clearer here than anywhere else in the area. For walking, swimming and just lounging around, Siesta Key Public Beach is my number one pick. I could come here every day.
Siesta Key is also one of Florida's Best people-watching beaches. It has a relaxed crowd of all ages and is frequented by Sarasota's toned, tanned, young, and beautiful people. It's a huge beach, so you can find the spot that's perfect for you. Stay close to the snack bar and hang with the youthful crowd, or walk north where the crowds are much thinner and the beach is quieter.
Wherever you go, the waters are calm and inviting and the sand is brilliant white. Take a three hour walk up the beach and back, or just kick back and do nothing. Once you are settled into the sand here, you won't want to leave. Stay for the sunset, and the moonrise. Take a long night walk up the beach. It's beautiful.
Best Family Beach - Manatee County Public Beach
Truthfully, there are many great family beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast. I choose Manatee County Public Beach as the best because it is on the most family friendly island AND is a great family beach. I should know, I grew up on this beach. This beach and the island it's on are still family oriented. The beach is located west of the City of Bradenton, at the western end of Manatee Avenue (Highway 64). The sand is beautiful and white, the water is calm, clean, and shallow enough to be kid-friendly. The beach is protected by lifeguards and there are restroom facilities, outdoor showers, a gift shop, a pier to walk on or to fish from, a picnic area, and of course there is the Cafe On The Beach when you get hungry.
Anna Maria is a residential community that caters to a wide range of visitors from all over the world. It is a quiet island without high-rises, big hotels, or nightlife. The focus is on relaxing and enjoying the beach and the community.
There are plenty of restaurants, from seafood to Italian and Indian cuisine and everything in-between. From Manatee Public Beach you can walk all the way to the north tip of the island if you care to (many do) in about 2 hours. If you need some adventure, go parasailing, take a charter fishing trip or a tour boat to Egmont Key.
Most Romantic Beach - Blind Pass Beach, Sanibel
Although any beach on Sanibel or Captiva could fall into the "most romantic" category, Blind Pass beach, at the now filled-in pass that once separated Sanibel from Captiva gets my vote for several reasons. First, it is all the way at the north end of the island, which is a long way from anywhere and gives a feeling of truly being away-from-it-all.
Second, parking is very limited at this beach, so crowds are kept to a minimum. There are no other public accesses nearby, and not much on the beach as far as buildings are concerned, so it's a pretty quiet beach--great for long walks.
Third, there are a number of small cottages on the beach here with that Old-Florida charm--perfect for a romantic getaway or a quiet honeymoon.
Fourth, there are several charming restaurants in this tiny little beach resort community that are just perfect for couples wanting time to themselves.
Fifth, you are just a short drive from Captiva. You have to spend at least one day walking around Captiva and enjoying the most unique island experience in Florida. If you really want a quiet get-away without having to "rough it," come during September, after Labor Day Weekend. You'll feel like you have the place all to yourself.
Best Snorkeling Beach - Crescent Beach, Siesta Key
Not many people know about this little secret. I probably shouldn't tell you. The best shallow-water snorkeling on the Gulf Coast is right here on Siesta Key at a place called Point-Of-Rocks.
While 99 percent of the beaches in Florida are pure sand and shell, this spot has an outcropping of flat limestone rock that covers several acres of shallow water. Fish congregate here to feed, which makes for some very interesting snorkeling. The water here is usually exceptionally clear and calm, and crowds are light. Parking is a problem here.
The neighborhoods streets are off-limits to parking, as are the parking lots of the nearby stores. There is one small parking lot provided nearby (arrive early!).
This beach is mostly enjoyed by the locals and by the visitors staying in one of the many condominiums along this part of the island. What a great place Crescent Beach is!
Best Party Beach - Lynn Hall Memorial Park, Ft. Myers Beach
No question about it. If you want to party, mix, and mingle with other party animals, and generally hang out in a Key West type atmosphere of beach bars, dive restaurants, tacky souvenir shops, tourist-oriented boutiques, and an assortment of hotels, motels, and "less modern" beach houses, Fort Myers Beach is your kind of place. Traffic is congested, so walking may be your best bet. There is also a trolley that will take you around the island.
A walk out on the Ft. Myers Fishing Pier will give you a great view of the beach. Ft. Myers beaches tend to have a lot of coconut palms, which lends a very graceful and tropical air to a beach that used to be referred to as the "Redneck Riviera." This is not truly a Gulf Beach, but is a beach on San Carlos Bay. This is a huge open bay, but is shallow enough that it prevents surf from pounding the beaches. Also, the water isn't usually very clear here because of the tannin stained waters of the Caloosahatchee River that empty into the bay. Sanibel Island is visible on the horizon to the north.
Fort Myers beach is a fun place if you're in the mood. Parking at Lynn Hall Park is tight, and costs around $1.25 per hour. Arrive early if you want a parking spot. If you're in a nearby hotel, parking isn't a problem. The park has excellent clean and modern facilities and is literally steps away from countless restaurants and shops.
Best Camping Beach - Cayo Costa State Park
The Gulf Coast of Florida presents only a few opportunities for beach camping. But all of the campgrounds are excellent. Consequently, reservations generally have to be made six months or more in advance. The best, but not necessarily the most convenient beach campground is on Lacosta Island, otherwise known as Cayo Costa State Park.
The island today remains much as it was 100 years ago. Camping is primitive, although there are a number of beach "cabins" that can be rented which provide more substantial shelter than a tent. Cayo Costa can only be reached by boat. The Tropic Star, a tour boat out of Bokeelia on Pine Island will ferry you and your camping gear and kayak to Cayo Costa for a very reasonable fee, and bring you back for more supplies, or for your return trip.
This is remote camping. There is a restroom facility at the campground, but little else. The beach is absolutely gorgeous, and there are trails all over the island. Boca Grand can be seen to the north, and North Captiva is to the south.
If you are really into camping and "roughing it" just a bit, Cayo Costa is your best bet for beach camping. Cayo Costa is a very quiet place, although the campground area itself can get quite busy.
Florida Beaches: Finding Your Paradise on the Lower Gulf Coast
After a lifetime of enjoying the beaches of Florida, and after 10 years of weekly trips to all the beaches on the lower Gulf Coast of Florida, I decided to write a book to help other people discover and enjoy the beautiful beaches that I've come to love. The response has been inspiring.