Florida: great beaches, great food

by Paul.Wade

Florida regularly tops the 'best beaches' lists in the US. Looking for family fun? Walking or people-watching? With the best places to eat and stay? Read on.

Shivering in the gloom? Fed up with the snow and sluch? The usual solution is to hit the beach. But make sure it is a GREAT beach....With over 1,000 miles of sandy shoreline, Florida has a beach for every taste. The only problem is choosing which one to go for. Hot and happening or away from it all? People-watching or bucket-and-spade? Here are eight great beaches in the Sunshine State.
I have spent many happy hours on this beach, with its 1,000-ft-long fishing pier, guarded by squadrons of pelicans. In many resorts, hotels stand like a barrier along the shore, but in Naples, private homes face the sands along the Gulf of Mexico, where the sun sets in glorious technicolour. The beach is perfect for swimming, since the water stays warm till late in the year. As for Naples, the old heart of town is now upmarket and buzzy.
Where to stay: Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club - the only hotel right on the beach, with championship golf and tennis, spa and kids programmes, all on 125 acres.
Where to eat: the Sunset Beach Bar at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. Choose from chips and hummus, to crab cakes and burgers. Sit up at the bar or just sip a drink as everyone waits for the ‘green flash’ as the sun sets into the Gulf of Mexico.
Shells – millions of them – from conchs and sand dollars to helmets, tulips and olives, are washed ashore by currents in the Gulf of Mexico. Collectors, bent over in what locals call the ‘Sanibel stoop’, walk slowly along the beach, searching for that rare find that will be the showpiece of a collection. With a wide choice of places to stay on the island, Sanibel suits couples, families and groups of friends.
Where to stay: Song of the Sea - right on Sanibel’s beach, this 30-room inn provides complimentary breakfast, bikes and beach umbrellas. Or there's its sister hotel, Seaside Inn; also on the beach, with 32 rooms, pool, bikes, umbrellas and more.
Where to eat: A classic version of a British pub transported to sub-tropical Florida, the Mucky Duck has been around for 30 years. Something for everyone, from British fish and chips to seafood platters, toasted cheese sandwiches and steak.
The only way to reach this 600-acre, car-free island is on a tiny ferry from Honeymoon Island State Park, off Dunedin, five miles north of Clearwater. Think palm trees, a small café and a boardwalk that runs over the dunes to the beach rated ‘No 1 in North America’ in 2008. Swim, sit under a sunshade or get back to nature by following a three-mile nature trail through thick woods. Perfect for getting away from the madding crowds.
Where to stay: Yacht Harbor Inn - next to the marina in Dunedin, this cheerful Best Western hotel is close to beaches and the 35-mile Pinellas Trail (cycling, walking).
Where to eat: the Café Caladesi is known for its crab cake sandwiches, but they also whizz up a mean smoothie as well as classic picnic salads.

Not all the best beaches are hideaways. This park is popular with families coming to have fun under the palm trees and on the two fishing piers, but there is room and more, with seven long miles of lovely sand. As well as paddling rented canoes, kids love to climb on the 12-inch mortars that protected the century-old fort, built during the Spanish American War in 1898. When children are in school, the beach is almost empty.
Where to stay: Don Cesar Beach Resort - in St Pete Beach, you can’t miss this large, historic – and pink! – hotel; it has lots of activities, two pools and programmes for children. There's also the Peninsula Inn & Spa - at the southern tip of St Pete Beach, in quiet Gulfport, this small century-old inn has a spa, restaurant and veranda.
Where to eat: near the fire station, just outside the park is Billy’s Stonecrab in Tierra Verde. As well as local stone crab, they serve snow crab, Dungeness crab and king crab. Huge sandwiches.

Of the four beaches along the 7.5 miles of Anna Maria Island’s Gulf Coast shore, my favourite is the Anna Maria Beach, at the northern end. The contrast between the soft white sand and the turquoise water is startling. With no high-rise development, manicured lawns, nightclubs or designer boutiques, this is a low-key place for kicking back and doing not much of anything.
Where to stay: Harrington House beachfront B&B - on Anna Maria Beach’s soft, white sand, this is laidback and informal, with a choice of rooms in separate buildings.
Where to eat: open all day, the Rod and Reel Pier (875 N Shore Drive, Anna Maria Island) is a popular breakfast spot for beach walkers; The Beach Bistro (6600 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach) wins applause and awards for rich dishes ranging from bouillabaisse and rack of lamb to roast duck and steaks.

Long before the English arrived in Virginia and New England, the Spanish were established in Florida. They founded St Augustine in 1565 and built an enormous fortress to protect their investment. Over on Anastasia Island are 1,700 acres of dunes, salt marshes and four miles of unspoiled beach – all in Anastasia State Park. Rent beach umbrellas and bikes, canoes and kayaks, or take a nature walk with a park ranger.
Where to stay: Casa Monica Hotel - in the historic heart of St Augustine, this 138-room hotel was built in 1888; Spanish style; modern comforts.
Where to eat: from breakfast time onwards, Island Joe’s Tropical Grille & Beach Store does it all from renting bikes to sunshades, but it is the food that draws a crowd: three different styles of burger, deli sandwiches and, most famous of all, the mahi-mahi (fish) tacos.

When it comes to glam and glitz, skimpy bikinis and bronzed muscles, nowhere is better for showing off than Miami’s South Beach. This is an urban beach if ever there was one: Art Deco hotels line Ocean Drive; Art Deco lifeguard huts survey the beach; cargo boats and cruise ships sail along the horizon. The wide sandy shore is great for people watching.
Where to stayNational Hotel - facing the beach, this classic Art Deco hotel has a 205-ft long swimming pool. Or the Raleigh Hotel - this Art Deco gem has one of the most beautiful swimming pools ever; the garden leads to the beach.
Where to eat: right on the beach, the elegant DiLido Beach Club at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a foodie haven serving North African and Mediterranean-influenced dishes. End the day with a peach and watermelon sangría.

Not everyone wants the razzmatazz of South Beach. Only 10 minutes from downtown Miami, way out on the island of Key Biscayne, is Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Guarded by the 95-ft tall Cape Florida lighthouse, the long sandy beach is busy at weekends, when locals picnic and barbecue. From Monday to Friday, you feel as if the beach is yours and yours alone. Rent a windsurfer or sea kayak.
Where to stay: the Ritz-Carlton - on Key Biscayne, this large, luxurious hotel has a spa, swimming pools and plenty of activities for the whole family.
Where to eat: the relaxed Lighthouse Café, next to the lighthouse, has a Cuban flair, as does the slightly more formal Boater’s Grill on No Name Harbor: paella and conch fritters, shrimp ceviche and calamari.