Florida’s Best Beaches: East Coast-Gulf Coast Smackdown

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It’s the time of the year when visions of sugar soft sands top travelers’ wish lists. Florida, with its 825 miles of beaches, lures sunbathers, surfers, action lovers and solitude seekers to its shores.

To find the best Florida strands, USA TODAY hosted an east coast-west coast smackdown. “Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami, helped select the destinations for each of five categories.

Each week, readers voted for one pair of contenders. Here are the champs they chose:

Best family beach

With 95% of the vote, Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County delivered a near knockout to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne. Situated on five interconnected islands, Fort De Soto features 1,136 acres that include nearly 3 miles of sandy beaches.

“North Beach is the best beach for families,” Leatherman says. “It’s on the gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”

Kids also like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills. Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park.

Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.

Best tranquil beach

Although the east coast’s Anastasia State Park, with 1,600 acres, a campground and more than 4 miles of beach, received 42% of the votes, the gulf’s 230-acre Don Pedro Island State Park won with 58%. Don Pedro, part of a chain of barrier islands, can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That reduces the number of visitors, which makes sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.

“Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth,” Leatherman says. “These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”

The island also offers wildlife-watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oystercatchers and other birds,” says Martha Robinson, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State Parks. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer, loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.”

Best party beach

Despite Daytona’s fine sands, driveable beaches and NASCAR revelers, Panama City, on the west coast, bested its east coast rival by more than 2-to-1.

During three to five weeks in March and April, Panama City pops as one of the prime spring break destinations, attracting as many as 300,000 students. Bikini contests, beer pong and D.Js. liven up the day parties, and the revelry roars on into the night at Spinnaker Beach Club, Club La Vela and other popular spots.

Crowds also come to the town’s many festivals. Toby Keith and Trace Adkins headlined the Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam in September. Panama City’s sixth annual Beach Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve targets families. At midnight, an 800-pound glowing beach ball descends and 10,000 inflatable beach balls drop along Pier Park Drive.

Break from the celebrations to enjoy the shore.

“The beach has super-fine white sand,” Leatherman says. “The water is emerald-colored. It’s great for swimming and … the waves here are measured in inches.”

Best hidden-gem beach

Little Talbot Island State Park may have 5 miles of white-sand beach, but the Gulf Coast’s Anclote Key Preserve State Park won with 63% of the vote. Accessible only by private boat or ferry, Anclote Key Preserve consists of four islands — Anclote Key, North Anclote Bar, South Anclote Bar and Three Rooker Island.

“Most people have never heard of this place,” Leatherman says. “The beach is beautiful although not very big. The swimming is great because there aren’t any waves and the water is warm and clear.”

Located off Tarpon Springs, the preserve is popular with boaters and birders. Bring binoculars to look for roseate spoonbills, bald eagles and pelicans.

Best boardwalk

Leatherman says Clearwater’s 1,080-foot pier and park is “the place to see and be seen. And in ways it’s better than a boardwalk because you get to walk out into the gulf.” Nonetheless, Clearwater’s Pier 60 was trounced by the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, which won with 63% of the vote.

Built in 1926 and extensively renovated in 2008, the “broadwalk” — a beach-level path with unobstructed ocean views — stretches for 21/2 miles. “It’s very pleasant,” Leatherman says. “You can ride bikes, go inline skating and stroll.” The seaside avenue, about 30 feet wide, includes bicycling lanes and a crushed-shell jogging path.

Hotels, pizza parlors, cafes and restaurants line the route, and free outdoor concerts are held several nights a week. The American Planning Association named the boardwalk one of the top 10 public places in America.