Florida’s beaches are famous. They lure the cold weather weary and put the sparkle in the Sunshine State. But the sands that edge the Atlantic from Amelia Island in the northeast south to Miami and beyond differ from those that stretch along the Gulf Coast from Fort Walton Beach in the northwest’s panhandle to Marco Island on the southwest.
USA TODAY celebrates Florida’s beaches with an east coast- west coast smackdown. Like all classic choices — tea or coffee, dogs or cats — each pick has its ardent proponents.
“Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, Miami, assisted us in selecting contenders in five categories.
This week’s rivalry: tranquil beaches. Anastasia State Park on the east coast faces off against Don Pedro State Park on the west coast. To cheer for your favorite beach by turning it into a champ, vote below.
East coast: Anastasia State Park
With 1,600 acres, more than four miles of beach, plus a tidal salt marsh, Anastasia State Park is a heavyweight contender. “It’s a laid-back beach, a quiet, low-key place to visit,” says Leatherman, one that’s an easy five-mile drive from St. Augustine. The distinctive reddish color of the sand “comes from the Anastasia formation, a mix of coquina shells, limestone and coral,” says Leatherman.
Non-motorized watersports keep the peace. Bicyclists can pedal on the coarse, hardpacked sand and the “wide beach gives visitors plenty of room to spread out” says Martha Robinson, spokesperson for the Florida Department of State Parks. Kayakers paddle on Salt Run, a tidal marsh, and fishermen cast for flounder or snook in the surf.
Anastasia’s campgrounds are popular. The formation of the beach with its offshore ledge, notes Robinson, “is why you hear the waves breaking more loudly than at some other beaches. People find it very relaxing to listen to the tide at this beach.”
West coast: Don Pedro Island State Park
At 230 acres Don Pedro Island State Park, part of a chain of barrier islands off the Gulf Coast, has the charms of an off-the-beaten-path challenger. Situated between Knight Island and Little Gasparilla Island, Don Pedro can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That lessens the number of visitors, making sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.
Leatherman gives points to Don Pedro and its one mile of sand for beachcombing. “Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth. These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”
The park offers a respite for day-trippers; no overnight camping is allowed. You can fish as well as canoe and kayak in Lemon Bay and the island offers good wildlife watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oystercatchers and other birds,” says Robinson. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.” For more quiet, take a gentle hike on trails laced with ferns that cut through the park’s interior.