East & West Coast Beaches of Central Florida
To recommend one beach over another in Florida would be a disservice, because each has its positive and negative attributes, although most are positive. It is possible to view sunrise on an Atlantic Ocean beach, drive 3 hours west and watch the sunset on a Gulf of Mexico beach, if you have an extra day to spare. We'll start with the closest beaches to the Kissimmee/Orlando attractions.
Cocoa Beach - probably the fastest one to get to from the Orlando/Kissimmee attractions area. It's an hours drive directly east of the attractions area on the Atlantic Ocean. In many spots, where the ocean meets the land are steeply inclined sand beaches (this may change during hurricane season or major storms), but a few feet from shore it's nice and flat so that you can set up your beach towel. This beach seems to have bigger waves than most of the others and when a storm passes off-shore many surfers are attracted to it. Be careful at this beach (and other east coast beaches) when there is rip-tide, a dangerous current which has a powerful under-tow which has claimed many lives. Kennedy Space Center is just a couple of minutes north if you want to make a side trip. One popular landmark store is Ron Jon Surf Shop« (once we parked at Ron Jon's, shopped in the store, then walked to the nearby beach and saved ourselves a parking fee) which specializes in surf culture goods and has some interesting surfing-themed statues in front of it; there are a number of other beach supply tourist stores that for the most part are reasonably priced. Also nearby is the Cocoa Beach Surfing School (Cocoa Beach - (321)868-1980 - 150 E. Columbia Lane, Cocoa Beach FL 32931). The hotels and motels in this area are reasonably priced compared to some of the others areas below. There are free outdoor showers, rest rooms and cheap to free parking. Take State Road 528 (called the Bee Line Expressway, it's a toll road) East, follow the local signs to to beach, which is just off of highway A1A.
Daytona Beach - Self-proclaimed by locals as "The Most Famous Beach in the World", this beach is popular with tourists and easily accessible from the attractions area, being about a 1 1/2 hours drive northeast of it. Famous years ago for its automobile races on the beach, today cars are still permitted on the beach, to the dismay of some. Check your car rental agreement before driving on the beach though, because most of the rental companies prohibit this kind of off road driving (although most of the time the upper beach is very compacted, which the traffic helps; it's more like a dirt road, without the dust, than a beach.) Parking is $5 on the beach and free off of the beach. Local proprietors offer jet skiing, windsurfing, para-sailing and boat rentals. If you want to go deep-sea fishing drive down to Ponce Inlet (also see Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse below) and go out on a charter boat. Take the Interstate Highway I-4 East (which is really an intra-state highway, and looks more like it goes north than east on your map) and then just follow the local signs to the beach area.
There are many events in the Daytona area throughout the year, and getting a hotel during these can prove challenging. Some of these events include:
February - Speedweeks (qualifier races for major future races are held at Daytona International Speedway, home of the Daytona 500)
March - Bike Week - where motorcyclists from all over converge on Daytona for a week of comaradery and mutual motorcycle appreciation. - Spring Break - Many young adults (and some non-adults) descend on Daytona and other Florida Beaches during their spring vacations from universities. Black College Reunion is also usually held in March, where thousands of african-americans and other people of african descent meet for a weekend.
April - LPGA Sprint Titleholders Championship (Golf)
July - Pepsi 400 (a night-time race at Daytona International Speedway), London Symphony Orchestra performances.
October - Biketoberfest - More biker comity. Growing immensely in popularity in the last few years to more than 100,000 visitors.
November - Annual Daytona Turkey Run Antique Carshow & Swap Meet - usually held for three days starting on Thanksgiving day (the 4th Thursday in November).
For more information on these events and other Daytona attractions, visit the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitor's Bureau's site, a good resource. You can also contact the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for more info at 1-800-854-1234.
Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse - Ponce Inlet, just south of Daytona Beach - (904)761-1821 - it is a wonderful old lighthouse completed in 1887, which is fully functioning, in which you are permitted (for an admission fee) to go up its 203 steps to the top and go outside to the walkway which encircles a the top, which has a beautiful 360 degree view of the area (if you walk around). It is said to be the second tallest lighthouse in North America. The admission fee also covers the lighthouse museum, a micro-theater historical film, historical grounds, nature-walk and the gift shop. This is a definite must-do if you are in the Daytona area. 4931 South Peninsula Drive, Ponce Inlet, Florida 32127. From Daytona Beach, take A1A south (which becomes Atlantic Ave and then S. Atlantic Ave. and then Robert A. Merrill Parkway) to the Lighthouse.
Canaveral National Seashore and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge are near Kennedy Space Center (Kennedy Space Center is a must-see). Considered one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in the U.S.A., many rare and endangered species call these places home. If you are an eco-tourist, you might consider visiting this environmentally sensitive and protected area, just be ready for the mosquitos if you travel inland because this area is notorious for them. Occasionally you'll hear a story of a rocket part that washes up on shore, and then they caution you about touching it because of the toxic rocket fuel (but also its probably because sometimes they are military payloads). Aside from the rocket stories, it's a wonderful area to visit. The fastest way here is to take State Road 528 (the Bee Line Expressway, it's a toll road) East to Merritt Island, to State Road 3 north. If you want to go to the Canaveral National Seashore, take 528 East to U.S. 1 North, when you get to Titusville, watch the local signs to the beaches (which Canaveral National Seashore beaches start at the lattitude of Titusville [3 miles east of it] and run to the north.
New Smyrna Beach - Just south of Daytona Beach and just north of Canaveral National Seashore, this a slightly less busy beach if Daytona is too much for you. Driving is permitted on part of the beach, but there are also conservation areas where driving is prohibited. Take I-4 East to State Road 44 East, then follow the signs to the beach.
Ormond Beach and Ormond-by-the-Sea - Just to the north of Daytona Beach, this is a less busy, quieter beach than Daytona. There is less development here and there is a stretch of beach that is so secluded, at Ormond-by-the-Sea, that you can feel almost all alone (but you'll have to walk quite some distance from your car.) This is an amazing trait for a beach so close to Daytona. There are also nice-sized, innumerable sand dunes here too. Take I-4 East to I-95 North, to State Road 40 East until you see the signs to the beach.
West Coast Beaches
On the west coast of Florida is the Gulf of Mexico, where the water, on average, tends to be warmer and the white sands in some places are a finer grain. It's about a 90 minute to 2 hour drive from the attractions area. Some of the beaches we've tried are:
Madeira Beach - This beach is near a small tourist center which recently completed a multi-million dollar face-lift which has quaint stores, restaurants, buildings and inexpensive tourist trinkets. It is right next to John's Pass, an old style (but up to date) fishing village, where you can rent jet-skis or cross the Pass bridge and go out for the evening on an entertainment boat. You also can go out on a dolphin watch cruise or a deep-sea fishing boat from here. Sunsets on the beach here are beautiful. There are usually pelicans around the pass (where boats pass through to the Gulf), which are large (cute?) docile birds waiting for a free fish meal from the boats. This is one of our favorite beach areas because it is low key and quaint looking (when you walk north of John's Pass village). Tip - If you want to beat the parking meters at the beach parking lots, just cross the street to John's Pass shopping area, park there for free for 3 hours (and why not patronize their reasonably priced stores in return). One feature which may be positive or negative to you is that there are many sea-shells at this beach. Hotels here are plentiful, also low-key, reasonable and cater to every budget and taste. One negative thing that happened to us once was we went there during a swarming of "Love Bugs" (which are common throughout central Florida) and there were zillions of these harmless insects flying to the shoreline, making it impossible to be comfortable (or breath with your mouth open). This type of insect swarming is rare and normally not a problem. Take I-4 West which will turn into to I-275 South toward St. Petersburg. Before you actually get to downtown St. Petersburg you will see signs directing you to the Gulf Beaches. Follow them.
Redington Shores - several beaches to the north of Madeira beach, this is a quiet beach (the other beaches in-between, Redington Beach and N. Redington Beach, are practically private because there is no apparent public access parking). It's hard to find parking here so we used the parking lot of their truly excellent SunCoast Seabird Sanctuary (you don't want to miss it if you are in this area, it's very near the beach, and it's free, but donations are accepted.) Watch out for the stingray mating season in late summer (a truism for all beaches) though, one of us was poked after five minutes of being in the water, went to the hospital emergency room, and got to ride a wheel chair at Disney the next day (which was great because they let us in front of all the lines, although we heard that Disney may be changing that policy.) See directions to Madeira Beach, then go North on Gulf Blvd.
Sand Key - Considered by many as being one of the top ten beaches in the U.S.A. (also see Ft. DeSoto Park below) , this beach is north on Gulf Blvd. from Madeira Beach, at the far northern tip of the same barrier island. Fine powder-white sands endow this splendid spot.
Treasure Island - A typical place to relax on the gulf, just to the south of Madeira Beach, with wide white sand beaches with an immense amount of shell deposits. Avoid stepping on the Sea Oats, a prized sand dune protecting grass. On a visit last year we found it more negative than positive. There was this giant diesel powered pump on the beach generating ALOT of noise for a pipeline the ran as far as the eye could see. In the water, one couldn't avoid the ever present smell of SEWAGE. Whether or not there was really sewage present I don't know, but it smelled like it. On the positive side, we did see two dolphins close to and swimming parallel to the shoreline. Over all though I would say that it will be a very long time before we go back to this beach. See directions to Madeira Beach, then go South on Gulf Blvd..
St. Pete Beach (not St. Petersburg Beach) and Pass-A-Grille Beach - Just south of Madeira Beach and Treasure Island; both of these beaches possess fine powder white sands and are wide, with Pass-A-Grille (just south of St. Pete Beach) seeming to be the wider of the two. See directions to Madeira Beach and then go south of Madeira Beach on Gulf Blvd. The non-recommended, but faster, alternate route is to stay on I-275 until you arrive downtown, then watch the exit sign for St. Petersburg Beach (either State Road 682 [a.k.a. Pinellas Parkway] or State Road 693 [a.k.a. Pasadena Blvd.]) It's before The Sunshine Skyway Bridge! (which you should also visit since you are in the area.)
Note - While in the St. Petersburg area you might consider visiting Salvador Dali Museum with many famous works by the artist. Near the museum is "The Pier", a five story building, which looks like an inverted partial pyramid, with shops inside it at the end of a well constructed pier. You can find at the St. Petersburg pier the Royal Conquest, a pirate ship replica. Downtown St. Petersburg also offers other museums, which are: The Museum of Fine Arts, The St. Petersburg Museum of History, Great Expectations (a hands-on interactive museum), Holocaust Memorial Museum & Educational Center, and the Florida International Museum (which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution) goes all-out on single themed exhibits. Also see their permanent exhibit, The Kennedy Collection, the collection of hundreds of personal items once owned by the Kennedy family. There are also dozens of bistros and sidewalk cafes, art galleries and more. Don't miss driving over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (there is a small toll of $1 southbound); get a breath-taking view from this stunningly picturesque cable stayed bridge (opened in 1991) to the south of downtown, on I-275. You also won't want to miss The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, where they take in injured birds from the area and nurse them back to health. Their aviary is neat; it's on Redington Shores Beach, and it's free, but donations are accepted. You can get more info on the area by visiting www.floridasbeach.com . Take I-4 to I-275 south to St. Petersburg.
Fort DeSoto Park - Like Sand Key above, this is considered by many as being one of the top ten beaches in the U.S.A., enough said. Take I-275 south to the 54th Ave. S./ Pinellas Bayway (679) exit, right, toward the Pinellas Bayway (toll bridge) and once you cross over, bear left on the Pinellas Bayway, following the signs to Ft. DeSoto Park.
Frommer's Portable Tampa & St. Petersburg
There are many more beaches which we haven't mentioned here, these are just the more popular and closest to the central Florida attractions. What is a positive beach attribute to one person, is a negative to another. Too much development, or not enough, too many people or not enough, we'll let you decide!
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