for Toronto Globe and Mail
Florida has 1,771 kilometers of sandy coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. That works out to about 9,000 people per kilometer when you figure everyone in the state is heading for the beach on the weekend, just like you.
If you’re interested in avoiding the crowds, the noise, the car exhaust fumes, the loud jam boxes; guess what! You can! I’ll tell you about a couple of spots, but you have to promise not to tell anyone so we can keep them to ourselves.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
The first thing you notice about the beach at St. Joseph’s Peninsula are the dunes. Some of them tower 10 meters or more above the surf. These are mountains among the mere molehills of other Florida beaches.
The St. Joseph peninsula is about 65 kilometers west of Apalachicola, in the Florida Panhandle. It angles perfectly into the Gulf of Mexico to catch the prevailing currents and winds, ideal for the formation of the high dunes and the fine, white sand.
St. Joseph was ranked the #1 beach in the United States for 2002 in the annual “Dr. Beach” survey. This from a place so remote people get lost trying to find it even with a map, where there are no resorts or tourist attractions, not even a single beachfront hotel to stay in.
The closest airport is 100 kilometers west in Panama City. Interstate 10 is 110 kilometers to the north. This isn’t someplace you will stumble across. It is remote, rugged, and sparsely populated. Things move so slowly here it’s rumored that it takes an hour-and-a-half to watch 60 Minutes on Sunday nights.
Talk about sand dune solitude. A short walk down the beach takes you into the wilderness preserve of the State Park, which covers the western most 11 kilometers of the peninsula. The only sounds are your footsteps in the sand, the surf, the wind, and the sea birds. I find this Florida’s most beautiful and most isolated beach.
With so few people around, you can get closer to nature, and nature gets closer to you. A large manta ray spent much of an afternoon darting around our kayaks and other small boats, almost as if it wanted to play.
The peninsula is right on the flyway for Canadian migrating birds. This is said to be a regular stop on the Yucatan Express for migrating flocks of Monarch butterflies.
St. Joseph’s isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for fine dining and hot entertainment. There are only two small restaurants within 25 kilometers. The wait for a table on Friday night can be two hours. The evening’s best entertainment is sitting on a patch of isolated beach, far from urban light pollution, watching a spectacular star show and listening to the surf.
Without hotels and motels, finding a place to stay takes some work. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has 119 campsites and 8 cabins. The rest of the peninsula is comprised of private homes, townhouses and beach house rentals. The county’s website has a list of realtors and rental agents. Or you can call the tourism office, but there is only one employee so don’t get impatient. Relax, and you’ll fit right in with the rest of the folks.
Anna Maria Island
About the only thing you have to do on time at Anna Maria Island is watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.
The beaches are wide and white, uncrowded and uncluttered. On some days you might find the beach to yourself, except for an occasional fisherman casting in the surf.
Anna Maria Island sits on the south side of Tampa Bay. It is within an hour of Tampa and St. Pete, but in another time zone completely when it comes to the pace of life. There are no high rises. There is virtually no traffic. The loudest noise comes from the chattering flocks of feral parrots and parakeets that cluster in the Australian pines along the beach.
A free trolley runs the length of the island, about 12 kilometers, through the towns of Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, and Anna Maria. There is also a new bike path.
Rental homes are the vacation choice. There are also small “mom and pop” motels and duplexes. The island has two Bed & Breakfasts, a good selection of restaurants, and it is located within easy driving distance of attractions and shopping in St. Pete, Tampa and the very tony St. Armand’s Circle in Sarasota. The Ringling Museum of Fine Art is also in Sarasota.
Anna Maria Island is a great place for a long weekend getaway. If you go for a week or more you may have to check to see if you still have a pulse, but then again, that could be exactly your goal in the first place.
Canaveral National Seashore
Nowhere in Central Florida can offer you solitude like the Canaveral National Seashore. It runs for 39 kilometers along the Atlantic Ocean, between New Smyrna Beach and the Kennedy Space Center. Only about 10 kilometers at each end are accessible by car. The rest of it is wild, pristine, natural beach. There is plenty of room for your beach chairs and sandcastles. Bring sunscreen, food and drink because there are no concession stands.
The areas with road access can get crowded on weekends, but the 19 kilometers in the middle, known as Klondike Beach, are a rare treasure of urban isolation. Few people venture to the Klondike. You have to hike in, or go by boat, and there are no facilities. It’s just you, the sea, and the sun.
Skinny-dipping is popular here. The last parking areas on both the north and south beach access roads are usually packed with nudists who hike up the beach a short way for an au’ natural experience.
If you are looking for more than a day-at-the-beach, I recommend Apollo Beach at New Smyrna. There you find hiking and biking trails, backcountry camping, and a marked canoe trail. Plus the town of New Smyrna Beach is a short drive away with motels and restaurants. But overall, the Canaveral National Seashore goes down as one of Florida’s best beach experiences no matter which part of the park you pick.
If you want a glimpse of a Florida beach town the way it was 50 years ago, check out Flagler Beach on the Atlantic coast, just north of Daytona Beach. The town is named for Henry Flagler, who made millions co-founding Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, and then made and spent more millions developing Florida cities and railroads. But Flagler is a beach-on-a-budget, not a millionaire’s getaway.
The town and the beach are divided by U.S. Highway A1A. Small motels and local restaurants dot the west side of the road, and the beach has the east side all to itself.
Bahia Honda State Park
When Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad construction crews got to Bahia Honda in the early years of the last century, they stopped. Officially they were trying to figure out how to span the deepest channel in the Keys. I personally think they just wanted to spend some time hanging out on the Keys’ best beach.
Bahia Honda State Park is an entire island in the middle Keys, just south of the famed “Seven-Mile-Bridge”. You can find access to saltwater anywhere on the island, but the actual public beach is rather small. The sand was replenished after several hurricanes washed away the old beach a few years ago. Now the shoreline is only a few yards wide and perhaps 2 kilometers long. But because of the remoteness in the Keys, the beach at Bahia Honda is rarely crowded, even on weekends.
It may be small, but it’s perfect for a family with small children. The slope of the beach is indiscernible for more than a hundred meters into the Atlantic, where the water is barely knee high on an adult. And there is no pounding surf, thanks to the reefs off shore. Even in the shallows the snorkeling is great where the white sand meets the sea grasses, and fish and other small sea critters scurry for cover.
Santa Rosa Beach (Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Santa Rose Beach is part of the Gulf Island National Seashore, which spans from Florida to Mississippi. A seven-mile stretch east of Pensacola has towering white sand dunes and little traffic. Opal Beach, named after the 1995 hurricane that came ashore here, has parking, picnic shelters, restrooms and showers. Admission is $8 (U.S.) per vehicle, per week. There are also three small roadside pullovers along State Highway 399 where you can park for free.
Just north of Dunedin, winter home of the Blue Jays, sits Anclote Key, an eight kilometer long island that sits about 5 kilometers off shore and is accessible only by boat, kayak, or jet ski. Anclote is a state recreation area, but there are no public facilities, only an old abandoned lighthouse that is being reconditioned as a tourist attraction. If you go during the week you could be the only one on the island. Weekends bring boaters, but rarely a crowd.
Even with the growth and sprawl in Florida over the last 20 years, if you don’t mind traveling a little, hiking or paddling a little, and enjoy wandering off the beaten path, you can still find a little sand dune solitude. Just keep these beaches to yourself, or next thing you know everybody’s going to show up.
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St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
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