Something for Everyone in the Sands of the Sunshine State
The best beach vacations celebrate all that encompasses summer: from relaxing on the sand and sea to savoring ice cream cones while the sun sets. For families, those vacations are even better when varied enough to keep both kids and parents entertained. Florida, which has long held the crown for best beaches in the country, also offers plenty of non-nautical fun. Here are the five best beaches to float the kids' boats while offering adults some downtime.
Sunny Days and Sunsets in Clearwater
Clearwater Beach, FL, tucked in a protected inlet on the Gulf of Mexico, consistently ranks as one of the best beaches in Florida. The average 361 days of sunshine help boost its beach credibility, as do the kid-approved sugar-white sand and shallow waters. There are plenty of water sport offerings that cater to beginners and daredevils, alike, many of which can be arranged through the family-friendly resorts that dot the coast. Animal lovers will delight in a visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (249 Windward Passage, Clearwater, FL), home to Winter the dolphin. The mammal is fitted with a prosthetic tail and served as the inspiration for the "Dolphin Tale" movies. The nightly sunset celebration on Pier 60 features musicians and street performers including magicians, stilt walkers and jugglers. With numerous restaurants nearby, you'll never have to fear when the kids declare, "Mom, I'm hungry!"
Beach Days and Playtime at Siesta Key
For those in search of sun and sand, Siesta Key Beach, FL, fits the bill. It's renowned for fine quartz sand that stays cool to the touch, and it offers year-round lifeguards along the eight-mile stretch of beach that hugs the crystal blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Kids can spend hours on the shallow sandbars, perfect for sand castles and wading into calm waters. Tennis and volleyball courts, a shaded playground, picnic area and convenient access to food stands help the whole family find ways to occupy the day. On the other hand, you can spend the entire vacation sitting under clear skies with a good book. The beach is only about a mile from Siesta Key Village, a walkable "main street" town with ample restaurants, locally-owned shops and several day spas to enjoy while the significant other watches the kids.
Adventure and Amusements at Cocoa Beach
If the goal is to mix a beach vacation with intrepid adventures and theme park time, Cocoa Beach, FL, takes first place. It's the center of surf culture on the east coast due to the favorable waves and shallow water depth. Children as young as 5 and adults of all ages can attend the Ron Jon Surf School (150 E. Columbia Lane, Cocoa Beach, FL). Just a few miles away, the Cocoa Beach Skate Park offers deep-sided bowls and a half-pipe for those that crave sports on dry land. Don't worry, there are bleachers for parents. The beach is also the natural starting point for an extended vacation in the area. The Kennedy Space Center is a 30-minute drive, while Walt Disney World and Universal Studios are just over an hour west. Port Canaveral, home to major U.S. and international cruise ships, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and the Disney Cruise Line, is just north of the beach.
Lazy Days at Daytona Beach
Don't dismiss Daytona Beach, FL, as simply a spring break destination. Adults and kids are bound to make plenty of fulfilling memories on the shore. There are 23 miles of sandy beaches ideal for swimming and sand castle building. With numerous lifeguard posts, there's always an extra set of eyes. Food, restrooms and water sport accessory rentals are plentiful, too, making it possible to simply show up with nothing more than a swimsuit and towel. May through October is sea turtle season, and some parts of the beach may be closed to human visitors. However, it's a great chance to let kids watch the newly hatched reptiles crawl along shore—just don't chase them! Beyond the beach, curious explorers can visit Ponce Inlet, which is home to the tallest lighthouse in Florida and the Marine Science Center.
Unwind on Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island, FL, regularly tops the list of best family vacation spots. This is in part due to its 15 miles of soft, white sand beaches, 230 species of birds that call the island home and more than 250 varieties of seashells that wash ashore from the Gulf of Mexico—making it a collector's paradise. It's also famous for what it lacks, namely stoplights. The relaxed pace, reminiscent of the Caribbean, and proximity to a major airport (Southwest Florida International Airport) makes it the perfect spot to drop anchor for a week of family time. Take advantage of 22 miles of bike paths for a leisurely ride across the island with the entire family, or opt for a quiet kayak trip through nature reserves where there's the chance to get close to wildlife.