Miami and Orlando may be Florida favorites, but that doesn’t mean they’re the most scenic destinations in the Sunshine State. In fact, Florida is home to numerous charming beach towns where you won’t find waves of tourists. Most of these coastal getaways and island respites have unspoiled beaches, wildlife refuges, and fresh food to savor. For those who prefer the gentle massage of an ocean breeze to a heart-pounding spin on Space Mountain, this list of adorable beach towns may make you consider a new vacation spot.
A collection of six islands, Islamorada is a revered spot for sport fishers. The calm, clear, and creature-filled waters along Anne’s Beach are perfect for snorkeling, while Long Key State Park has kayaks and canoes available to rent. Library Beach, located on a mangrove channel, features playground equipment and few crowds, making it a favorite stop for families. Other Islamorada attractions include the dolphin shows at Theater of the Sea and the exhibits at the History of Diving Museum. The Rain Barrel Artisan Village also has several notable galleries worth browsing.
Where to Stay: Cheeca Lodge & Spa
South of Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach is known as a hip surf haven. The town has around 12 miles of white sandy beaches and great waves. Renting a surfboard isn’t difficult, although aficionados will probably want to bring their own. You may also want to time your trip to coincide with one of the food festivals hosted throughout the year, including the New Smyrna Beach Food Festival (in April), the Cinco de Mayo celebration (in May), the Shrimp & Seafood Festival (in August), or Jazz Fest (in September). Year-round attractions include the artist studios at The Hub on Canal, exhibitions at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and area wildlife, which includes manatees and dolphins.
Where to Stay: The Riverview Hotel
Approximately 20 minutes south of downtown Miami, Key Biscayne has had a development boom since the causeway connecting it to the mainland opened in the middle of the 20th century. Notable residents have included Brad Pitt, Cher, and Richard Nixon. While luxurious living can be found throughout Key Biscayne (golf courses and gourmet restaurants included), the destination also has numerous quaint attractions. The 170-year-old Cape Florida Lighthouse is a local monument and the Heritage Trail has mesmerizing water views and a prehistoric fossil reef. Meanwhile, the smooth water of Crandon Park Beach is a favorite among windsurfers. Almost all of Key Biscayne’s sand boxes offer relaxing alternatives to Miami’s party pits.
Where to Stay: The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne
Off the west coast of Florida, about a one-hour drive from Fort Myers, Captiva Island is small enough that you won’t need a car once you arrive. For families, South Seas Island Resort offers plenty to do on its 300 acres, including relaxing on private beaches, enjoying the scenic yacht harbor, playing a round at the nine-hole golf course, and taking a dip in the three outdoor pools with waterslides. Travelers who prefer a more custom vacation also have numerous options for accommodations and dining. The Keylime Bistro at Captiva Island Inn serves dishes like crab cake Benedict and, as expected, Key lime pie. The Bubble Room is packed with toys from the the 1930s and ‘40s and has a menu with Gulf shrimp (prepared numerous ways), sticky buns, and orange crunch cake. Captiva Beach has limited parking, but an enormous variety of shells for people who like to collect them.
Where to Stay: South Seas Island Resort
Locomotives used to stop in Stuart to haul away bushels of chrysanthemums and pineapples. While it’s no longer a farming community, Stuart still has small-town charm that can be found in its B&Bs, sidewalk cafes, and art galleries. There’s also picturesque waterfront scenery to be enjoyed here. Not only does this town of 19,000 residents have excellent Atlantic Ocean views, it’s also positioned along the St. Lucie and Indian rivers, making it the perfect place for leisurely waterfront walks. The boardwalk is dotted with boutiques, restaurants, and people to watch. Locals also pride themselves on the health of the ecosystem here, which makes it possible to see dolphins swimming through the clear blue waves just off the coast. Marine life fans can stop by the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, which showcases turtles, stingrays, and numerous other types of local fish. Another piece of Stuart culture, the House of Refuge Museum was once a shelter for sailors and now houses exhibits about patents and inventions. As for sand, Jensen Beach, Bathtub Reef Beach, and Stuart Beach are all loved.
Where to Stay: Courtyard Stuart
Try not to confuse Siesta Key — the barrier island off Florida’s southwest coast — with the MTV reality show of the same name. Yes, the series is filmed in Florida, but Siesta Key has loads of family-friendly fun. Ocean Boulevard has boutiques and buskers playing Jimmy Buffet covers. The sand here has a high quartz content, making it powder soft, cool to the touch, and comfortable for sunbathing. The annual Siesta Key Crystal Classic sand-sculpting festival challenges artists from around the world to create a masterpiece in 24 hours. Other local traditions include a weekly drum circle that forms on Siesta Key Beach every Sunday an hour before sunset. If you wish to leave dry land, book a deep-sea fishing tour or a sunset cruise.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Residence Club Sarasota, Siesta Key Beach
A trip to Seaside is like stepping through a time machine. Founder Robert S. Davis inherited the land in 1978 and turned it into a community resembling an old beach town. Located in Florida’s northwestern Panhandle, Seaside is closer to Alabama and Georgia than Orlando, and its culture is modeled after genteel, small-town Southern life. Seaside’s buildings are a mix of Victorian, neoclassical, modern, and postmodern styles, and it’s precisely this combination that made it a great choice for a filming location for “The Truman Show.” Local attractions include Airstream Row, a food truck park where chefs work out of vintage trailers, and the Seaside Repertory Theatre, the only professional troupe on the Emerald Coast. Nearby Grayton Beach State Park is considered one of the best beaches in the country. Not only can visitors go swimming here, but camping, mountain biking, tubing, and scuba diving are also on offer.
Where to Stay: WaterColor Inn
Vero Beach packs in a good amount of culture and wildlife into 13 square miles. A local ordinance prevents buildings from being taller than four stories, helping the destination maintain its small-town vibe. Unlike other crowded stretches found in Florida, Vero’s white-sand beaches often have more birds than humans. Approximately one-fourth of the world’s sea turtles lay their eggs on Florida’s East Coast where Vero is located, making for regular turtle-hatching sightings. Several tours are organized around the local turtle population. The Florida Cracker Airboat rides are also popular, as guests can zip through St. Johns River on a boat powered by an airplane engine. The Vero Beach Museum of Art has an impressive permanent collection, including works made from glass, bronze, and chopsticks. The Vero Beach Opera Guild regularly stages performances in buildings around town, and movie buffs should schedule their trip for June during the Vero Beach Wine & Film Festival. Local food and shopping caters to upscale tastes (numerous millionaires vacation here), so be prepared to splurge.
Where to Stay: Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa
About an hour away from Orlando and less than a half-hour from the Kennedy Space Center, Cocoa Beach can be a nice home base for seeing several attractions in central Florida. The town’s growth took off in the 1960s along with the expansion of America’s space program. Fans of the sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” may remember the location, as it was often mentioned in the series. The actual stretch of sand known as Cocoa Beach is less crowded than many of Florida’s sunbathing spots, and free parking can be found if you know where to look. As the East Coast’s unofficial surf capital, Cocoa Beach takes boarding pretty seriously. The Cocoa Beach Surf Company has one of the largest surf stores in the world and the Florida Surf Museum is located in the local Ron Jon shop. Several festivals take place every year, including the Pro/Am, NKF Surf, and Beach ’n Boards. You can often watch the action from Cocoa Beach Pier, where you can also fish and fill up on oysters, ice cream, and umbrella drinks.
Where to Stay: Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront
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