Coastal Florida's Top Ten Family Destinations
While you'll find many picturesque places to explore along Florida's coast, there are some that offer your family a more diverse, fun-filled vacation. Choose your destination based on your personal interests and those of your family.
Tampa, third most populous city in Florida, boasts the second largest attraction in the state, Busch Gardens, a safari-like park filled with exotic species like gazelles and gorillas. Or take a walk through historic Ybor City, Tampa's Latin Quarter, where Cubans created the famous Tampa cigar. Here, the traditions and atmosphere of a Spanish neighborhood have been meticulously preserved.
Taking the sleek Skyway across the Tampa Bay will take you into the clouds and then gracefully back down to Saint Petersburg, Florida's million-dollar city. Tops on the list is a visit to see the collection of magnificent works by Salvador Dali. Your kids will have a ball in the Great Explorations Museum. Then it's on to the panoramic beaches of Saint Petersburg Beach, Clearwater Beach, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Redington Shores, and Treasure Island.
A little farther north, the city of Tarpon Springs, steeped in Greek customs and folklore, is another Old World delight.
Using Cocoa Beach, along Florida's Space Coast, as a vacation base allows you to visit the Kennedy Space Center, plus explore the beach towns down the coast, including Florida's sailfish capital, Stuart. This area offers an array of vacation possibilities. But the primary reason most families come to Cocoa Beach is to visit Spaceport U.S.A. and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, both part of the Kennedy Space Center. Cape Canaveral, a triangular spit midway down the coast, identified on early thirteenth-century maps, is today the site of NASA's gateway to outer space.
The pounding Atlantic also provides surfers with thrills and spills from Cocoa Beach south through Melbourne, Sebastian, Vero Beach, and Fort Pierce. A series of barrier islands extend the entire length of this part of Florida's coastline, making up the east bank of the Indian River where you can water-ski, windsurf, and fish to your heart's content. You can also become acquainted with jai alai, the Basque handball game in which the ball reaches speeds of 150 miles per hour at frontons in Fort Pierce and Melbourne. The influence of the Gulf Stream a few miles offshore gives deep-water sports anglers a chance at sailfish, dolphin, amberjack, wahoo, and king and Spanish mackerel, from spring until fall.
Panama City lies at the center of Coastal Florida's main family seaside resort area. Even during the peak summer season, you can find a remote, undeveloped beach on an isolated barrier island just a short boat ride away from popular resort areas. But if you have active kids, Panama City Beach offers a fun-filled world of amusement parks, go-cart racetracks, miniature golf courses, water parks, and a zoo — that is, if you can pry them away from the sparkling sugary white sand beach. And as a break from the sun, you can take scenic drives along the shore toward the wide mouth of the Apalachicola River and inland to Apalachicola National Forest. The waters around the resorts contain a wide assortment of game fish to test your skills. Or you can just sit in a low-rise beach chair and let the warm blue-green Gulf waters wash over you.
On the barrier island beaches off Sarasota, center stage is reserved for the evening sunset, which daily showers the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico with shades of glowing reds and oranges and golds. The blue-green Gulf waters and wide sand beaches are an irresistible lure to vacationers.
Numerous tours are conducted on pirate-style ketches, sailing sloops, and pleasant double-decker cruisers. The region's pure white Gulf coast sands are ideally suited to early morning walks along shell-covered beaches and afternoon fitness treks in the warm glow of the setting sun. Barrier islands on the lower west coast crosscut the Gulf Stream current, resulting in a tidal wash that produces some of the world's finest shell-collecting sites.
Cultural activities are concentrated in the Sarasota area. The Ringling Museum complex draws thousands of visitors annually. Willed to the State of Florida by circus king John Ringling, the complex includes an art museum, a circus museum, a theater, and the palatial home of John and Mable Ringling. Fort Myers carries an air of casual sophistication, featuring posh shopping and dining facilities. And just offshore, the picture-book islands of Sanibel and Captiva have become a major destination for shell collectors. More opulence is evident farther south in the sleek tropical community of Naples.
The mighty Everglades, where airboats skim across the grassy plains, have a primordial beauty all their own. Wildlife runs freely here, and nature hikes offer glimpses of lazy alligators, skittish wild deer, colorful water birds, and possibly even a Florida panther or an American bald eagle — just some of the animals that call this wild region home. One of the world's natural wonders, the Florida Everglades sprawls over 5,000 square miles of wilderness. It has been called the wildest, shallowest, strangest river in the world. From its rich soil comes most of the nation's winter crop of vegetables and a generous supply of sugar cane.
Here, in this vast wet wilderness, several hundred Seminole Indians took refuge as a last chance to remain in Florida during the Seminole Wars. This fragile ecosystem, unlike any other in North America, teeters on the edge of destruction at the hands of humans.
Florida Keys and Key West
The Florida Keys, a string of coral islands boasting the best underwater diving reefs in the continental United States, have lured underwater adventurers, artists, and musicians for over a hundred years to their subtropic paradise. You can sail aboard a sleek yacht or catamaran or windsurf across the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The Overseas Highway, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, links the 113-mile chain by way of forty-two bridges. Each key has its own personality, history, and local traditions. Key Largo, the largest, is home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater preserve in the country. Fishermen have dubbed Islamorada “the Sports Fishing Capital” of Florida. Long Key offers nature trails through tropical hammocks, and across the magnificent Seven Mile Bridge lie the Lower Keys, a paradise of colorful water birds; Big Pine Key is also a refuge for tiny Key deer. Finally, there's Key West, the most famous of the Keys, with its gingerbread mansions and kitschy lifestyle.
As a travel destination, the Jacksonville area offers a diverse mixture of historic and natural attractions. Here, you'll find a land of many contrasts and moods. In the center of it all lies Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Beaches, bustling resort cities with a myriad of cultural events, recreational highlights, and landmarks from other eras. To the south is Saint Augustine, first New World outpost and oldest permanent city within the United States, and to the north lies Amelia Island, site of luxurious sports resorts boasting three of the nation's most challenging and beautiful golf courses, plus old-time Fernandina Beach, with its restored nineteenth-century houses. You may walk in the footsteps of conquistadors and pirates, pilot your own houseboat, or canoe in settings little altered by time or people. Four centuries of history have been carefully preserved and brought to life in a timeless setting of wind-sculpted dunes and broad Atlantic beaches that still await your footprints.
From Juan Ponce de León's first step onto the shore near Saint Augustine to conflicts over who held the territory to the emergence of a new nation, the Jacksonville area overflows with history. Before 1900, Henry Flagler recognized the area's potential as a place of leisure. He focused the country's attention upon it, and upon Florida, by building the first of his string of plush resorts that eventually would stretch the length of the state's east coast and change Florida forever.
The hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach have lured car drivers from the beginning of the development of the automobile. Both speed and cars exceeded the capabilities of the beaches and Daytona International Speedway became the natural offspring.
From the vast expanse of sugar-white panhandle beaches lining the barrier islands of Gulf Island National Seashore to the broad Choctowhatchee Bay, the area around Pensacola revels in its claim as Florida's best-kept secret. And this least-discovered region provides you with the opportunity to experience perhaps the widest variety of Coastal Florida's spectacular outdoor offerings in an atmosphere of gracious Old South hospitality. Here, you can canoe down a clear, spring-fed river beneath a canopy of oaks, play a round or two on an inviting array of golf courses, venture into the blue-green Gulf of Mexico on a deep-sea fishing charter, or just stretch out under the sun on the shimmering white sand. The region's most powerful lure lies within the 100-mile stretch of quartz-sand beaches, which winds its way from Florida's western tip through Fort Walton Beach where breezes off the Gulf of Mexico send sloops skimming during annual regattas.
The Fort Lauderdale area offers sparkling resorts along the Atlantic Ocean, including Hollywood, Pompano Beach, and Boca Raton, with the best in nightlife, beaches, shopping, and tropical cuisine; the Palm Beaches — from Boca Raton to Jupiter — offer a somewhat slower pace. Visit the island of Palm Beach, walk down elegant Worth Avenue or drive the full length of the island to glimpse homes of the very rich. Stroll the miles and miles of public beaches or go shopping for a day — if you can afford it. The Intracoastal Waterway here is a playground for boaters, skiers, and fishermen. Offshore waters beckon the angler with marlin, amberjack, tuna, king mackerel, barracuda, dolphin, bonito, and the most popular catch of all, sailfish. Charter fleets sail out of Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, Palm and West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, and Jupiter. If you're a golfer, you'll find more courses in this area than anywhere else in Florida.
Miami and Miami Beach
The rich, the famous, and the talented all have found a special spot in the sun along the palm-fringed beaches of South Florida — and you will, too. From golden beaches with slender palms swaying in the salt breezes to nightclubs, racing, and the opera, Miami and neighboring Miami Beach pulse with a Latin rhythm that's hard to beat. This cosmopolitan duo, with its museums, theaters, nightclubs, attractions, shops, and restaurants, is perhaps the most universally recognized of all Florida resorts. Stay in fabulous resort hotels, eat in many of Florida's best restaurants, place bets on dogs, horses, and jai alai, and do it all under year-round sunshine.
Miami Beach, wrapped in rainbow neon, its art deco buildings all aglow in pastel hues, is a backdrop for the beautiful people. Bronzed beauties sip champagne by the seashore as muscle men stroll the beach showing off their bodies. This is South Beach, famous for its association with the diet of the same name, now becoming an artsy district rivaling New York's SoHo. Everything in this area reflects a passion for beauty.