With its 1,350 miles of sun-swaddled shoreline, Florida is blessed with an extraordinary range of beaches that can provide a glorious setting for family afternoons – little coves, hidden bays, resort hotspots, long strips of sand on the ocean. But where, specifically, works well for children?
The obvious answer is that the west coast has much to recommend it. The sheltered waters of the Gulf of Mexico roll to land more softly than their roaring Atlantic counterparts. Fine locations are found on Sanibel, where Bowman’s Beach, is noted as a haven for kids keen to search for seashells. This theme continues on Sanibel’s neighbour Captiva, where Captiva Beach, is also coated with crustaceans. Venice Beach, just below Sarasota, meanwhile, has an odd claim to fame: sharks’ teeth wash up here at Mother Nature’s whim.
The appeal of the state’s west side is apparent in this year’s verdict from Dr Beach, this online authority that compiles an annual list of the best beaches in America. It has bestowed its garlands on the Gulf shore, selecting two of its beaches as the finest in the US. Barefoot Beach, at Bonita Springs, is acclaimed as a location where ‘the surf is gentle, and the water very shallow, making for a great beach for family swimming’. And St George Island State Park, near Port St Joe in the north-west, is praised for the fact ‘the sand here is squeaky clean (rub your feet on the sand, and hear it squeak)’.
Siesta Beach, near Sarasota, topped the tables in 2011, and remains a superb spot for kids, with its shallow waters, layers of white quartz (which stays cooler than sand, and rarely burns little feet) and daily lifeguard protection.
Lifeguards are also a presence on the Atlantic coast, keeping an eye on swimmers from the iconic multicoloured huts of South Beach in Miami, and along Hollywood North Beach Park near Fort Lauderdale. Of course, many Atlantic beaches are wonderful even without watchful young men and women on guard. Witness the shoreline at Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve, an area of tidal wetlands, north of St Augustine, with pristine sands.
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Looking for more beach holiday inspiration? Why not take a dip in the crystal clear waters of St. John in the US Virgin Islands – or, for something a little closer to home, try the stunning beaches of Cyprus?
The Keys are the Sunshine State’s best-loved islands. But look closely and the Florida map hosts many lesser-known islets that are just as lovely – and family-friendly.
Three miles off the Gulf coast at Tarpon Springs, Anclote Key is a simple slice of seaside, a place for family picnics under skies where bald eagles hover. Spongeorama runs Dolphin Beach Cruises, which deliver you to an islet that is listed as a state park.
Prices: adults £11, children £6
Many tourists who come to Miami fail to spot Key Biscayne, which lurks directly below South Beach, but lives in a different world. Linked to the mainland by the Rickenbacker Causeway, this is an outpost of quiet sands (Dog Beach and Virginia Beach) and coastal whimsy – with the Cape Florida Lighthouse, built in 1825, keeping sentry.
A 40-mile sliver, Santa Rosa Island is a short drive from Fort Walton Beach, in the north-west of Florida. Some of it is protected as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including Fort Pickens, a doughty 19th-century bastion where little boys can be the kings of the castle.
Price: Entry costs £1.75.
Florida’s Atlantic edge can often lose itself in its hotels and crowds, but there is a happy tranquillity to Singer Island, a grand nugget of sand at Riviera Beach. John D MacArthur Beach State Park sums up the appeal of this gentle enclave, with its Dune Hammock Trail winding along through whispering tropical foliage.
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Off the Beaten Track
Try somewhere new
Miami is a great global city. Orlando is an enclave of thrills. But many parts of Florida elude the spotlight, yet are well worth discovering. Tucked so tightly into the north-west corner of the state that you can all but see Alabama, Pensacola is one of Florida’s last hurrahs. As well as nearby beaches, it claims the National Museum of Naval Aviation, where planes, flight simulators and IMAX movies excite would-be pilots.
Which city is Florida’s largest? The answer, rarely appreciated, is Jacksonville. The size of this north-easterly metropolis means it is full of attractions. The Museum of Science & History is a case in point – an interactive feast that includes a walk-in human digestive system.
The non-coastal north of Florida pings on few tourist radars. But those who venture near Gainesville come across Ginnie Springs, a privately owned natural park that amounts to family heaven with its clear waters, swimming holes and accessible caverns.
A true secret, the Dry Tortugas, a tiny archipelago skulks 70 miles west of Key West, dealing in empty beaches and, in Fort Jefferson, a vast 19th-century fort that looms above the water like a ghostly citadel. Day trips by catamaran (from Key West) are possible. The islands are also a national park.
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‘Natural’ dolphin swimming
Parents who worry about the ethics of swimming with captive dolphins may be won over by the Natural Dolphin Swims run by Key Largo operator Dolphin Cove. Sessions take place in a lagoon linked to Florida Bay, and there is no touching the magical mammals unless they initiate contact.
Price: Half-hour swims cost £88; swimmers must be at least eight years old.
Strolling with turtles
Sections of Florida’s central Atlantic coast, such as Brevard County, are a haven for loggerhead sea turtles, which lay their eggs on the beaches during June and July. The Sea Turtle Preservation Society organises discreet evening walks on Melbourne Beach that let visitors witness this wonderful scene.
Everglades after hours
Try a visit to the Everglades after hours. Sawgrass Recreation Park, a quick 35-mile drive from both Fort Lauderdale and Miami, does a twist on standard Everglades tours – one-hour Nighttime Adventures, which let children spot alligator eyes as they gleam in the torchlight. If you’ve got little ones afaraid of the dark, there are daytime tours too!
Prices: Adults £23, children £12.
Peek-a-boo with panthers
Florida’s resident big cats are enormously rare; there are thought to be only 160 of them in the whole state. The best place for a chance sighting is Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles east of Naples. Two hiking trails are accessible in the daytime. Kids are welcome, but must be kept close.
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Still craving more sandy Florida beaches? Take a look at all the fun you could be having on Panama City Beach. Or, for more animal activities, stay in Fort Lauderdale for some of Florida’s best wildlife spots.