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Best of the Beach: 6 Outstanding Central Florida Beaches

Pity Orlando—the largest city in Florida without immediate access to a beach. If you ask us, though, our geographic reality is as much a benefit as it is an inconvenience. After all, if we didn’t need to leave town to visit the shore, chances are we’d be less likely to travel to the many amazing beaches that are just a relatively short drive from our hometown. And when we say amazing, we mean it, to the point where it’s impossible for us to pick an absolute best beach within easy driving distance. We have, however, narrowed it down to our favorite six, featuring three representatives from each coast that can be reached in about two hours or less, and there are many reasons to visit them beyond their centerpiece convergences of sand and water. In addition to swimming, surfing, snorkeling, boating, fishing and watersports at these destinations, multiple shopping, dining and fun family experiences can be had on land, and lodging options for every budget make it easy to enjoy a long weekend in paradise. So, load up the family war wagon, slather yourself in the best sunscreen you can find, and get ready to hit the beach: Surf’s up!

EAST COAST

Photo courtesy of CocoaBeach.com

COCOA BEACH
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Cocoa Beach isn’t just a quintessential Florida beach town; it’s also in the heart of Florida’s Space Coast, resulting in a singular combination of summer fun and American history. Besides being a picture-perfect place to watch launches from Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach has a 300-vehicle parking lot, picnic facilities, walkways, and a bathhouse with showers and restrooms. It’s also close to Port Canaveral, home to Disney Cruise Line and ships from Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: Air Force Space and Missile Museum, Alma Clyde Field Library of Florida History, ATX Center, Brevard Museum of History & Natural Science, Cocoa Beach Surf Museum, Dinosaur Store & Museum, Kennedy Space Center, U.S. Space Walk of Fame and Museum, and Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum

Golf: Cocoa Beach Country Club, Duran Golf Club, Indian River Colony Club, Manatee Cove Golf Course, Rockledge Country Club, The Savannahs, Suntree Country Club, Turtle Creek Golf Club, and Viera East Golf Club

Best Dining
HIGH-END: The Fat Snook
(TheFatSnook.com)
MID-RANGE: Jazzy’s Mainely Lobster & Seafood Company (JazzysMainelyLobster.com)
CHEAP EATS: Beachside Grill & Deli
(BeachsideGrillAndDeli.com)

Best Shopping
The Avenue Viera
(ShopTheAvenue.com)
Historic Downtown Cocoa Village
(VisitCocoaVillage.com)
Ron Jon Surf Shop
(RonJonSurfShop.com)

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: Hilton Cocoa Beach Oceanfront
(Hilton.com)
THREE STAR: The Resort on Cocoa Beach
(TheResortOnCocoaBeach.com)
TWO STAR: Discovery Beach Resort
(DiscoveryBeachResort.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: Beach Place Guesthouses (BeachPlaceGuesthouses.com)

Photo courtesy of DaytonaBeach.com

DAYTONA BEACH
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Thanks to generations of spring breakers visiting the area, Daytona Beach is arguably Florida’s most famous shoreline, boasting 23 miles of beaches. What’s more, 11 of those miles are still open for cars, making it a snap to find a place to park and keep your vehicle in sight. Not that you’ll want to spend all your time in the water, as the Daytona Beach Boardwalk and numerous other local attractions also deserve your attention.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: Cracker Creek, Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Lagoon Waterpark Entertainment Center, Daytona Maritime Museum, Museum of Arts and Sciences, Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail, Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse, Tiger Bay State Forest, and Zoom Air Adventure Park

Golf: Daytona Beach Golf Club, Halifax Plantation Golf Club, Indigo Lakes Golf Club, LPGA International, Pelican Bay Golf Club, River Bend Golf Club, Riviera Country Club, and Tomoka Oaks Golf & Country Club

Best Dining
HIGH-END: The Cellar Restaurant
(TheCellarRestaurant.com)
MID-RANGE: Caribbean Jack’s Restaurant & Bar
(CaribbeanJacks.com)
CHEAP EATS: Bay Street Seafood Market & Grill

Best Shopping
Ocean Walk Shoppes
(OceanWalkShoppes.com)
Pavilion at Port Orange
(ThePavillionAtPortOrange.com)
Riverfront Shops of Daytona Beach (RiverfrontShopsOfDaytona.com)

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: The Shores Resort and Spa
(ShoresResort.com)
THREE STAR: Bahama House
(DaytonaBahamaHouse.com)
TWO STAR: Tropical Winds Oceanfront Hotel (TropicalWindsHotel.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: River Lily Inn Bed & Breakfast (RiverLilyInnBedAndBreakfast.com)

NEW SMYRNA BEACH
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Like Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach’s north end is accessible by car, but vehicles aren’t allowed on the rest of the area’s 13 miles of gorgeous, white-sand beaches. Wave breaks created by New Smyrna’s off-shore rock ledges are a surfer’s dream, as attested to by the national surfing championships that take place at nearby Ponce Inlet, and they also help reduce dangerous undertows. All this, and New Smyrna’s south end connects to the 24-mile Canaveral National Seashore.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: Atlantic Center for the Arts, Go-Kart City, Lighthouse Point Park & Recreation Area, Marine Discovery Center, New Smyrna Beach Skate Park, New Smyrna Museum of History, New Smyrna Speedway, Sugar Mill Botanical Gardens, Tropical Blossom Honey Company, and Turtle Mound National Historic Site

Golf: Crane Lakes Golf Course, Cypress Head Golf Course, Hidden Lakes Golf Club, The Preserve at Turnbull Bay, Spruce Creek Golf & Country Club, Sugar Mill Country Club & Golf Course, and Venetian Bay Golf Club

Best Dining
HIGH-END: The Garlic
(TheGarlic.net)
MID-RANGE: The Breakers
Ocean Front Restaurant (BreakersNSB.com)
CHEAP EATS: McKenna’s Place
(McKennasPlace.com)

Best Shopping
Canal Street
(CanalStreetNSB.com)
Flagler Avenue
(FlaglerAve.com)
New Smyrna Antique Mall
(NewSmyrnaAntiqueMall.com)

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: Black Dolphin Inn
(BlackDolphinInn.com)
THREE STAR: The Riverview Hotel
(RiverviewHotel.com)
TWO STAR: Hampton Inn New Smyrna Beach
(HamptonInn3.Hilton.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: Night Swan Intracoastal Bed and Breakfast
(NightSwan.com)

WEST COAST

ANNA MARIA ISLAND
Approximate Drive Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Anna Maria Island has the longest drive time of any of our featured beaches, but once you see it with your own eyes, we’re sure you’ll agree it’s worth the trip. The seven-mile barrier island is nestled by St. Petersburg to the north and Sarasota to the south, and while steady tourist trade means it can no longer be considered a hidden gem, it still offers a true taste of Old Florida living amid white-sand beaches and turquoise waters.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: Andersen RacePark, Anna Maria City Pier, Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring, Around the Bend Nature Tours, Desoto Super Speedway, The Fish Hole Miniature Golf, Florida Maritime Museum, Riverwalk Skate Park, TreeUmph! Adventure Course, and Wildlife Education & Rehabilitation Center Inc.

Golf: IMG Academy Golf Club, Key Royale Golf Club, Manatee County Golf Course, Pinebrook Ironwood Golf Course, The Preserve Golf Club, River Run Golf Links, and Timber Creek Golf Course

Best Dining
HIGH-END: Maison Blanche
(TheMaisonBlanche.com)
MID-RANGE: Sign of the Mermaid
CHEAP EATS: Skinny’s Place
(SkinnysPlace.com)

Best Shopping
Anna Maria City Pier
Anna Maria Historic Green Village
(HistoricGreenVillage.com)
Bridge Street Merchants
(VisitBridgeStreet.com)

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: Mainsail Beach Inn
(MainsailBeachInn.com)
THREE STAR: Sunrise Garden Resort
(SunriseGardenResort.com)
TWO STAR: Silver Surf Gulf Beach Resort
(SilverResorts.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: Harrington House Beachfront Bed & Breakfast
(HarringtonHouse.com)

Clearwater Beach; photo courtesy of VisitStPeteClearwater.com

CLEARWATER BEACH
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Located on tiny Caladesi Island due west of Tampa, Clearwater Beach has topped many “best beaches” lists through the years, and locals and visitors alike know why: three miles of some of the whitest, most pristine sand you’ll ever see. This once-sleepy beachside community has boldly stepped into the 21st century with new luxury resorts and other civic improvements, but easy access to unspoiled nature is still its main attraction.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: AirHeads Trampoline Arena, Armed Forces History Museum, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Caladesi Island State Park, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Florida Botanical Gardens, Gulf Coast Museum of Art, Lowry Park Zoo, Museum of Science and Industry, Simulator Center Tampa Bay, and Tampa Bay Downs

Golf: Belleair Country Club, Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club, Clearwater Country Club, Countryside Country Club, The Landings, On Top of the World Golf Course, and Pinecrest Golf Club

Best Dining
HIGH-END: Rusty’s Bistro at Sheraton Sand Key
(SheratonSandKey.com)
MID-RANGE: Backwaters on Sand Key
(BackwatersOnSandKey.com)
CHEAP EATS: Crabby’s Beachwalk Bar & Grill (CrabbyBills.com)

Best Shopping

Beach Walk
Clearwater Mall
(ClearwaterMall.net)
Shoppes on Sand Key

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: Sandpearl Resort
(Sandpearl.com)
THREE STAR: Shephard’s Beach Resort
(Shephards.com)
TWO STAR: Barefoot Bay Resort & Marina
(BarefootBayResort.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: Grielen’s Green Gables Bed and Breakfast

Caldesi Island State Park; photo courtesy of VisitStPeteClearwater.com

TREASURE ISLAND
Approximate Drive Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Like other Gulf Coast beaches, Treasure Island is known for white sand and a tranquil vibe that evokes Florida’s past. At the same time, it’s an internationally known getaway destination, and its proximity to St. Petersburg and Tampa gives it the best of small-town and big-city living. Civic leaders go out of their way to keep visitors coming back, too, with the mile-long Treasure Island Beach Trail providing easy access to everything the community has to offer.

Land-Based Family Fun

Attractions: The Chihuly Collection, Florida International Museum, Fort De Soto Park, Museum of Fine Arts, Great Explorations Children’s Museum, Morean Arts Center, St. Petersburg Museum of History, St. Petersburg Pier, Salvador Dalí Museum, Smugglers Cove Adventure Golf, and Sunken Gardens

Golf: Baypoint Golf Club, Isla Del Sol Yacht & Country Club, Pasadena Yacht & Country Club, St. Petersburg Country Club, The Tides Golf Club, Treasure Bay Golf and Tennis, and Twin Brooks Golf Course

Best Dining
HIGH-END: Castile Restaurant
(CastileRestaurant.com)
MID-RANGE: Middle Grounds Grill (MiddleGroundsGrill.com)
CHEAP EATS: Foxy’s Cafe

Best Shopping
Historic Corey Avenue
(CoreyAve.com)
John’s Pass Village & Boardwalk (JohnsPassVillage.net)
Tyrone Square Mall (Simon.com)

Best Lodging
FOUR STAR: Don CeSar Hotel
(DonCesar.com)
THREE STAR: Sunset Vistas Beachfront Suites
TWO STAR: Tahitian Resort
(TahitianResort.com)
BED& BREAKFAST: La Veranda Bed and Breakfast 26 (LaVerandaBB.com)

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