5 Florida Beach Towns That Are Off the Beaten Path

Here are some of the Sunshine State’s best kept seaside secrets.

Stump Pass State Park on Manasota Key, Florida (Shutterstock)

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Florida is among the most popular travel destinations, with Orlando being a family favorite and snowbirds flocking to the southern cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. But what if you’re looking to escape the crowds? Read on for a variety of off-the-radar spots where you can still enjoy the spirit of classic Old Florida.

1. Secret Keys

Hawk’s Cay Resort at Duck Key (Photo courtesy Hawk’s Cay Resort)

Maybe you’re considering Key West, but could do without the cruise ship crowds that descend on Florida’s southernmost point. Don’t forget there are 800 islands that make up the Florida Keys.

At mile marker 82, halfway between Miami and Key West, is Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key, a sprawling tropical oasis blending luxury with the Keys’ laid-back charm. From relaxing in waterfront chaise lounges shaded by palm-leaf huts, to a pirate-themed waterpark perfect for younger kids, there are plenty of offerings for every age. Complimentary beach cruisers allow guests to explore the neighborhoods of peaceful Duck Key.

Want to head to an even more remote spot? Visit Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, accessible only by boat or seaplane. There’s a 19th-century fort, pristine beaches, and crystal-clear waters with plenty of marine life for snorkelers and divers.

2. Panhandle Paradise

Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa (Photo courtesy Hilton Sandestin)

Florida’s Panhandle is a drive-to destination for many people across the South and Midwest. Unlike most of Florida, in the Panhandle you’ll be greeted with a southern accent along with the friendly vibe folks associate with southern hospitality. Some of the Panhandle’s prettiest beaches are in the town of Destin, a 90-minute drive east of Pensacola. You’ll find Gulf Coast beaches with bright white sand so fine it actually squeaks when you walk on it.

A great lodging choice is the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa. In addition to on-site pools, a hot tub, and both casual and fine dining, the hotel is across the street from the pedestrian-friendly waterfront shopping and entertainment district known as Baytowne Wharf. There’s a weekly farmers market, live music, and fireworks. Kids will enjoy Baytowne Wharf’s various rides, including a carousel and zipline. The hotel runs a free shuttle service to Baytowne Wharf.

If shopping’s not your thing, it’s only a ten-minute beach stroll from to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, a nesting area for coastal birds. Along with some of the Panhandle’s best beaches and shopping, Destin also has an abundance of golf courses.

3. Gulf Coast Gem

Manasota Key Resort (Photo courtesy Manasota Key Resort)

Maybe you’re a beach lover and culture vulture. For a town with a population of less than 60,000, Sarasota has an incredibly vibrant arts scene, with a symphony, opera, and ballet company. Once you’ve had your fill of culture, head an hour south to the barrier island of Manasota Key. Here the spotlight is on the breathtaking beaches.

Lodging in this laid-back oasis is mainly made up of modest Florida bungalows and cottages, which many snowbirds rent on a weekly or monthly basis. The newly renovated Manasota Key Resort is the only resort on the island. Bathed in muted ocean pastels, the rooms exude coastal elegance. Though the Gulf Coast is the star, the resort provides plenty of other activities — for instance, take the complimentary kayaks or paddle boards along the quiet waters of Lemon Bay to see playful dolphins. There’s also shuffleboard, basketball and pickle ball.

If you’re hungry, pedal a complimentary beach cruiser bicycle over to one of the casual seafood restaurants just over a mile away. If you want to eat on property, there’s a budget-friendly food truck available with tables overlooking Lemon Bay. Or try your hand at grilling like a chef at the resort’s high-end barbecue and pizza oven, available for all guests to use. On Thursday mornings, head over to the Englewood Farmers Market, where you can buy everything from locally made honey to Florida’s beloved HoneyBell oranges.

Nature enthusiasts will love that Manasota Key Resort abuts Stump Pass Beach State Park, with its free entry, peaceful hiking trails, and exquisite views of the Gulf on one side and Lemon Bay on the other. While admiring the bounty of beautiful shells here, keep an eye open for the small black fossilized shark teeth this area is known for.

4. South Florida Without the Crowds

Jupiter lighthouse (Sean Pavone for Shutterstock)

If you’re looking for an alternative to the bustling South Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach, Jupiter is the northernmost town in Palm Beach County. It feels worlds away from the nightlife and noise, yet it’s still only twenty minutes from Palm Beach Airport.

This sleepy seaside hamlet has managed to preserve its original Florida beach town character. Instead of high-rises, you’ll find friendly locals, uncrowded beaches, and surfers riding the waves at the Juno Beach Pier.

If you’re up for a challenge, climb the 105 steps of the iconic red Jupiter Lighthouse for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area and Atlantic Ocean. And be sure to stop by the Loggerhead Marinelife Center to see volunteers tending to endangered sea turtles recuperating in large tanks.

There are plenty of affordable waterfront dining options as well. One local favorite is the lushly landscaped open-air Guanabanas with its distinct island vibe and nightly live music. There, you can dine on local seafood while sitting under a banyan tree or tiki hut as you watch the boats pass by.

5. Best Beach for History Buffs

King Street in St. Augustine (Photo by Stacey Sather)

The first city founded by European settlers in North America, legend has it that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed in St. Augustine in 1513 on a search for the fountain of youth. Downtown St. Augustine may be teeming with tourists exploring the colonial architecture and Spanish stone fortress dating back to the 1600s, but if you take a detour from the cobblestone streets, you’ll land on St. Augustine’s 42 miles of unhurried, bucolic beaches.

An extra-wide shoreline makes it perfect for strolling, even biking. Iconic St. Johns County Pier, which extends hundreds of feet into the ocean, is also worth a visit, providing great opportunities for fishing.

The Embassy Suites St. Augustine Beach provides direct access to those beaches, as well as 1600 acres of pristine wilderness at Anastasia State Park, a birder’s paradise. Located along the Atlantic Flyway for migrating birds, at least 195 species have been identified here, including colorful roseate spoonbills, ospreys and eagles, painted buntings and warblers. The diversity of habitats, including beach, dunes, salt marsh, coastal scrub, and the rare maritime hammock, contributes to the abundance of birds.

Next time you’re thinking of a Florida vacation, consider exploring beyond the well-trodden tourist towns, to one of Florida’s lesser-known destinations. You’ll experience the state’s natural beauty and cultural heritage and get a glimpse into Old Florida beach life at a slower pace.

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