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St. Augustine Beach, Amelia Island, Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach

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Panama Hattie’s is the quintessential beach bar on the Highway A1A strip. Bands and booze enjoyed on an oceanfront deck, plus baskets of fried fish. Does it get any better?
Cool down with a dish of orange creamsicle at Rita’s ice cream stand, a short walk from the St. Johns County Ocean Pier.

Laid-Back Coast

St. Augustine Beach

This stretch of Northeast Florida coast may be just a short drive from the tourism bustle of historic St. Augustine’s Old City, but the lifestyle on the barrier island is a world apart. Think beach-bum relaxed. And it’s just that appeal that has catapulted it to No. 9 on TripAdvisor’s list of Traveler’s Choice Top 25 Beaches in the United States for 2015. Among the five Florida beaches in the top 10, it’s the only one on the Atlantic coast. Scenic Highway A1A runs through St. Augustine Beach, dropping you at St. Johns County Ocean Pier, the focal point for beachside events like this summer’s Music by the Sea series. Blues, rock and jazz bands plus offerings from local restaurants turn the beach scene into a party every Wednesday.

Before you hit the compact white sands, take a sightseeing stroll on the weather-worn pier to survey the Atlantic coastline and spot surfers. If you’re lucky you might see a fisherman reel in a whiting or two, and if you get the urge to cast a line, the pier has fishing poles for rent, plus bait.

Youngsters will find a splash park and playground adjacent to the pier, and surf lessons are readily available for all ages and experience levels. But after a workout and loads of fresh air, you’ll appreciate the abundance of beach bars along the highway. There’s always a cold beer and seafood platter waiting for you at one of the oceanfront restaurants.

Beachgoers who prefer a more serene setting can head north to neighboring Anastasia State Park. Wooden boardwalks cross over billowy sand dunes studded with sea oats and provide visitors with an expansive vista of the Atlantic. A walk or jog along the shore in these surroundings is a nature lover’s dream.

Set on a small peninsula, the park is actually sandwiched between the ocean and Salt Run, a windsurfing and paddle-boarding spot with gentle waters. Here, you can rent water-sports equipment or sit on the shore and watch the brown pelicans perform. The birds, like synchronized acrobats, plunge headfirst into the water, repeating their feeding routine over and over to the delight of onlookers. The park offers guided bird walks on the beach, boardwalks and nature trails.

Visitor info

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The Castillo Real sits a block or so off the beach. A boutique hotel, it has a Mediterranean vibe, plus touches like marble and granite furnishings and pillow-top mattresses that set it apart from other beach hotels. Book a room with a Jacuzzi.

Amelia Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

Amelia Island is one of few Florida beaches where horseback riding is allowed on the sand.

Southern Shores

Amelia Island

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With three bars, including a tiki bar, Sliders is the beachside spot for jammin’ bands and a killer tiki punch. Stop in for the monthly full moon party.
New to Amelia Island is
Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen, where you can sample Deep South cooking like skillet cornbread, barbecue frog legs, fried catfish and pecan cobbler.

A stone’s throw from Georgia, Amelia Island holds true to the adage that the farther north you go in Florida, the more Southern it gets. Which means a visit to this barrier island in the northeast corner of the state promises sweet tea, Southern hospitality and fellow beachgoers who speak with a slow, silky lilt.

With 13 miles to explore, this magnificent beach sprawls out before you. Wooden walkways cross over the dunes, some as high as 40 feet. This swath separates the beach from development and adds to Amelia Island’s pristine appeal. A nicely packed shoreline becomes a wide jogging path where the sounds of the waves set the rhythm for a workout. You’ll also come upon stretches where hours pass before anyone strolls by.

On a brisk morning it belongs to the fishermen. Anglers in zipped-up windbreakers surf-fish from beach chairs, squinting against dawn’s light to watch for a tug on their line. Some days an equestrian on horseback surprises with a quick gallop on the sand.

Highway A1A runs from the south end of the island north to Atlantic Avenue and then turns west to take you into the heart of Fernandina Beach. This historic town surprises with palatial homes dating from the late 1800s that now serve as stylish bed and breakfast inns. A great place to spend the evening, Fernandina’s Centre Street is lined with brick storefronts that house boutiques while its side streets have indie cafes, craft-beer breweries and candy shops.

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For fabulous coastal views stay at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, one of few mid-rise resorts on the sands with balconies that bring the ocean to you. The Nantucket-style Elizabeth Point Lodge provides guests with vistas of the sun rising over the Atlantic from its breakfast room. In the afternoon, chilled lemonade is served on the wraparound porch. A recent facelift has made the Seaside Amelia Inn more attractive than ever. Close to the main beach, it has a private boardwalk leading to the sands. Bonus: You can start your day with a complimentary Southern homestyle breakfast.

The well-designed Beach Walk leads to Pier 60, hotels, shops and other Clearwater Beach attractions.

Shifting Sands

Clearwater Beach

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Fishermen bring their catch to Crabby Bill’s for the chef to prepare, while landlubbers indulge in the signature Philly grouper sandwich—fish smothered in cheese, hot peppers and onions.
The ubiquitous Frenchy’s has several restaurants in the Clearwater area, but for the toes-in-the-sand experience head to Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill (above), where sunsets, Rum Runners and a rousing crowd make the evening.

When it comes to injecting a slumbering beach village with a dose of adrenaline, kudos to the city planners of Clearwater Beach. The last few years have seen some major changes in this Gulf Coast town, starting with the Beach Walk, a curvy limestone walkway nestled between white sands to the west and green swaths dotted with feathery palms to the east. At access points along the way, public showers provide beachgoers with a place to rinse off. And on the road, a roundabout keeps the vehicular traffic moving.

Clearwater Beach has always been family-friendly, and the town’s heartbeat is at the iconic Pier 60. During the day folks spread their blankets north and south of the fishing pier that juts 1,080 feet into the Gulf. At night the pier and its adjacent park host the Sunsets at Pier 60 event. Fire-eaters entertain, clowns make balloon art for the kids and live bands get the crowd rocking as vendors hawk everything from jewelry to artwork.

Cross the main drag, and you’re at the Clearwater Beach Marina. Brightly painted shacks sport names like Chute ’Em Up Parasail and Mega Bite, which describes a tour boat shaped like a shark with saw-edged teeth. Vessels depart daily for fishing and diving charters along with a number of water-sports activities.

Besides all the fun things to do in this beach hub, several high-end hotels have opened their doors in the last few years. The Sandpearl Resort Clearwater Beach, a luxury property built in 2007, anchors the north end. The Opal Sands Resort is under construction on the south end of the Beach Walk with an opening date of early 2016. Curved like a cocoon, the Opal Sands envelops balconies facing the Gulf and promises to be a dramatic addition to the skyline. Between these two hotels, the pink Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa sprouted in 2010, and its future neighbor, the Wyndham Grand, is scheduled to open in 2017 as the largest structure ever built on Clearwater Beach.

No doubt the Beach Walk has marked the beginning of this seaside community’s rebirth. But its success has also triggered the city’s plans to revitalize the Marina District, including the Beach Walk’s extension to the Intracoastal Waterway side of Clearwater Beach and a facelift for Pier 60 Park, which should be completed by spring 2016.

Visitor info

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The fashionable Sandpearl Resort buzzes with high energy and a casual chic ambience. If you want to be on top of the dining-and-shopping action, this is the place to book a room. The Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa caters to the clan with suite-style guestrooms measuring up to 2,000 square feet and equipped with full-size refrigerators, microwaves and stovetops.

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater

Spend a day on St. Pete Beach, where soft white sands pair with breezes off the Gulf.

Gulf-Side Gathering Spots

St. Pete Beach

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Painted an eye-popping lime green, Pass-A-Grille’s Brass Monkey sits across from the beach, and its second-story balcony is a prime perch for toasting the sunset.
Paul Nicklaus and his sister Karen have run the Undertow Beach Bar for 25 years. A dive bar of sorts, it just happens to sit where St. Pete Beach’s finest white sand is deposited. Order a Rum Runner from an Adirondack chair and sink your toes into the powdery stuff.
New on the dining scene is the Castile restaurant, serving Latin contemporary cuisine in a see-and-be-seen atmosphere. With its SoBe vibe, it’s the place to show off your sun-kissed glow over a cocktail or dinner.

St. Pete Beach is one of several barrier island communities along the Gulf in the Tampa Bay area. Most interesting is the juxtaposition of million-dollar Mediterranean-style mansions next to wood-shingled bungalows with tin roofs and tiki artwork. Then there are the dive bars tucked between longstanding beach hotels. Amazingly, they all seem to co-exist on this jam-packed stretch.

At the southernmost tip of the island, you’ll find Pass-A-Grille, a lovable beach town barely a block wide from the Gulf to the Intracoastal Waterway. This walkable enclave blends the past and present.

You can navigate on foot or rent a cruiser at the Merry Pier, a small dock for fishing or boarding a sunset cruise. There’s even a fresh seafood market here, and benches line the Intracoastal for those who want to while away the hours.

Meander 8th Avenue as you cross over to the Gulf side. Here fashion boutiques like Paradiso display Tommy Bahama’s latest in the windows and local artists hang their paintings in a tiny gallery, aptly named A Little Room for Art.

When you reach the Gulf, follow the walkways over the dunes to the beach. Located on the edge of the sands is Paradise Grille, a gathering spot for sunset gazers, who vigorously ring a bell as the glowing orb slips behind the horizon.

Visitor info

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The first hotel to debut on St. Pete Beach in some 20 years, Hotel Zamora offers a fresh sense of glamour. Inside, the boutique property has a Mediterranean décor, while the rooftop lounge is ideal for sipping martinis and taking in the Gulf view.

Categories: Local Getaways