Barefoot Beach in Bonita Springs
Barefoot Beach in Bonita Springs

Every Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Beach (Florida International University professor Stephen Leatherman) makes a splash with his list of the 10 best beaches in the United States.

This year, Duke Kahanamoku Beach, Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii  is #1.

Four Florida beaches made the 2014 list and three of them have appeared on the list repeatedly:

  • No. 2 was Barefoot Beach in Bonita Beach, which moved up from #6 last year. (Maybe next year Barefoot moves to the top spot?)
  • No. 3 is St. George Island State Park in the Panhandle (It was No. 3 last year too.)
  • No. 7 is Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. (It was No. 7 last year.)
  • A new entry to the list this year: Delnor-Wiggins State Park in Naples in No. 10. It’s across the pass from Barefoot Beach. Here’s what Leatherman writes about it: ” The sand is whitish tan in color and contains whole shells, making it a collector’s area. The sand dunes are anchored by sea oats, cabbage palms, and sea grapes, which are edible when ripe and turn reddish-purple. The waves gently lap onto the shore at Delnor-Wiggins, where the beach tilts gradually offshore. Lifeguards are on duty, and this is a great place to swim except near the inlet with its swift currents. Wiggins Pass is a delight of fishermen.”

But to keep his list changing each year, Dr. Beach “retires” a beach after it has been named number one. And he’s been naming best beaches for more than 20 years.

So the real best beaches, one could argue, are the ones that topped the list a long time ago and have been retired.

Dr. Beach argues that beaches change with erosion, storms and development, thus the need for a new list every year. Maybe so, but his past No. 1 beaches are all still pretty terrific.

Here are is an “all-time favorites” list compiled from Dr. Beach’s past No. 1 beaches, starting with the first Florida beach to win the top spot.

  1. Bahia Honda State Park, 36850 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys. Because it was named No. 1 in 1992, it hasn’t made the list since then. Dr. Beach says:

Bahia Honda Key is blessed with two wonderful beaches: Sandspur Beach on the oceanside (1992 National Winner) and Caloosa Beach near the Seven Mile Bridge. This is really a piece of the Caribbean as evidenced by the crystal clear, turquoise water and white coral beach lined with coconut palms. The ocean water stays warm year-round, making it a beach for all seasons. The beach at Sandspur drops off gently, and the lack of waves make it ideal for bathing by young children and for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking for everybody else. My only complaint about this great beach is that seaweed occasionally piles up on the beach.

  1. Grayton Beach State Park, 357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, in Florida’s Panhandle. This was the 1994 No. 1 beach. Because of that ranking, I made sure to visit this beach on a trip to the Panhandle, and agreed it was one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever experienced. Dr. Beach says:

Grayton Beach State Recreational Area is located smack in the center of the Florida panhandle, and all descriptors of this area are given in superlatives. The sugar-white sand is pure as the driven snow, the emerald green water is perfectly clean and clear and beach development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape. At the same time, all the amenities of great restaurants and pleasing accommodations are close by in the old town of Grayton Beach or Seaside. Beautiful tidal lakes and freshwater ponds punctuate the natural landscape and yield ample fish to the dedicated angler. If all of this isn’t enough, thousands of orange-colored monarch butterflies pass through the area in the fall during their southward migration to Mexico.

3. St. Andrews State Park, 4607 State Park Lane, Panama City, in Florida’s Panhandle. This was the 1995 No. 1 beach. Dr. Beach says:

St. Andrews State Recreational Area is a beach area that can only be described in superlatives – clear emerald to turquoise waters, pearly white sand, and a beautifully sculpted landscape close to the amenities of Panama City, Florida.  Fishing from the inlet jetty is super as the tidal currents carry mackerel, flounder, redfish, and other game fish past your lure. Across the inlet is Shell Island with seven miles of undisturbed beach, also part of St. Andrews State Recreational Area. A real treat is to take a day trip on the pedestrian ferry to this completely desolate island.

  1. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, 8899 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe. This was the No. 1 beach in 2002. Dr. Beach says:

The snow-white sand from the beach has been blown by onshore winds into the anchoring sea oats to produce some of the largest sand dunes in Florida. Wooden walkovers take you across these magnificent dunes, which are 30 to 40 feet high. The aquamarine water is crystal clear and the surf is normally low, making for excellent swimming. Perhaps the best news of all is the peace and quiet that can be enjoyed on this secluded, 2,500-acre beach park. While many people bring their campers, I like the cottages that are available for very reasonable prices (there is a limited number within the park boundaries). You can scoop your own scallops on the bayside during the season (July through August).

  1. Fort DeSoto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde, near Tampa Bay. This was the No. 1 beach in 2005.

Dr. Beach says:

Just north of the entrance to Tampa Bay is Fort Desoto Park. This beach is set in a natural wilderness, but still close to all the amenities of nearby St. Petersburg Beach. Residents of the metropolis of Tampa and St. Petersburg often go here to escape the hustle and bustle of urban living. This Pinellas County park is spread over five islands and encompasses about 900 acres. There is a range of beaches from which to choose, but avoid inlets and channels because of the danger of strong currents and deep holes. The park is known for its birding, but it is also a great area for camping, biking, and fishing. It is fun to explore the park relics, including gun emplacements and ammunition rooms, of old Fort Desoto on Mullet Key; this fortification was declared obsolete before any shots were fired in combat. This area also affords you an awesome view of the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay.

  1. Caladesi Island State Park, #1 Causeway Boulevard, Dunedin, just north of Clearwater Beach — the No. 1 beach in 2008.

Dr. Beach says:

The waters are nearly placid, being protected by Honeymoon Island to the north. The white sand is soft and cushy at the water’s edge, inviting one to take a dip in the sparkling clear water. Wooden boardwalks take you across the sand dunes and past the palm trees so that you can explore some of the inland trails or get a bite to eat at the snack bar on this offshore island which is only reachable by boat. Caladesi is a real getaway beach; it is the closest beach as the crow flies from Tampa, but few residents here have ever heard of it. This means that the beach is never crowded like the city beaches of Clearwater or St. Pete.

The pedestrian ferry ride to Caladesi is also great fun; no cars are allowed on the island. The shorter boat ride leaves from Honeymoon Island, but I prefer the longer trip via Clearwater because of the good chance of spotting dolphins which frequent these waters.

7.  Siesta Key in Sarasota. The 2011 best beach only makes No. 7 in our “all time” best list because if it were the best, why didn’t it win years ago? Here’s what Dr. Beach says about it:

Siesta Beach in Sarasota boasts that it has the finest and whitest sand in the world, and I cannot argue with this claim; the powdery sand is nearly pure quartz crystal.  The beautiful blue-colored water is clean and clear, making it so inviting to bathers and swimmers.  The beach is hundreds of yards wide, attracting volleyball players and beachcombers as well as those who just want to find their place in the sun.

Cape Florida State Park Key Biscayne
Cape Florida State Park Key Biscayne
  1. Cape Florida State Park, 1200 S. Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne

After you’ve listed all the No. 1 beaches, I figure it’s time to list the “also rans” that make the list year after year. Cape Florida has been a bridesmaid 10 times, but never got to wear the white dress.

Dr. Beach says:

Cape Florida State Park, located at the south tip of Key Biscayne, provides clear, emerald-colored waters and gentle surf.  This fine, white coral sand beach is great for swimming, as waves are knocked down by a large sand shoal offshore.  In addition, the Cape Florida Lighthouse allows for a breath-taking view of this beautiful beach.

  1. St. George Island Island State Park, 1900 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island

St. George is another regular also-ran.

Dr. Beach says:

The Florida panhandle beaches are back as oil from the BP spill has vanished, and the sand is squeaky clean (just rub your feet on the sand and hear them squeak). The brilliant white sands and clear waters of St. George Island were fortunately not even impacted last summer.

10. Barefoot Beach in Bonita BeachBarefoot Beach Road off Bonita Beach Road.

This beach has made the several times, this year in the No. 2 position.  Dr. Beach says about it:

 “The surf is gentle with waves generally being measured in inches, and the water is very shallow, making this a great beach for bathing and swimming for families. The sand is fine and contains many small shells.”


Bahia Honda State Park: One of Florida's top 10 beaches
Bahia Honda State Park: One of Florida’s top 10 beaches. Photo by axel_magard on Flickr

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