Cayo Costa State Park

Florida's Best
Gulf Coast Beaches

by Mary & Bill Burnham

THE SUN SETTING ON THE GULF of Mexico turns the water a soft, luminescent blue green, and the sand a glowing pink. Flocks of gulls and royal terns stand facing the sun, like the people who have come to soak in the last rays. Terns and sanderlings dart in and out of the gentle surf, their tiny black legs going so fast as to be invisible. Like them, children run in and out, playing, laughing, and racing the surf.

Whether sitting on a lively resort beach or having a remote island all to yourself, be sure to enjoy at least one sunset on the Gulf of Mexico.

In researching the Complete Florida Beach Guide, we visited every one of Florida’s nearly 400 beaches, from the Panhandle to the remote Dry Tortugas. We found the beaches of the Gulf Coast among Florida’s best, and here we’ve highlighted some of our favorites.

Wherever you choose to spread your beach blanket, remember to wear sunscreen, bring plenty of water, and most importantly, “leave no trace.”

Best Beach for Nature Lovers
Cayo Costa State Park

We spent two nights camping on this wild island beach. Accessible only by boat, most people come by ferry from Pine Island, but we paddled our kayaks here from the closer Gasparilla Island.

There is much to explore on the 4,500-acre island, and it can be done by foot, bike or kayak (the later two are for rent at the state park headquarters on the bayside of the island). One day we paddled up into Lover’s Tunnel mangrove creek; the next we took a nature hike through a lush under story of cabbage palms, sea grapes and coco plum, looking for birds and the tracks of wild boar.

The entire gulf side of the island is a long beach, nearly eight miles, and you’ll likely have a long stretch of it all to yourself. The sand is coarse as it’s made up of crushed shells. The hunting is very good for sand dollars, fighting conches, tiger’s paws, and more. The fishing is excellent, too, especially for sheepshead.

Come evening, we watched the setting sun turn the sand pink, then star-gazed on a sky completely free of light pollution.

On the last day, we reluctantly carried our gear from the campground down to our boats. The rhythm of island living had become intoxicating. We found our pace slowing, our minds lulled into a sense of peace by the azure Gulf waters.

Wild file: Watch out for the resident alligator in the gulfside lagoon, unusually close to salt water for this freshwater species.

Details: The campsites and primitive cabins are on the gulf side of the island, while the landing dock is on the bay side. If you don’t want to walk the 3/4 mile trail, the golf-cart tram will haul you and your gear. There are restrooms at both locations.

Getting there: The 20-minute ferry departs at 9:30am & 2pm from the Pineland Marina on Waterfront Drive in Pineland. Reservations required.

Beach Length: 7.5 miles.

Pets: Allowed on leash on nature trails, but not on the beaches.

Best Beach for Partying
Fort Myers Beach

Open-air bars where you can sit on a stool in your bare sandy feet, listen to live music, and dance the night away. This is Spring Break heaven—or hell, if you’re just trying to drive through!

To avoid the beach traffic, park in the free lot at the foot of Matanzas Pass Bridge. For a quarter, you can hop on the trolley that runs frequently up and down the beach.

There are abundant public beach accesses along the five-mile-long island, all with limited metered parking on Estero Blvd., but no facilities. Things really get hopping around Motel Row (especially at the Lani Kai) and around the Times Square shops.

Lynn Hall Memorial Park is a county park in the heart of Times Square action, with shopping and restaurants just steps from the sand. There’s a 24-hour fishing pier, cooking grills, restrooms, and more than 100 parking spaces.

Bowditch Point Regional Park is a county preserve located on the quieter northern tip of the island. A walk through the preserve for panoramic views of Estero Bay is a nice break from the revelry and wet T-shirt contests.

Getting there: Drive onto the island from north via Matanzas Pass Bridge, or from the south from Bonita Springs.

Pets: Allowed on a leash, except within the two county parks mentioned above, where they are prohibited.

Best Beach for Families

A Sunday morning brings people in church duds, couples arm-in-arm, families, and beachgoers in bikinis to stroll the fishing pier and enjoy the beach. The long fishing pier has concessions and picnic tables. In addition to the Municipal Beach and Pier, this beautiful beach town of shady avenues has accesses at the ends of most streets along S. Gulfshore Blvd.

Lowdermilk Park on N. Gulfshore Blvd. is a fun spot to play volleyball or on the playground, then get some hot dogs and ice cream. When sailing regattas take place, the horizon is filled with dozens of white sails.

Details: The city has a blanket fishing license for the 24-hour pier. There’s handicapped-only parking close to the pier, and a metered lot across the street.

Getting there: From Interstate 75, take Davis Blvd. to Gulfshore Blvd., which parallels the beach.

Pets: Not allowed.

Best Beach for Cycling
Sanibel Island

Sanibel Island is a 12-mile-long beach paradise, with lots of visitors and the accompanying traffic. So once you get across the bridge causeway, a bicycle is a great way to beach-hop. You’ll see the bike rental places as soon as you get on the island, with rates starting at $10 for a half day. Bike paths run parallel to nearly every road. These are separate paved pathways, with stop signs and markings, and cars do stop for you. There are bike racks everywhere.

There are several beach parks with facilities. Lighthouse Beach Park has a historic, functioning lighthouse and fishing pier. Houses fade to nature preserve on the way to Gulfside City Park/Algier’s Beach, a quiet park at the end of a dirt road. Nearby Gulfside Park Preserve has a paved bike/walking loop where you’ll see lots of birds and perhaps an alligator in a roadside ditch.

Bowman’s Beach is on the much less developed northern end of the island. There is a 1/4-mile walk over a bridge from the parking lot to the wide beach, but the serenity and great shelling are worth it. Some say it’s the best beach on the island.

You can even cycle over the short bridge to Captiva Island, where Turner Beach at Blind Pass is a nice place to watch the sunset, and then get a drink or a bit eto eat at a nearby restaurant.

Getting there: From south of Fort Myers, take the Sanibel Causeway (Route 867) west to Sanibel Island.

Pets: Allowed on leash.

Best Beach for Dogs
Bonita Beach Dog Park

This scene reminds us of the big fun dog party in the Dr. Seuss book Go, Dog, Go. You’ll see dogs of every shape, size, color, and temperament, from pampered poodles to tough-guy rottweilers. It’s an off-leash park past the signs, but everyone must be on his or her best behavior. At high tide, you and Fido may have to wade to the beach as it becomes more of a sandbar.

Details: There are no facilities. Please clean up after your pet, and have proof of license and immunization.

Getting there: 1 mile south of Lover’s Key State Park on Estero Boulevard.

Pets: Must be on leash until the off-leash sign at the beach. •

Excerpted from the Complete Florida Beach Guide, a new University Press of Florida book by Mary & Bill Burnham. The book details every one of Florida’s 400 beaches. www.BurnhamInk.com.

from the May-June 2008 issue

Bonita Beach Dog Beach