Tampa Bay Beaches: Best of the Best

Beaches are to Florida what Napa Valley is to California, or the Grand Canyon is to Arizona. These might seem like heady comparisons, but for many of the 80 million people who visit Florida each year, these dollops of paradise are considered to be among the finest in the country, if not the world.

These award-winning beaches can be found along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico crowning Tampa Bay: Caladesi State Park, Fort De Soto State Park and Clearwater Beach. Over the years, each has been praised as among the nation’s top beaches by various travel-rating organizations. Accolades, however, don’t come close to the real thing; you have to kick off your sandals and feel the sand and surf on your toes.

You and everybody else. These sun-drenched stretches of white sand and blue-green water can be crowded, especially during Florida’s less-humid winter months. The good news is that the Gulf Coast beaches are usually less log-jammed than those on the East Coast, especially Daytona, Cocoa, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

The state’s beaches also differ in the physical makeup of the sand itself. Fort De Soto, Caladesi and Clearwater Beach consist of fine white sand with a soft, light texture similar to that of Florida’s panhandle. By contrast, East-coast beaches are made up of darker, denser, compacted sand. This distinction is integral to the local ecosystem. Sea turtles, for instance, lay their eggs and bury them in the sand, and the incubation period of the baby turtles depends on the absorbed heat of the sand itself. White sand reflects heat, while darker sand absorbs it. For this reason, Florida laws prevent beach communities from replenishing eroded shores with sand that might alter the turtles’ incubation period.

Beaches are home to abundant wildlife, and in few places is this more evident than 1,110-acre Fort De Soto State Park. This is not a beach in the traditional sense so much as a chain of five interconnected islands and an exceptional example of Florida’s diversity of fauna and wildlife. Visitors can expect to see loggerhead turtles lumbering up and down the coastline or any of nearly 300 species of birds along the 2,200-foot barrier-free nature trail.

Fort De Soto is rich in history. The islands once were home to the Tocobaga Indians, whose idyllic life changed after a visit in 1539 by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. The area served as a military outpost during the Spanish-American war and as a bombing range during World War II. In 1977, Fort De Soto made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and today the park “is one of Pinellas County’s most treasured recreational and educational assets,’’ according to the St. Petersburg Times (now known as Tampa Bay Times).

More than 2.7 million people visit the park each year, whether to sunbathe, swim, bird watch, scuba dive, boat, canoe, bike, camp or fish. Located in the southwest corner of Mullet Key, the park blends the postcard beauty of its sugar-white sands with lush-green, sub-tropical jungles of palm.

Farther to the north lies another protected beach, Caladesi Island State Park, which both “Dr. Beach” and beachhunter.net have ranked as the No. 1 beach in America. The park is made up of six islands that include nearly 670 upland acres and about 2,500 acres of mangrove, tidal flats and sea grass. This beach, with its three-mile beachfront, stands apart from so many other Florida beaches in its seclusion: visitors must come by boat or the Caladesi Island Ferry ($12). As a result, Caladesi rarely is as crowded as many other beaches. The pristine sand, often white as snow, blends into the surf like melting butter and is a reason the park is a favorite of amateur and professional photographers.

Caladesi was once a much larger island, connected to now-neighboring Honeymoon Island to the north. This is one of the state’s few undeveloped barrier islands, and its pearl-white shores won it the title as the best beach in North America in 2008. The most popular recreation here is sunbathing and swimming in the gentle surf, and everyone is encouraged to “do the shuffle,” to move your feet in the sand to avoid an unpleasant encounter with a stingray.

Like Fort De Soto, Caladesi is a protected wildlife preserve and home to myriad animal and plant species that can be enjoyed along three miles of maintained trail. The menagerie includes red, black and white mangroves; morning glory, sea grape and thick blankets of palmetto; sea turtles, tortoises and numerous kinds of shore birds.

Just to the south of Caladesi is the most popular of the three in terms of crowds: Clearwater Beach. With its proximity to upscale hotels, affordable motels, restaurants and shops, the beach is a favorite hangout for families and spring-breakers. Clearwater Beach is a barrier island with north and south beaches, and its large protected marina is a bustling hub for deep-water fishing on Florida’s west coast. The marina also berths private boats and has transient slippage for visiting boaters.

Clearwater Beach offers outdoor showers, restrooms, concessions, cabanas, a children’s play area, umbrella rentals and metered parking. Lifeguards are on duty year-round. Visitors who want to explore further can slip on their sandals and walk up and down Beach Walk, a project that winds along the beach and offers access to shops and restaurants.

Nothing tops a long day here better than a stroll on Pier 60, where you can enjoy a front-row seat to watch the spectacular Gulf of Mexico sunsets. The same holds true for Fort De Soto and Caladesi, where the setting sun offers its fading glory for all to see.

Fort De Soto State Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., Tierra Verde, 727.552.1862; Caladesi Island State Park, One Causeway Blvd., Dunedin, 727.469.5918; Clearwater Beach, Highway 60 at Causeway Blvd., Clearwater Beach, 727.447.7600.