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We recently spent two weeks visiting the sparkling sands and clear waters of north and central Florida's beaches.  Do you believe we did this only for you, our readers, not for ourselves?
Best Overall Beaches:
Siesta Key Beach (pictured above):     The pristine white sand of Siesta Key beach in Florida is made of quartz deposited millions of years ago from the Appalachian mountains so even in the hottest weather the beach is cool on the feet and great for sport or relaxing. The minerals give the sea a stunningly clear, shimmering aqua-marine colour at all times. Access and parking are free and the sheltered waters of the Gulf of Mexico make it easy for swimmers of all abilities. Get there by bus or taxi from Sarasota, four miles away.
Anna Marie Island:     Just 45 minutes south of Tampa airport lies the hidden paradise of Anna Maria Island. A spit of land emerging from nearby Bradenton, it extends like a finger out into the Tampa Bay – but feels a million miles away from the hustle of the city. This is old Florida at its best and most authentic. Rent a condo and start your day early. While hitting the pristine white beaches, you might even get to share your swim with a manatee or two.

The Best Florida Beaches in North and Central Florida

Cocoa Beach:    If there's a convenient, get-there-easily beach for Central Floridians, that has to be Alan Shepard Beach Park at Cocoa Beach. Named after the first American astronaut sent into space, this five-acre beach has long been a favorite site to view space shuttle launches from nearby Cape Caneveral. But what most people care about when they go there is to have a great beach day, in a clean, safe environment and close to all kinds of stores, eateries and beach bums-related retail shops. Facilities include a 300-space parking lot, large picnic pavilions, picnic tables, walkways, a bathouse with outdoor showers and restrooms. Alan Shepard Beach Park is located at 4400 Ocean Beach Blvd. in Cocoa Beach. Seasonal lifeguards are on duty.

A well-known landmark on the beach is Canaveral Pier. The 900-foot wooden pier was built at the north edge of the city in 1963 and features a restaurant and lounge complex. Once a hangout for astronauts, the pier now is better known as a mecca for East Coast surfers.

Our Best Gay Beaches:    

St. Petersburg’s Sunset Beach:     One of the west coast’s premiere gay beaches, bohemian Sunset Beach is on the southern tip of St. Pete’s Treasure Island, among the string of barrier islands that extends along the Gulf of Mexico to the west of St. Petersburg. Once famous for foam parties, the strip, with its beachfront bars, is now known for regular Sunday beach parties. 9000 W. Gulf Blvd., Treasure Island.

Best time to go: In October for the International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival or June for St. Pete Pride.

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New Smyrna Beach:     This is a real funky, laid-back beach. Kind of the opposite of South Beach. The north end has the best surf in the state. It also has the most sharks in the state. Go up above the beach and you'll see 100 kids surfing and about 100 shark fins swimming around too. But they're not big sharks, and they're not here to eat us; if they were they would have eaten a load of kids by now.  The town also has several fine eating establishments like Norwoods and The Garlic.

Pensacola Beach:     This Panhandle city near the Alabama border may not seem like the most gay-friendly spot, but it’s been a beach getaway for LGBT folks from the South for a long time, particularly for Gay Memorial Day Weekend, which started informally in the 1980s and has grown into a huge gathering, drawing thousands to late-night circuit parties with well-known professional DJs and informal tent parties on the beach. The friendliest beach is on County Road 399, two miles past the Gulf Islands National Seashore sign.

When to go: May for the Pensacola Gay Memorial Day Weekend.

Our Best 'Secret' Beaches:    

Jungle Hut Park (may also be known as Old Salt Rock Park):    Located in the beautiful Hammock area of Flagler County, and less than 90 miles from Gainesville this two-acre park area offers beach access, paved parking, restrooms, and outdoor shower facilities. For those who love to sun or just relax ocean-side in peace, this is the ideal place. Rocks in the surf and the possibility of strong undercurrents make this beach unsuitable for swimming and the beach never gets crowded.

Take the dune walkover to find shorebirds, gulls, and pelicans. This site is great for looking for ruby-throated hummingbirds during the summer and gannets during the winter.

Unnamed Beach:      Just south of and adjacent to MarineLand on A1A, sits a quiet beautiful beach that may be part of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. This beach boasts paved parking, restrooms facilities and a short wooden boardwalk for beach access. Tends to be less crowded with easy parking.