Pioneer tourists trekking to Florida near the turn of the century found themselves surrounded by more than 800 miles of sea oats and sand dunes. Today's visitors have to hunt a little harder to find a pristine beach. Less than half the state's beaches have been preserved in their natural state, and guidebooks usually steer tourists to urban shores.
"We've overdeveloped the coast. We're loving it to death," says Stephen P. Leatherman, a Miami coastal geologist widely known as "Dr. Beach." Each year he surveys conditions at 650 beaches nationwide -- including 120 in Florida -- and each Memorial Day he picks the 20 best.
Though most vast stretches of Florida's wilderness beaches have been crowded out by houses, hotels and condos, visitors never have to travel far to find an award-winning shore. Nine of the beaches on Leatherman's '97 list are in the Sunshine State. Three others have been temporarily retired from the annual roster after capturing the title of No. 1.
Leatherman, whose bronze skin reflects his visits to each of the beaches he rates (though he has plenty of help from assistants nationwide), pegs his rankings on 50 criteria, such as the color and softness of the sand; the color, clarity and temperature of the water; beach width; pollution; and vistas.
"There are no perfect beaches," Leatherman laments. "But there are great ones."
And unlike some state shores, Florida beaches are known for their public access. All of the nearly 820 miles of beaches along the coast are technically open to the public because private property stops at the main high-water line (an average of all high tides over an 18.6-year period).
About 340 miles of the beachfront is publicly owned, according to a recent study. The state owns nearly one-third of it. Communities receiving state funds for beach restoration are required to provide public access points every one-quarter to one-half mile, and many other cities voluntarily provide public easements to otherwise private sections of beach.
Though the state still permits coastal building, it has clamped down on dredging methods that helped critically erode a third of the beaches. Automobiles and off-road vehicles are barred from beaches, except for a stretch along Daytona Beach.
Florida beaches differ depending on their location along the nearly 2,300-mile-long coast. In the north, where creamy magnolia blossoms grow, beaches glisten with white quartz sand. But as the Atlantic shore meanders south toward Cuba, tropical coral increasingly tans the sand.
Though Florida's brilliant sun bakes the water to a spa-like 80 degrees during the summer, by winter North Florida beaches feel like spring, with air and water temperatures approaching 60 degrees. But at the subtropical tip, winter days of 80-degree air and 72-degree water are not uncommon.
Pristine beaches are less common these days, though they can still be found in diverse locales, from the northern Panhandle to the southernmost Keys.
Several of the beaches on Leatherman's surveys grace the Panhandle (despite Hurricane Opal's bruising blow three years ago): the state-run shores of Grayton and St. Andrews, which have topped his nationwide list, along with St. Joseph Peninsula, St. George Island and Perdido Key, which also have garnered honors.
Though the Panhandle is being rapidly developed, Leatherman says that most tourists "have flown over it or driven by it, but never visited it."
Dubbed "the Emerald Coast" or, just as frequently, "the Redneck Riviera," its claim to fame is its turquoise and green water curling up to sugar-white, quartz-crystal sand. As Leatherman says, "It's like the tongue of the Caribbean coming up there." The reflective quality of the sand, along with the shallowness of the water and lack of muddy rivers emptying nearby, help create the luminous hues, which aren't found on any other coastal beaches in the continental United States.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park offers a 22-mile-long glimpse of the Panhandle's natural wares. Nature lovers savor seaside sunrises and sunsets on this lush green jetty that parts the Gulf of Mexico from St. Joseph Bay, and camp along its dune-rimmed beaches, with migrating hawks soaring overhead and octopuses swimming offshore. For those less inclined to rough it overnight, nearby Apalachicola and Panama City offer accommodations to suit any taste.
About 200 miles southeast of St. Joseph, in the toasty Gulf waters where dolphins roam, Fort De Soto Park provides a respite from the motel-studded coast of St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Just a few miles south of St. Pete's famous Don Cesar resort (a mere hop across Tampa Bay), a short bridge crosses Bunces Pass, bringing beach lovers to a Florida that even pioneers could revere. A jungle of mangroves and cabbage palms carpets the park's five small keys, where canoe, bike and hiking trails await the city-weary. Camping is available, and if you're not so inclined, the Don Cesar anchors a mammoth stretch of cheaper motels and hotels.
Though the entire shore flanking the 900-acre park rates No. 9 on Leatherman's list, one of the most unusual sanctuaries there is North Beach, which really is two beaches in one. A rougher coral-mix beach hugs the mainland, fronting on a silent lagoon. A three-minute swim though its waist-high water deposits sunbathers on miles of soft white sand. Seashells and sand dollars dot the crystal waters, while curious little birds play tag with the miniature waves. Unfortunately, stingrays also call the island waters home (but Leatherman bravely says, "Just make a lot of noise and splash around" to scare them away).
About 250 miles south, the green jewels of the Florida Keys separate the shallows of Florida Bay from the coral reefs of the Atlantic. Yet only one isle along the nearly 130-mile band offers lengthy strands of sandy shore.
Despite many tourists' preconceptions, "the Keys aren't known for beaches," Leatherman says. But Bahia Honda , less than 40 miles from Key West's villas and motels, makes him smile as he recalls renting one of the park's seaside bungalows and awakening to greet morning's light along its palm-fringed shores.
He doesn't mention the endangered small-flowered lily-thorns or the rare yellow satinwoods and silver palms that color the 635-acre park. For it is the edges of the earth that most enthrall Leatherman: the sweet sensation of strolling Sandspur Beach, where starfish and parrot fish feast along its subtropical shores. He named it best in the nation in 1992.
Much farther up the east coast, where fewer grains of coral tint the sand, lies Florida's longest stretch of publicly protected beach on the Atlantic: Canaveral National Seashore. Though it hasn't made Leatherman's list, it remains a favorite of Floridians and even nudists -- much to the consternation of the local congressman, who was instrumental in having signs posted to remind visitors that public nudity is unlawful.
But the very reason nudists (who segregate themselves to the north) love this shore is the same reason that lures families and fishermen: its isolated, natural beauty.
Around 70 miles east of Walt Disney World, and less than 20 minutes north of Cocoa Beach's chain hotels, the beach is reached by a two-lane road through the 220-square-mile Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
All along the drive, near the scrubby green shrubs and salt marshes, endangered and threatened species thrive. Bald eagles incubate their eggs, wood storks nest and West Indian manatees paddle along. And on the beach, loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles emerge from the Gulf Stream-warmed waters to lay thousands of eggs.
The sea oats and sand dunes run wild for 25 miles until the beach collides with Cape Canaveral, where NASA's massive launch tower signals its finale.
Like all good things, beaches, too, must end.
Barbara J. Saffir, formerly The Washington Post's national staff political researcher, recently returned to her native Florida, where she reports for the Orlando Sentinel.
Details: Florida's Undeveloped Beaches
Each year, coastal geologist Stephen P. Leatherman -- alias "Dr. Beach" -- surveys 650 undeveloped beaches to pick the 20 best nationwide. Here are some of his favorites in Florida, along with a few other noteworthy beaches around the state. Island beaches that are accessible only by private boat, as well as some other undeveloped beaches, are not listed.
EMERALD COAST (REDNECK RIVIERA)
Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, Grayton Beach.
Beach information: 904-231-4210.
At Grayton Beach's doorstep, cottages at the architecturally enlightened village of Seaside offer visitors a taste of elegance. Panama City beaches offer more variety and less drain on the pocketbook. Camping is available at the park.
Of note: Past best-in-the-nation winner; 365 acres with nature trails.
Perdido Key State Recreation Area, Pensacola.
Beach information: 904-492-1595.
Nearly a dozen motels are just a couple of minutes west of the state park.
Of note: Northwestern 247-acre barrier island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
St. Andrews State Recreation Area, Panama City.
Beach information: 904-233-5140.
Just down the road from Grayton Beach, St. Andrews visitors can sample inns and B&Bs in close-by Apalachicola; coastal camping also is available at the park.
Of note: Past best-in-the-nation winner; 1,260 acres.
St. George Island State Park, Eastpoint.
Beach information: 850-927-2111.
St. George is just a few miles east of the same inns that serve Grayton Beach; camping is available at the park.
Of note: Ranked 12th; 1,962 acres at end of barrier island.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Port St. Joe.
Beach information: 904-227-1327.
Although the area offers scores of chain motels, Apalachicola is the best bet for quainter accommodations; camping and two-story "cabins" with fireplaces are available in the park.
Of note: Ranked 10th; 22 miles long.
Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin.
Beach information: 813-469-5918.
A slew of chain motels abound in nearby Clearwater Beach; camping is available at the park.
Of note: Ranked third in the nation in '97; reached by public ferry from Clear-water Beach or Honeymoon Island.
Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde (adjacent to St. Pete Beach).
Beach information: 813-866-2484.
The nearby Mediterranean-looking Don Cesar resort, just north of the beach, anchors a mammoth stretch of cheaper motels and hotels; camping is also available.
Of note: Ranked ninth; has an 1898 fort; North Beach offers seclusion.
Sanibel/Captiva islands, Sanibel.
Beach information and accommodations: 941-472-1080.
Prices for villas and motels can soar during winter season, but nearby Fort Myers Beach offers budget-conscious alternatives.
Of note: Leatherman dubbed Captiva as romantic; Sanibel is known worldwide for shelling.
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation Area, Naples.
Beach information: 941-597-6196.
Lodging ranges from a luxurious Ritz Carlton to an abundance of low-end chain motels.
Of note: Ranked 11th; one of two preservation zones around this developing area.
Bahia Honda State Park, Big Pine Key.
Beach information: 305-872-2353.
Motels and resorts dot the Overseas Highway, which links Big Pine Key to the more developed Marathon Key; cabins and camping are available in the park.
Of note: Past best-in-the-nation winner; harbors rare foliage.
Key Biscayne (Cape Florida State Recreation Area and Crandon Park).
Beach information: 305-361-5421 and 305-361-5811.
Winter makes Key Biscayne hotels a bit pricey, but hundreds of chain motels just across the causeway in Miami offer prices for any budget.
Of note: Cape Florida is ranked sixth; Crandon's secluded north end and broad southern sand bar are lauded by locals. Beaches have recovered from Hurricane Andrew but foliage is still healing.
Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Area, Melbourne Beach and Vero Beach.
Beach information: 407-984-4852.
Hotels and motels dot the roads that parallel the beaches -- Route A1A, U.S. 1 and I-95.
Of note: 587 acres known for surfing, fishing and sea turtle preservation beaches.
Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville.
Beach information: 407-267-1110.
Though some motels are in Titusville, more variety is available about 20 miles south in Cocoa and Cocoa Beach; primitive camping is available at the park.
Of note: In a wildlife refuge; beach closes before rocket launches; nudists favor the northern tip, although nude sunbathing is illegal.
Little Talbot Island State Park, Fort George.
Beach information: 904-251-2320.
Posh resorts can be found just north of the park at nearby Amelia Island; more reasonable hotels can be found along A1A and I-95; camping also is available at the park.
Of note: Island's mossy oak trees reflect plantation heritage; 2,500 acres.
State Parks: The Florida Park Service's 47-page booklet, "The Real Florida," is available free from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Recreation and Parks, M.S. 535, 3900 Common-wealth Blvd., Tallahassee, Fla. 32399-3000, 850-488-9872, http://www. dep.state.fl.us/parks/html.
Camping: For a state camping directory, contact the Florida Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (904-562-7151, 1340 Vickers Dr., Tallahassee, Fla. 32303) or check the Internet at http://www.floridacamping.com.
Tourism: 1-888-7FLAUSA (1-888-735-2872), http://www.flausa.com.
Florida's public-private tourism agency publishes a guide to local attractions and will add an eco-tourism brochure.
Dr. Beach's Picks: For a list of Leatherman's Top 20 beaches, with pictures of each photogenic shore, visit http:// www.petrix.com/beaches on the Net.
Beach Protectors: For links to environmental watchdogs, including state agencies, academic centers and conservation groups such as Preservation 2000 and the Florida Wildlife Federation, go to http://www.freenet .lh.fl.us/environ.html on the Internet.
-- Barbara J. Saffir
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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