What makes the perfect beach? To me, it's soft white sand that makes the water appear aqua in color, yet so clear I can get neck-deep and see my feet on the endless soft blanket. The waves keep things interesting, but the turbulence is not unsafe. Bonus points go to any beach where I can swim around with my snorkel and interact with the sea life.
After a long road trip between West Palm Beach and Key West, we've uncovered our favorite beaches of the east coast of deep South Florida, as well as my personal favorite beach of the entire Continental USA! Here is the rundown of all 8.
#8 Annie's Beach, Islamorada, Florida
Located as a stop-off point on the south-side of US Highway 1 through the Florida Keys, this free public beach is a pleasant point to rest during what can be a long and stressful drive through the two-lane road the length of the keys to Key West.
Annie's beach is very narrow, with limited space to lay out, but the beach also has vegetation areas teeming with birds and wildlife. The clear water displays an ocean floor of sand and seaweed, but we didn't see much wildlife while snorkeling. Also, the water was so shallow that we couldn't feasibly get neck deep without a hike. Unfortunately, I didn't snag a photo of the actual beach because I was having fun snorkeling, and my only camera was my new non-water-and-sand-proof smartphone.
#7 Sombrero Beach, Marathon, Florida
Sombrero is the beach that everyone in Marathon goes to because it's pretty much the only beach around for that stretch of the Florida Keys. That said, it's a very nice beach. There weren't many waves that day, but there were enough to keep the water moving.
The soft white sand had some shaded areas, and the parking lot was very nearby. Sombrero was walk-able, but not really much of a hike. That said, with full beach and barbecue gear, this would be a great place to spend a day.
#6 Smathers Beach, Key West
Smathers is consistently ranked as top beach of Key West. Being in Key West has its benefits, and the white sand beach stretching a distance along the coast looked very impressive. There were even a few spots for shade among the palm trees.
As I entered the water, I kept walking out was still only thigh-deep. Also, there were little-to-no waves to keep things interesting. Nevertheless, this man-made beach imported nice sand from the Bahamas, and snorkeling was pretty good, with fish, seaweed, and inhabited conch shells hanging out along the sea floor!
#5 West Palm Beach
West Palm Beach is what East Coasters dream of: clear water, great restaurants, nice wide beach with fun boardwalk, and decent waves.
While the water is pretty much ideal to Northerners, is less than perfect when compared with the beaches further south. It might be due to the proximity of the intercoastal waterway, the sand deposit patterns, or it could just be my imagination.
That said, I could see my feet as I stood neck-deep in the ocean that day. What else can I ask for?
#4 Hollywood Beach & Fort Lauderdale
Hollywood Beach and Fort Lauderdale offer some of the most beautiful beach experiences on the east coast, with a wide beach, nice looking golden sand, clear water, and a wide boardwalk for people watching.
The water was great, but perhaps not as good as Miami, but the prices were also more reasonable than Miami. As with West Palm Beach, the cuisine and types of cultures in Ft Lauderdale seemed less diverse and accommodating than Miami. That said, both West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale were also less crowded and less expensive than Miami.
#3 Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West
My favorite beach on Key West was a State Park with a small fee to enter, totally worth it! Trees at the back provided shade for this family-friendly spot. The water was crystal clear, but the sand was very coarse -- more like pebbles and rocks that were hard on the feet -- so it wasn't the best sand.
The water got deep relatively quickly, so I couldn't go out too far before I was over my head. Snorkeling was great, especially out towards the boulders put in place to impede erosion. Those areas were perfect little ecosystems of fish and coral. Snorkeling, I saw barracudas and many tropical fish, some of which I would have gladly eaten. Being in Key West, this also made the park cool. Definitely bring a snorkel to make the most of it; they are $35 at "Divers Direct."
#2 Bahia Honda State Park
Our favorite beach in the Florida Keys was Bahia Honda. Another state park with a fee, but again worth it. We were able to find shade at the far end, near the bridge. This place was the most awesome place to snorkel, with barracudas, tropical fish, and shellfish. It also had some nice sand for wading neck-deep without a snorkel as well.
It seemed like the area was 50/50 sand and seaweed so we could either stay on the sand or snorkel through the seaweed forest. The beach itself was mostly uncovered, so an umbrella would be ideal. There was current that wanted to pull us out towards US 1 in the distance, but it felt safe. The park was about 50 minutes away from Key West.
#1 Miami Beach / South Beach
Miami beach offers clear water with brightest sand of the East Coast, leading to beautiful aquamarine and turquoise waters along its shores. The Atlantic Ocean keeps things interesting with waves; it wouldn't be as cool a beach without them. Not to mention, Miami Beach boasts the warmest water of the USA, but it's still not bathwater -- it's still a refreshing way to beat the heat.
While it was possible to walk pretty far out there before I got neck-deep in the water, I didn't have to walk a mile to get there.
Snorkeling revealed a sand desert. There was no seaweed to be seen growing anywhere. I suppose there might be an occasional shark or fish hanging out.
Miami Beach is not only a night-life capital, it is loaded with many great restaurant options, from authentic Cuban cuisine to fine dining.
The downside to Miami Beach was as one of the most expensive places in the country. $25 lunches, $50 dinners, $40/night valet parking, and $40+ "resort fees" tacked on to the hotels. There might also be people partying non-stop in all directions. We actually had to have our room moved because of partying neighbors, but I still liked Miami the best from this list!