Florida's best beaches: East Coast-Gulf Coast smackdown

It’s the time of the year when visions of sugar soft sands top travelers’ wish lists. Florida, with its 825 miles of beaches, lures sunbathers, surfers, action lovers and solitude seekers to its shores.

To find the best Florida strands, USA TODAY hosted an east coast-west coast smackdown. “Dr. Beach,” aka Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami, helped select the destinations for each of five categories. Each week, readers voted for one pair of contenders. Here are the champs they chose:

Best family beach

With 95% of the vote, Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County delivered a near knockout to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne. Situated on five interconnected islands, Fort De Soto features 1,136 acres that include nearly 3 miles of sandy beaches.

“North Beach is the best beach for families,” Leatherman says. “It’s on the gulf and has good swimming. The water is clear and calm. Families can also kayak through the mangroves, fish and boat.”

Kids also like climbing the fort, built in 1898-1900 for the Spanish-American War. Tall pines shade the shore and covered picnic areas come with grills. Four-pawed family members can romp in the dog park.

Located in Tierra Verde at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Fort De Soto Park is south of St. Petersburg.

Best tranquil beach

Although the east coast’s Anastasia State Park, with 1,600 acres, a campground and more than 4 miles of beach, received 42% of the votes, the gulf’s 230-acre Don Pedro Island State Park won with 58%. Don Pedro, part of a chain of barrier islands, can be reached only by the year-round ferry, Pirates Water Taxi, or by private boat. That reduces the number of visitors, which makes sunning and walking more solitary and serene than on easily reached shores.

“Don Pedro is one of the best places in Florida to find shark’s teeth,” Leatherman says. “These black petrified teeth belonged to sharks millions of years ago.”

The island also offers wildlife-watching. “You can spot southern bald eagles, royal terns, American oyster catchers and other birds,” says Martha Robinson, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State Parks. “Between November to April you can see endangered manatees from the shore. In summer, loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the beach.”

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