In my book, Florida’s West coast beats out the East every single time. While I grew up visiting East coast beaches like Emerald Isle, NC and Tybee Island, GA (and do have a soft spot in my heart for those locations) there was just no competition once I saw the calm, clear, gulf waters of Anna Maria Island, FL for the first time.
The beach is, and likely always will be, my happy place. It’s where I go when I need a day to unwind or gorge on fresh seafood (read: fish tacos) or want to go to a place in which I feel less guilty eating ice cream for lunch. The relaxed mood and sun tan are just nice side effects. Below are some of my favorite gulf coast beaches, suitable for your next weekend trip:
Your beach if: You crave the perks of a gulf coast beach (white sand, calm and clear water) paired with your major beach destination pleasures: dive bar style restaurants, touristy boardwalks, and an overall lively feel.
The first time I visited, I took a day trip with my mom to visit one of her friends. We accidentally drank an entire pack of Lime-a-Ritas and sobered up with sandwiches from across the street. A few months later, we decided to return for a mother-daughter getaway and wondered: would the sandwiches still taste good sober? Spoiler alert: YES.
We stayed at the Barefoot Beach Hotel, a surprisingly cute find when compared to all of the nearby condo rentals and major hotel chains, and were able to walk everywhere. The main draw at this end is St. John’s Pass – a large boardwalk with shops and restaurants.
For dining, check out Mad Beach Brewing in St. John’s Pass. They have a huge variety of craft beers on tap and it was one of the first breweries I visited where I liked everything I tried. In addition to craft beers and great atmosphere, they’ve also got a full food menu to satisfy your beer-buzz cravings. And for those of you curious about those sandwiches? Try the blackened grouper sandwich with screwie louie sauce at Screwie Louie’s. You won’t regret it.
Your beach if: You’re looking for the perfect spot for a weekend trip with your mom or closest girlfriends. Or you have a fondness for golf carts as a method of transportation.
Siesta Key is consistently listed as one of the best beaches in Florida and for good reason. The beaches are beautiful, there are plenty of high quality restaurants, and the lively village transforms into a bustling spot for dining and nightlife once the sun goes down. To add to the fun, golf cart taxis are available to transport you all around the island free of charge (although do make sure you tip your driver).
Located south of the Village, The Capri at Siesta was a perfect hotel choice for me and my mom. It’s a small boutique hotel located about a 3 minute walk from a private section of the beach shared with several other hotels, cutting down significantly on crowds. Kayaks and paddle boards are available for free on the beach, something my mom and I took advantage of only to discover that ocean kayaking against the current is more workout than leisure. There’s a small shopping plaza within walking distance where you’ll find Toasted Mango Cafe, a great spot for breakfast.
The Village is your best bet for dining options. We ate at The Hub Baja Grill, which looks like your typical beach bar until you receive your food which is delicious, but also presented much more beautifully than you may be expecting. After dinner (or maybe before?) Big Olaf Creamery is the spot to go for satisfying, Amish-made ice cream.
Your beach if: You don’t mind paying for admission and close proximity to quality food and craft beer is a requirement for any beach destination you visit.
After visiting Dunedin several times, I finally made the drive to nearby Honeymoon Island to inject my day trip with a little beach time. Honeymoon Island is actually a state park, so the fact you have to pay up to get into this beach deters at least some of the crowd. There’s also a ferry that goes to Caladesi Island which I imagine would be even less crowded. Still, by mid-morning on a weekday the beach gets a bit busy, mostly due to its narrow size.
What gives Honeymoon Island its charm is primarily its location. Being in a state park means that much of the natural landscape has been preserved, lending a slightly wild and unkempt look to it all. The water is clear and the sand white, but walk far enough down the beach and you may just feel you’re on a deserted island.
For dining, pack a picnic lunch or snacks and then head to Dunedin for the afternoon once you’ve gotten your beach fix. Dunedin Brewery is Florida’s oldest craft brewery and they happen to have wonderful craft beer AND food (looking at you, tater tot poutine).
Anna Maria Island/Longboat Key
Your beach if: Your idea of the perfect date includes you, a beach chair, and a really good book. Also, if fish tacos and ice cream are of upmost importance to you.
Anna Maria Island has it all in my opinion. Clear turquoise water, small beach town charm, good spots for food and ice cream, and a few piers overlooking the bay. I’ve written a food guide, explored the North end of the island, and honestly have a hard time shutting up about this mini paradise.
If you like a beach that’s bypassed touristy boardwalks and airbrush t-shirt shops and instead holds firm in its quaint charm, then you’ll likely fall in love with AMI. Holiday weekends and winter months can get a bit crazy, but most weekdays and weekends are quiet compared to more popular beaches nearby, and there’s no shortage of free public parking.
For dining, check out The Waterfront Restaurant, Tide Tables, Joe’s Eats and Sweets, The Donut Experiment, Kokonut Hut, and Bridge St. Bistro. Or give anything in my foodie guide to AMI a try.