Florida’s Shore Things
When it comes to seeing Florida’s coastline, these shore things are sure bets!
1. American Sandsculpting Championship Festival
Fort Myers Beach has a reputation… as “the safest beach in the world.” It’s that reputation and its laid-back image that has led to Fort Myers Beach’s increasing popularity as a great vacation destination for families. And, what do you see families doing together at the beach? Building a sandcastle! So, putting a family-friendly beach together with a family-friendly activity seems… well, made for each other. You won’t find just your average sandcastles at the annual American Sandsculpting Championship Festival though. This event attracts both master and amateur artists alike with enough talent to create spectacular works of art.
Once a year the beach is transformed by the creations that are formed simply by combining water and the sugar-fine white sand from this spectacular beach. Many of the Masters look forward to returning to Fort Myers Beach each year to participate in this great event because they believe that Fort Myers Beach sand is the best in the world for events like this. They are not the only ones to return every year. Approximately 65,000 spectators continue to come and be amazed by the always beautiful, always magical and sometimes whimsical or comical creations.
While strolling the beach to admire the sandsculpting competition, you won’t want to miss Sand Magic Village, where visitors can take advantage of beach-side shopping from festival vendors.
Estero Island, the seven-mile-long barrier island where the town of Fort Myers Beach sits, is unpretentious and charming. Low-key and laid back, yet bustling with fun and activity, it features a long public pier and easy-living bungalows. Fort Myers Beach is often thought of as the affordable alternative to nearby Sanibel and Marco Islands for beach-craving vacationers, but to some it is not an alternative at all… it is the ideal spot.
Spend a few days on Fort Myers Beach and take in the annual American Sandsculpting Championship Festival and see why Family Fun magazine named Fort Myers Beach the “Best Family-Friendly Beach in the Southeast U.S.”
Most of the competition takes place in front of the Wyndham Garden Hotel on Ft. Myers Beach.
2. Sunsets at Pier 60
Although off to a shaky start in 1995, the daily Clearwater Sunset Festival has grown steadily both in local support and popularity. Now, several hundred people each night stroll along Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach and browse stands set up by 40 to 60 craft vendors selling an array of locally made goods – watercolor paintings and photographs of beach scenes, soaps, candles, jewelry, and do-dads made of leather, beads, metal, stamps and more. Near the entrance to the pier, artists etch portraits of customers in charcoal and tattoo those that are willing.
The adjacent beach front park and its amenities – a playground, pavilions, winding walkways and concessions – add to its appeal. It is under one of those pavilions that a live band plays popular music which adds to the festive atmosphere. Nearby, a huge sand sculpture of a turtle draws a steady crowd, while the squeals of children can be heard in the background as they romp around the large playground.
Some enjoy the beach and the waves from the Gulf of Mexico, some play volleyball and fly kites, while still others quietly absorb the gentle breeze, warm sand, and the tranquil sounds of the waves. Then at sunset… in a tradition that began in Key West, the crafters whip out conch shells and blow them.
The Sunsets festival is held nightly from two hours before sunset to two hours afterwards, assuming there is no rain. The festival is free. Parking is available just south of Pier 60 for an hourly charge. Additional parking is available further south along the beach.
This celebration is for everyone – young and old – and provides the perfect end to a busy day of sightseeing, or for the locals… a hard day at the office. Once you have experienced a sunset celebration, you’ll want to come back night after night – after all who can resist a beautiful sunset and a good festival all rolled into one?
3. Daytona Beach – Boardwalk
The beachside fun has returned to the Daytona Beach Boardwalk and along with it a bit of nostalgia. Many locals have fond memories of the Midway Fun Center in its heyday. They didn’t want the rides to leave in the first place, and are glad to once again see them return.
The old menagerie of amusement rides disappeared four years ago when the Fun Center was torn down to make way for a multimillion dollar beachside redevelopment project. However, the proposed condos, timeshares and chic restaurants never got past the drawing board after the real estate market took a plunge. So, whether it was chance or fate or simply a spat of good luck, the people got what they really wanted this time. The got their seaside fun back.
While there is still some construction going on, the project is taking shape and is open for business. Earlier this month, small circles of kiddie rides joined the Ferris wheel, Slingshot, Hurricane and Tilt-O-Whirl; and, go-carts could start racing as soon as next week. A state permit is pending for a roller coaster simulator; and, if the attractions’ owners have their way, more rides and attractions will be coming.
The Boardwalk is open seven days a week. The rides, which cost between $3 and $5 per person, are open from early afternoon to midnight Sunday through Thursday, and until 1:00 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. In addition to the rides, there are an abundance of gift shops full of souvenir t-shirts, beach towels and gift items. A must stop is Zeno’s Sweet Shop, home of the world’s most famous saltwater taffy, which also has great homemade ice cream and fudge. Also, if you’re looking for something more than a snack, you can grab pizza by the slice or pie at Boardwalk Pizza, sit under an umbrella on the Boardwalk and enjoy watching the surf on the beach and the people go by.
Those seeking a substantial meal, will want to try the Cruisin’ Café, where you eat in a race car and every table in the restaurant is dedicated to a Daytona 500 race winner. It is just a a block away on the southwest corner of A1A and Main Street.
The adjacent Daytona Beach Pier reopened in June 2012 after being closed for renovations. No one denies that the 745-foot-long, 85-year-old structure needed some work, but everyone was beginning to ask, “What is taking so long?” What is clear is that this is was one extreme multi-million dollar makeover took what seemed like forever. Where is ABC’s Extreme Makeover’s team when you really need them? They’d have it done in a week! The pier’s anchor, Joe’s Crab Shack is back. The completely renovated restaurant is a favorite with locals and visitors alike.
The Daytona Beach Pier is located at 1200 Main Street and the Boardwalk amusements are located just north along the Boardwalk. Access to the Daytona Beach Pier and Boardwalk is off Hwy A1A and Main Street. Limited two-hour free parallel parking is available on Main Street and limited metered on-street parking is available on Ocean Avenue (quarters needed). Also, there is a parking lot on Ocean Avenue offering unlimited parking for $8 day.
4. Ron Jon Surf Shop – Cocoa Beach
What do you get when you combine surfing gear, the hottest clothes, and 24-hour shopping? A teenager’s dream come true – Ron Jon Surf Shop. A Cocoa Beach tradition that now also has Florida locations in Fort Myers, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Panama City Beach and Key West (and soon in Clearwater Beach).
Ron Jon’s started simply enough. It was 1959, and on the New Jersey shore a kid named Ron DiMenna was discovering the sport of surfing with fiberglass surfboards. His pastime soon became a passion and his homemade surfboards would no longer do. When his father heard that Ron wanted his own custom surfboard from California, he suggested, “Buy three, sell two at a profit, then yours will be free.” Dad was right, Ron Jon Surf Shop was born, and as they say, the rest is history.
Inside the hot flamingo pink and tropical green Ron Jon’s in Cocoa Beach, two floors are packed with everything from bathing suits to boogie boards, sand pails to surfboards, jewelry, knickknacks, and lotions. All of it available 24-hours out of every day and most of it bearing the Ron Jon logo.
The Ron Jon logo is so valued that it is not unusual to see it on teenagers and beach goers all across the state.
Ron Jon’s in Cocoa Beach is located one block from the beach on the corner of State Roads 520 and A1A.
Ron Jon Surf Shop Ft. Lauderdale is located at 2610 Sawgrass Mills Circle, Suite 1415, Sunrise, FL, and Ron Jon Surf Shop Orlandois at 5160 International Drive, Orlando. Now, also find a Ron Jon Surf Shop at 16150 Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach and at 10045 Gulf Center Drive in Fort Myers.
Ron Jon’s newest stand-alone store is located at 377 Mandalay Avenue in Clearwater Beach.
Ron Jon Surf Shop in Key West is located on Front Street in the heart of the Old Town Historic District and just steps away from Mallory Square and the cruise ship port. The two-story Conch House-style store is next to the world famous Conch Tour Train Depot.
Ron Jon surf shops are now located in airports! Ron Jon’s opened at Orlando International Airport in April, 2004 and at Tampa International Airport in February, 2005.
5. The Best of Key West
The center of Key West’s historic waterfront, where Key West originally became a bustling seaport, Mallory Square offers exciting attractions, unlimited shopping, and sunset celebrations. It is a Key West “must see”.
At the Key West Aquarium you will discover the undersea world of the Florida Keys. The island’s first attraction, it has been delighting young and old alike since 1934. Daily shark and turtle feedings and the unique Touch Tank give visitors a hands-on experience with sea life. Admission is $11.00 for adults and $5.00 for children, tax included, with discounts offered for printing online tickets.
The era of the wreckers – shipwreckers that is – will take you back in time to the Key West of 1856. Combining actors, films, laser technology and actual artifacts from the vessel Isaac Allerton, the Key West Shipwreck Historeum Museum, tells the story of how this industry provided for the livelihoods of the early pioneers of Key West. The Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily with shows every 45 minutes. Admission is $11.00 for adults and $5.00 for children ages 4-12. Children under 4 are admitted free. Prices include tax. Discounts are offered for purchasing tickets online.
Along the original shoreline you will find the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. Stroll down the brick path among 36 cast bronze busts of the men and women who have had the greatest impact on Key West. Since opening in 1997, the garden has told the story of those who made Key West an important outpost of American culture and folklore to over one million visitors each year.
Mallory Square is well known as a shopper’s paradise. There are many shops where you will enjoy browsing. Two wonderful examples are the Shell Warehouse, where you’ll find thousands of unusual items from the ocean; and, the Sponge Market, featuring tons of unique gifts, souvenirs, and local objects of art.
There are many refreshing and quick eats or take your time at Cayo Hueso y Habana which showcases the Spanish/Cuban heritage. Enjoy music while you watch Cuban cigars being hand-rolled and taste the savory Cuban food. Perhaps the most popular events in Key West is the Sunset Celebration held each evening. The pier takes on a festival atmosphere with street musicians and performers, but the show stopper is the fabulous Key West sunset.
6. Tarpon Springs
The Sponge Capital of the World
The city of Tarpon Springs — named for a great fish, the Tarpon, found frequently off shore — has much more to offer than just its sponge heritage, although that plays a huge part in how the city has evolved over the years.
Originally developed in the 1880s as a winter resort for wealthy Northerners, the arrival of the Greek sponge divers in 1905 changed the city forever. The early sponge divers created a need at the docks for eating places for the boat crews. Then as news of the industry grew, people began coming to the docks to see the sponges. Shops opened so people could buy the sponges and other souvenirs – thus the tourism industry in Tarpon Springs was born.
That industry was nearly wiped out in the 1940s when red tide destroyed the sponge beds off Florida’s coast, but was re-established in the 1980s when new beds were found.
Today, the “Sponge Capital of the World” boasts over 100 shops and a dozen or more restaurants lining the sponge dock area that covers several blocks. Visitors can shop, dine, cruise down the Anclote River to the Gulf of Mexico or go deep-sea fishing.
The Sponge Docks
On our first trip to Tarpon Springs a few years ago, our hopes of taking a scenic cruise into the Gulf of Mexico were dashed. The beginning of a tropical storm making its way to the Gulf was pounding us with wind and rain, but we decided to brave the weather anyway and seek our treasure in the quaint shopping village bordering the sponge docks at Tarpon Springs. Our most recent visit found us seeking shelter from the sun, instead of the rain. Both times, we parked in a waterfront lot – one of the many parking areas available for a $2 or $3 per day fee – and began to make our way from one end of the docks to the other. This is a trek of several blocks.
Besides the usual prevalence of sponges – sponges for bathing, washing cars, decoration, and other uses – there are a wide variety of souvenirs available. The Greek influence is prevalent in the street music and themes of many of the stores. Many of these stores have been in families for generations, so you get a real “feel” that the shop keepers love the area and truly enjoy and appreciate the visitors.
Our visit held some surprises. What surprised us the most were the number of specialty stores and boutiques that have sprung up over the years – flags, kites, collectibles, etc. If you are a collector or have a particular interest, chances are you will find a store here to please. It is worthy to note that although there are a couple stores where the stock seems terribly tacky or out-of-date, for the most part each store was well-stocked and unique. We also were surprised at the volume and variety of merchandise that was reasonably priced.
Restaurants and sweet shops are scattered throughout the area. Dining options range from authentic Greek cuisine to French and Italian or enjoy seafood featuring your favorites or the catch of the day. You might prefer to stop in a bar and grill for sandwiches and a brew or enjoy one of the sidewalk cafes, and a stroll by the sweet shops will have you drooling over the French and Greek pastries that are every bit as good as they look.
Weather permitting, there are several cruise and deep-sea fishing options available. Some prefer a narrated eco-tour of the Anclote River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the bayous that offer insights into local history, the sponge and shrimping industries and wildlife sightings; while other may enjoy a day of wrangling a big fish on a deep sea expedition. Most rates are reasonable, and while reservations are not required, some cruises fill up quickly.
More Things to Do
Just a short distance from the docks, Tarpon Avenue is part of the National Main Street program and features antique shops and artists’ galleries. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is open daily to visitors and worshippers. It is an exact replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Constaninople. During the annual Ephiphany Celebration held every January, young men dive into the frigid waters of Spring Bayou (located a few blocks from the Cathedral) to retrieve a white cross tossed into the water by the Archbishop. Thousands are usually on hand to witness the event and the young man who successfully retrieves the cross receives a special blessing.
The Shrine of St. Michael is a small chapel built by a Greek family in thanks for the miraculous cure of their young son. It is also open daily. Walking and trolley/bus tours of the city are available and include the Cultural Center on South Pinellas Avenue.
Monthly themed festivals take place at the Tarpon Springs Castle Winery. The winery is constructed to resemble an 1820 Federal Style building with bubbling fountains and a lush courtyard. Guests are invited to taste the handcrafted wines.
Those that seek adventure might enjoy walking, hiking, biking or rollerblading along the Pinellas Trail. The 38 miles of continuous paved trail stretches from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.
Named for a former Tarpon Springs mayor, nearby Fred Howard Park is located on the Gulf of Mexico and offers picnic shelters, playgrounds, trails, canoeing and kayaking, fishing and a white sand beach. The park and the beach is one of the nicest in the state.
No matter what you plan to do in Tarpon Springs, this is one destination that is definitely worth spending a day… or two!
If you decide to go, lodging is plentiful just a couple of miles away along Highway 19 between Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor and Clearwater to the south. Camping is available at the waterfront Bayshore Cove RV Park, 403 Riverside Drive, Tarpon Springs. This makes a perfect day trip if you’re staying along Florida’s Beaches — Clearwater, Sand Key, Indian Rocks, Madeira Beach, Treasure Island or St. Pete Beach.
Tarpon Springs is located approximately 15 miles north of Clearwater off U.S. Hwy. 19. To visit the sponge docks, head west on Tarpon Avenue to Alternate 19, make a right turn to Dodecanese Boulevard.
7. St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum
Explore the Victorian era house, climb 219 steps to the top of the 165-foot tower, and examine the artifacts in the maritime museum at the site of Florida’s first lighthouse. The view at the top is magnificent and the audio self-guided tour very interesting!
Address & Phone:
81 Lighthouse Avenue
St. Augustine, FL 32080
Spectacular view is worth the climb!:
The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is perhaps the best “attraction” in the ancient city and the view from the top will be the highlight of your visit. Climbing the 219 steps of the St. Augustine Lighthouse takes a good deal of effort, but several landings offer a welcome respite along the way; and, once the top is reached, the view is spectacular and definitely worth the effort!
The self-guided tour of the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum is made more interesting by the audio recordings provided by a self-regulated hand-held electronic recorder. Visitors may pick up one as they exit the welcome center. It allows visitors to tour the grounds, lighthouse and museum at their own pace.
After the old lighthouse tower crashed into the sea due to sand erosion, construction on the new lighthouse tower was started in 1871 and completed in 1874. In 1980 a massive restoration project began and in 1981, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the St. Augustine Lighthouse Station consists of the 165-foot 1874 tower, the 1876 Keepers’ House, two summer kitchens added in 1886, a 1941 U.S. Coast Guard barracks and a 1936 garage that was home to a jeep repair facility during World War II.
The museum is housed in the old Coast Guard barracks and pays tribute to the Coast Guard men and women who manned the lighthouse to watch for enemy ships and submarines during World War II. Also housed in the museum are old light prisms and a growing number of World War II memorabilia.
The museum also researches boat building and the history of the local shrimping industry and displays artifacts at the outdoor Boat Works exhibit area. Check the Lighthouse calendar for boat building demonstrations.
This is a great experience for young and old. There is a height and age requirement for children to climb the Lighthouse tower, and children may not be carried.
8. Cedar Key, Florida
Unique shopping and dining experiences set Cedar Key apart.
If you enjoy unique shopping and dining experiences, then Cedar Key is for you. This small fishing village, turned tourist area, is located on the West Coast of Florida overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Although it is not close to some of the more popular tourist attractions, it makes a wonderful get-away-for-a-day destination.
The waterfront area is host to a variety of seafood restaurants, quaint shops, and a pier. You can stroll this small village and meander in and out of shops full of treasures just awaiting your discovery. You can sit high above the Gulf enjoying the view and some of the best seafood Florida has to offer, or you can try to catch a fish off the pier.
You will also find boat docks and boat rentals for excursions into the Gulf of Mexico and a very small public beach on the waterfront. Just a block or two inland are more shops. For those wishing to stay more than a day, lodging is available at many island-style locations that are reminiscent of the old Florida.
Other points of interest are the Seahorse Key Lighthouse and the Cedar Key State Museum.
A Day At Cedar Key
The day of our visit, it was a picture perfect Florida day. It was sunny and warm and a Gulf breeze blew ever so gently to help keep us cool. The pier bustled with activity. Fishermen cast their lines into the Gulf. People sat enjoying the view and watching a commercial sponge boat dock and unload their day’s catch. And, pelicans sat, as if posing for a postcard, on the pilings waiting for a handout. We enjoyed a stroll, took in all the sights and snapped some pictures.
The shops along the waterfront boardwalk are unique and varied. We found shells and things made from shells, jewelry, clothing, antiques and children’s toys. What caught my eye were the arts and crafts of the islands’ artisans and tropical island-style decorations that made me want to go home and redecorate.
Stopping for ice cream, large scoops of the homemade variety, our party of four came away with change from a ten dollar bill. For the most part, Cedar Key is affordable. Lunches are reasonable and dinners are moderately priced. If you don’t like seafood there are other menu choices.
The water was a little too choppy the day we visited, so we passed on any of the excursions or boat rentals, but prices are very reasonable for those as well. Excursions to the Seahorse Key Lighthouse were a mere $20 for adults and $15 for children under age 12. The almost two-hour scenic cruises focus on Atsena Otie and Seahorse Keys. It is reported that dolphins are often sighted during these cruises.
Boats can be rented for as little as $90 for four hours and depends on the size of the boat and horsepower. A boat ramp and parking is available if you bring your own water craft.
There is a beach, but I would not recommend going just for the beach. It is small and there are no life guards on duty. The shore is littered with clam shells which can be hard on the feet and the actual sand area is very narrow. There are, however, a couple covered pavilions which would make a perfect picnic destination if claimed early enough in the day.
Parking is haphazard and could prove to be a challenge. If you have to park too far away, golf cart rentals are available to whisk you around where you want to go including the boardwalk area.
If laid-back is your style and you want to spend a few days taking in the sights, there are a variety of places to stay. Don’t expect the Hilton here, or even the Holiday Inn for that matter. Most lodging is found in the older roadside motel style rooms and quaint beach resorts or hotels. Most that we saw were well-kept and help to add that old Florida style and island flavor to the area.
On our way home we made a stop by the Cedar Key State Museum which holds many artifacts and items of historical significance to the area. Although housed in only one room, the exhibits were interesting, and the $1 entry fee was more than reasonable.
9. Amelia Island
Petite Island Full of Big Surprises
Along Florida’s northeastern coast is one of the state’s best kept secrets Amelia Island. This vacation paradise offers miles of white sandy Atlantic beaches, world-class resorts, spectacular golf, unique shopping, historically significant landmarks and more activities than you can pack into a week-long vacation.
Just thirteen miles long and two miles wide, this petite island packs a big punch when it comes to the diversity of its accommodations and activities there is something for everyone. Whether you are a discriminating traveler with a bottomless bankroll or a budget-minded family, all types of accommodations are available to meet your vacation needs. Whether you enjoy simple pleasures like walking on the beach, or prefer to play golf and tennis… there is no better place.
In addition, the island’s seaside location, Appalachian quartz beaches, natural sand dunes and marshes provide the perfect environment for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts who crave fishing, camping, birdwatching, kayking, horseback riding, sailing or shell collecting.
Pride In the Past
What do you get when you cross an intriguing past with charming Southern hospitality? Downtown Fernandina . Florida’s first resort has a colorful past, but a seemingly bright future. It’s a town that has successfully made history its business, with a fifty-block area of historic homes and businesses that have been lovingly restored and are proudly on display.
The once-vibrant, Victorian seaport village is now postcard perfect with rows of shops that house a treasure trove of antiques and collectibles, as well as an eclectic assortment of boutiques and restaurants.
Its Victorian homes and cottages are a throwback to Amelia’s Golden Era. Adornments that make these 19th Century homes into masterpieces include opulent turrets, gables and gingerbread rick-rack trim. Some of these homes serve as bed and breakfast inns and some are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but what all seem to have in common is an interesting background. These storied streets can be experienced through self-guided tours or those offered by the Amelia Island History Museum. Horse-drawn carriage tours are also available.
Sightseeing river cruises are another way to learn more about the areas history. In the early 20th Century, Amelia Island became the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Today, nearly 80 percent of Florida’s intake of sweet Atlantic white shrimp is harvested in Amelia’s waters and its downtown docks Fernandina Harbor Marina is still home to the shrimp fleet.
While the oldest structure on the island is the Amelia Island Lighthouse, other places of intrigue include the Palace Saloon, the oldest bar in the state of Florida; and, the Florida House Inn , Florida’s oldest surviving tourist hotel.
Accommodating the Present
While Amelia Island has certainly been successful at preserving its past, it is no stranger to progress and growth. It is amazing that the area has somehow managed to kept pace without destroying its history and natural habitats. Visitors to the island find many accommodation choices with more than 2,500 suites, villas and guest rooms to suit any preference from five-diamond oceanfront resorts and oceanfront cottages to golf villas and historic bed and breakfast inns to camping facilities.
Situated on the southern end of the island are Amelia Island Plantation, The Ritz-Carlton: Amelia Island and Summer Beach Resort. All three offer oceanside accommodations in either private seaside villas, townhomes and luxury condominiums or deluxe hotel rooms.
An assortment of condominiums, chain hotels, motels, villas, townhouses and private rental cottages dot the island offering additional accommodation choices.
Location and Access
Amelia is just 30 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport. By car, two bridges connect Amelia Island with the mainland. From I-95, take Fernandina Beach Exit 129, turn east onto A1A and travel 15 miles, cross the Intracoastal Waterway into the heart of Amelia Island.
Those traveling from the south may prefer to take A1A north of Jacksonville to the Mayport auto ferry which crosses the St. Johns River, or take A1A farther north to J. Turner Butler Blvd., then north on Hwy 115 over the Dames Point Bridge. Both options continue on A1A north over Big and Little Talbot Island onto Amelia.
10. Gulf World Marine Park – Panama City Beach
This small marine park is located across the street from the Gulf of Mexico and is a great place to spend the day. Shows include dolphins, sea lions, parrots and reptiles; as well as a magic show and underwater scuba presentations. Shows are limited to two or three times a day, so a little planning is advised to take them all in. While you might not see killer whales in action, the admission prices will not kill you either — adult tickets are under $30 and children 5-11 under $20. Children ages 4 and under are admitted free. For adventurous visitors, special programs — Swim with Dolphins and Trainer for a Day — are available for an additional charge.