All that's really required for a day at the beach is a stretch of sand and surf, but there's enough of those raw materials in Florida to enjoy an experience beyond that.
For history buffs, there are beaches in the shadows of Spanish forts and Victorian-era architecture.
For party animals, other destinations specialize in a spring-break vibe that lingers year-round.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are still-deserted shorelines and unblemished horizons enough for the end of a perfect day.
With 1,250 miles of coastline, the Sunshine State offers a beach backdrop within reach of almost any diversion.
Waves of history
Fernandina Beach: In the 17th and 18th centuries, Fernandina Beach — on Amelia Island north of Jacksonville on Florida's east coast — was a safe harbor for pirates. Its port is among the deepest on the southeast coast, once allowing pirate galleons to enter even at low tide.
French pirate Louis-Michel Aury, Captain Kidd, Jean Lafitte and José Gaspar have all inspired ghost tales tied to the town. Spirits and pirate lore remain a big attraction on horse-drawn carriages that carry tours past the Victorian homes in the Silk Stocking District.
St. Augustine Beach: As Florida celebrates the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon's landing on the peninsula's east coast, beachcombing historians can explore 18th-century Spanish forts and 42 miles of inviting Atlantic coastline on the same day.
St. Augustine Beach is a short drive from the dining and shopping in the Colonial Quarter as well as historic attractions such as the Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, the Fort Matanzas National Monument and the Lightner Museum, a collection of Gilded Age artifacts housed in industrialist Henry Flagler's former Alcazar Hotel.
Key West: The rocky coastal areas of the Florida Keys can't compare with the gloriously soft, sugar-sand beaches further north, but the waters are renowned for diving, snorkeling and deep-sea fishing from Key Largo (the northernmost key) to the Conch Republic. There are at least half a dozen beaches in Key West, including one in 87-acre Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
Always a destination for authors, musicians and artists, Key West long ago turned writer Ernest Hemingway's time on the island into a marketing opportunity. Despite such commercialization, a tour of the author's home on Whitehead Street is a must-do.
Only a short bicycle ride from Hemingway's home and museum is the Harry S Truman Little White House, where guided tours include the poker table where the 33rd president sipped bourbon and dealt cards with Cabinet members on working vacations. Although not open to the public, the home of playwright Tennessee Williams, at 1431 Duncan St., still draws fans.
Panama City Beach: There are white-sand beaches at Panama City Beach, about two hours west of Tallahassee on Florida's Gulf Coast, but it takes patience to reach them in this spring-break hot spot.
When college students are in town, the 15-mile stretch of Gulf Drive in the heart of the city's resort district is jammed with vehicles. With radios blaring, most of them are packed with young men and women quite willing to stop traffic in the name of social opportunity.
Along the road, shops such as Purple Haze, Booze Express, Beatniks and Condom Knowledge bear witness to the student-friendly mindset, although there are higher-end attractions such as Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, housed in a building that looks like a sinking ship.
On the beach, the sand is inviting and the Panama City Pier offers a terrific sunset view.
Daytona Beach: Before the students flocked to Panama City Beach, spring breakers once congregated in Daytona Beach, about 50 miles northeast of Orlando. Driving on the beach, one of the well-known attributes of the World's Most Famous Beach, still remains on portions of the sand.
Along Atlantic Avenue, businesses range from mom-and-pop eateries to chain restaurants, which sit next to well-worn surf shops and souvenir stores. Night life revolves around nightclubs, restaurants and bars such as the Ocean Deck and the Bank & Blues Club, the latter a home for Florida-based and regional blues acts.
Ocean Walk Shoppes, across from the Ocean Center arena, offers family-friendly diversions and occasional band-shell concerts.
South Beach: Internationally known as home to the party lifestyle of the rich and famous, this 23-block stretch of restaurants, trendy nightclubs and art deco architecture is about 15 minutes from downtown Miami, across causeways over Biscayne Bay. Sandy beaches stretch for miles, but most of the attention is focused on the scene along Ocean Drive, home to the Versace Mansion ("Casa Casuarina"), the Art Deco Gift Shop, the News Café and nearby museums.
An al fresco meal at the News Café (newscafe.com) is a nice introduction to the SoBe vibe, but be prepared: The wait for the restaurant can be a long one and parking along narrow Ocean Drive is difficult. Still, the people-watching is first-rate at any hour of the day.
Playalinda Beach: On the other end of the spectrum from South Beach is the incomparable quiet of Playalinda Beach, an undisturbed portion of Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. Part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the 24 miles of undeveloped beaches offer few modern conveniences: No designated picnic areas, telephones, beach showers, water fountains or food services.
Instead, there's the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the sound of the wind. The route to the beach passes the refuge visitor center (State Road 402, five miles east of U.S. Highway 1) and the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, a good spot to see more than 500 species of birds and wildlife.
Pensacola Beach: The most recognizable landmark at this Panhandle destination is the giant beach-ball tower on the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier (41 Fort Pickens Road). The 1,500-foot pier offers fishing, entertaining people-watching and a gorgeous sunset view.
The most secluded spot is Opal Beach, featuring quiet dunes about seven miles west of the tourist hub. It's a short drive to the National Naval Aviation Museum (1750 Radford Blvd.) at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, a wonderful free museum.
Sanibel Island: Those warning signs along the road for gopher tortoise crossings aren't some theme-park novelty. Wildlife — and the solitary beaches — are still the main attractions on this leisurely Gulf Coast island.
For nature lovers, J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and hardwood hammocks that offer feeding, nesting and roosting areas for more than 220 species of migratory birds. The refuge also offers opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, bicycling and, of course, bird-watching.
Sunsets on the sand
Anna Maria Island: Perhaps nowhere on the planet are sunsets celebrated with such reverence as Anna Maria Island, where the dimming of the day inspires bell-ringing and spontaneous applause. This seven-mile stretch of barrier island on the Gulf Coast, about 20 miles west of Bradenton, is a slow-moving haven for bicycling, parasailing, ice-cream eating and horizon gazing.
At Anna Maria City Pier, one of the island's two fishing piers, the scenery ranges from stingrays, pelicans and dolphins in the shallow water and the Skyway Bridge in the distance across Tampa Bay.
Clearwater Beach: Street performers, musicians and artists entertain at the daily "Sunsets at Pier 60" on the fishing pier that is the hub of the city's tourist district. On weekends, the pier park hosts movies under the stars.
The Beach Walk, a half-mile paved promenade whimsically decorated with turtle sculptures, connects Pier 60 and the beach to nearby hotels, restaurants and shops on Gulfview Boulevard. Outdoor diners at local fixtures such as Frenchy's Salt Water Cafe have a prime seat for sunsets and people-watching.
Siesta Beach: Coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, named Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the nation's best in his annual rankings for 2011. There's a cozy shopping and dining district in nearby Siesta Key, a commute that passes neighborhoods of upscale homes.
Despite plenty of competition in Florida, the coastal views at Siesta Beach offer an incomparable contrast of blue water and white sand. Because the beaches are clean (no smoking is allowed) and known for a gentle surf, sunset watching can be a family affair.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6213
If you go
No matter what your interest, there's likely a beach getaway that can be planned around it in Florida. Make sure to bring sunscreen and water or sport drinks to stay hydrated.
Check these resources for more information:
•Anna Maria Island: visitannamaria.com
•Clearwater Beach: visitclearwaterflorida.com
•Daytona Beach: daytonabeach.com
•Fernandina Beach: ameliaisland.com
•Key West: fla-keys.com
•Panama City Beach: visitpanamacitybeach.com
•Pensacola Beach: visitpensacolabeach.com
•Playalinda Beach: nps.gov/cana/
•Sanibel Island: fortmyers-sanibel.com
•Sarasota/Siesta Key: visitsarasota.org
•St. Augustine Beach: floridashistoriccoast.com
•South Beach: visitsouthbeachonline.com