South Florida is famous for its beaches. Whether you are a Florida native playing in your city's big backyard, a snowbird fleeing the northern cold, or a sun-seeking adventurer, you've come to the right place. Want to know which beach is the best to spend some quiet time with your family? Which is best for snorkeling? People-watching? Baring it all? Here's the scoop on sun and sand in Miami-Dade, Broward and the Keys, including specific locations, parking prices, and available amenities. So, go ahead - dive in.
WHERE: Southeast 10th Street to the Palm Beach County line.
FLAVOR: Good, clean fun.
CROWD: Families, fans of fishing, surfers.
DETAILS: A 980-foot pier at the north end provides a great spot to fish ($4 fee). Not an angler? Pay $1 to watch other people reel 'em in. Surfing is allowed on the north side of the pier, and volleyball courts are available. Metered parking will cost you a hefty 25 cents for just 10 minutes.
WHERE: Atlantic Boulevard to Northeast 16th Street.
FLAVOR: Plain M&M's: always good, but ya know, plain.
CROWD: Water sport aficionados, anglers, families.
DETAILS: This big, broad beach has the staples: picnic areas, playground, volleyball courts and parking. It also boasts a municipal pier with a snack bar. Fish from the pier for $3, or rent a pole for $15 with a refundable $20 deposit. (The nearby tackle shop sells bait.) Surfers can do their thing north of the pier. Rent water equipment or launch your own - launch area is Northeast 16th Street. Despite all that, there's not much to set it apart from similar beaches. Parking is available for $1/hr. at meters or a lot on Riverside Drive.
WHERE: At Commercial Boulevard.
FLAVOR: Pink cotton candy and saltwater taffy.
CROWD: Tourists, families with small kids.
DETAILS: Feel like you're on vacation even if you live 10 miles away. The town is full of Old Florida-style shops and restaurants, offering ice cream, seashell wares and food served al fresco. That's at The Ocean's Edge (formerly Sandy Shoes Cafe), 4512 El Mar Dr., where tables are positioned beachfront and the kids can frolic while lunch is on its way. Cute motels and Anglin's Fishing Pier add to the charm. There are no lifeguards, so swim at your own risk. City residents can purchase annual parking passes, but visitors can park at nearby meters for $1 per hour or $.50 per hr., if you don't mind a short walk.
WHERE: From Harbor Beach north of Port Everglades Inlet to Oakland Park Boulevard.
FLAVOR: The coconut smell of suntan lotion.
CROWD: Who doesn't go to this beach? Tourists, families, nature lovers, sports fans, shoppers, spring breakers.
DETAILS: Starting from the south: Harbor Beach, between Port Everglades Inlet and the 17th Street Causeway, boasts powder-soft sand but access is tricky, with no parking in sight. Instead, walk or bike or stay in one of the hotels that front the beach. Families cluster south of Las Olas Boulevard, near the playground and picnic tables, as well as volleyball and basketball courts and equipment rentals. More action awaits just north of Las Olas Boulevard, with the landmark Elbo Room, Beach Place, bars, restaurants, shops, bikers, in-line skaters and that lovely beach wall. Parking lots are plentiful, but often full. At Sunrise Boulevard, Hugh Taylor Birch State Park ($1 for pedestrians and cyclists, $3 for solo drivers and $4 for cars with two or more people) has a tunnel to the beach; here you can picnic, camp, bike, canoe and more. Serenity reigns as you head north to Oakland Park Boulevard: no shops, no tourists (well, fewer tourists) and also, inevitably, scarce parking.
John U. Lloyd Beach State Park
WHERE: 6503 N. Ocean Dr., Dania Beach.
FLAVOR: A quiet slice of nature amid an urban jungle.
CROWD: People who prefer wetlands, and not hotels and t-shirt shops, as a beach backdrop.
DETAILS: The 251-acre park, adjacent to Port Everglades, offers a subtropical coastal hammock with nature trail, wetlands area, picnicking, kayak and canoe rentals and a boat ramp. The park has been criticized, however, for poor sand quality and less-than-perfect ambiance. It sits between the Atlantic and the Intracoastal Waterway. Entrance is $3 for one person, $5 for two to eight people.
WHERE: Dania Beach Boulevard.
FLAVOR: Graham crackers and milk: perfect for quiet time.
CROWD: Folks who love the beach, but not the crowds.
DETAILS: Despite its location near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Dania Beach is a quiet little jewel with a fishing pier, tiki-style huts and soft sand. Fishing will cost you $3 to cast from the pier ($1 for spectators) and rods can be rented for just $6. Parking can be had for $1.25 per hour in metered lots. Shhh! Keep the secret.
WHERE: North of Hallandale Beach Boulevard; North Beach Park is at Sheridan Street.
FLAVOR: Chex Mix: a little bit of everything.
CROWD: Families, couples, exercise buffs and, when the season is right, snowbirds from Quebec.
DETAILS: Hollywood offers a beach for everyone. Want to sunbathe against a backdrop of faded glory? Stake out some sand in front of the old Hollywood Beach Resort at Hollywood Boulevard. Want to shop, bike, eat, people-watch or hear a beachside concert? Hit the Broadwalk; the band shell is at Johnson Street. Want to take the family out for a nature-friendly day in the sand? Try North Beach Park at Sheridan Street, where the water's pretty as a picture, and a sea-turtle hatchery adds an eco note to the fun. The north and south ends of Hollywood Beach are comparatively quiet and uncrowded. Parking costs $5 until 2 p.m. and $3 after that.
WHERE: Hallandale Beach Boulevard and State Road A1A.
FLAVOR: Stella d'Oro cookies: beloved by retirees.
CROWD: Condo dwellers, some younger families and anyone who can't make it the extra few minutes to Hollywood.
DETAILS: The landmark beach ball water tower stands guard over the county's southernmost shores. So do the condos. The beach offers bocce ball courts as well as showers, lifeguards, a playground and concession stands. One bummer: parking permits for the beach area are for residents only.
Sunny Isles Beach/Golden Beach
WHERE: On A1A from 163rd St. to the Broward County line.
FLAVOR: RC Cola. Everyone knows it but has forgotten about it.
CROWD: Local residents and families.
DETAILS: William Lane's new exuberant, Deco-styled pavilion at 163rd St. harks back to Sunny Isles Beach's '50s-futurism, even though the kitschy area motels are falling victim to condo creep. Few amenities here but the beach is fine, and it seems only locals know about it. Parking can be hard to find though there are metered lots near the Ramada Inn just north of the William Lehman Causeway. The Pier Park lot will cost you $6/day on weekdays and $10 on weekends. Golden Beach only has parking for residents.
Haulover Park Beach
WHERE: On A1A around 10800 Collins Ave.
CROWD: Teens, families and nudists.
DETAILS: This long, sloping beach would be rather unremarkable save for one thing: The northernmost section is clothing optional. Otherwise, it's a somewhat run-down and rugged beach with desperate need for refurbishing. Graffiti and broken bottles litter the tunnels that lead from the beach to the parking lots, and the bathrooms could stand a cleaning. Other than serving as Miami-Dade's only legal haven for nudists, Haulover offers the usual amenities: picnic area, showers, lifeguards and concession stands. Parking is available in nearby large lots for a $5/day.
WHERE: From 87th Terrace to 96th Street.
FLAVOR: Nilla Wafers.
CROWD: Somewhat older residents.
DETAILS: A wholly unpretentious area with a walking path, dunes and no clutter. Sadly, the nearby community center at 93rd Street, which houses a pool and showers, is closed for renovations. There is parking a block or so away from the waterfront at meters for $1 per hour.
North Shore Open Space Park
WHERE: On A1A and 72nd St. in Miami Beach.
FLAVOR: Trail mix.
CROWD: Nature lovers.
DETAILS: Find long stretches of sand, picnic areas, better than average restrooms, showers and lifeguards. A good nature-lover's spot, as well, with areas of sea grapes, dunes and decent sand. An often overlooked, but charming gem among Miami-Dade beaches. Parking is available in nearby metered lots for $1 per hour.
Miami Beach, Mid-beach
WHERE: Between 22nd and 46th streets behind the hotels.
FLAVOR: Day-old gum.
CROWD: Tourists uninterested in South Beach's sizzle.
DETAILS: The boardwalk ain't bad for a stroll but most of the beach is on the crummy side, with thin sand and rocks and a distinct lack of ambience in some spots. Look for some improvement and swankification as luxury developments by Ritz-Carlton and Cipriani makes their way here in coming years. But for now, restrooms are few, and metered parking on side streets near the hotels is available for $.50 per hour.
WHERE: Along Ocean Drive from the Government Cut area to about 22nd Street.
FLAVOR: Hot spice.
CROWD: Anything goes - and does.
DETAILS: The ocean is still the best thing South Beach has to offer to tourists and natives alike. And South Beach is one hell of a social-studies environment: Want to see gay men frolicking in their natural habitat? Stick to 12th Street. Interested in surfers and other thrill seekers? These creatures tend to congregate around First to Fifth streets. (Watch out for reckless Jet Skiers in this area). Families are almost everywhere. Topless women? All over and as easy to spot as a B-list star in one of the nearby clubs' VIP rooms. Depending on your luxury needs, chair rentals can cost you $9-$15, plus an extra $12 if you want an umbrella. But rental prices vary along different stretches of the beach; your hotel concierge might be able to recommend a spot. Across the street is the Art Deco District and Ocean Drive, where you can find restaurants, shopping and kitsch. The restrooms are mixed, with new-ish facilities around 14th Street. Parking is a hassle on the metered streets ($.50 to $1 per hour) and the private lots are a rip-off. Best bet: park in one of the man garages along Collins Avenue, which range from $10 per day to $1 per hour in city-owned spaces.
Crandon Park Beach
WHERE: On Key Biscayne south of the Seaquarium (4000 Crandon Blvd.)
FLAVOR: Lay's potato chips. Reliable and familiar but unexciting.
CROWD: Families from inland Miami.
DETAILS: What Crandon lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in reliability, with its long stretches of soft sand for spreading the towel out and soaking up the sun. Palm trees dot the sand and make shady spots just right for reading the latest paperback. This is actually the perfect beach for families. Mom and Dad can relax and there is enough for kids to do, too. There are lifeguards, some concessions and picnic areas with tables and grills, though not enough restrooms. Parking is generally adequate on the grounds. One quibble: When the waters are calm a distinct aroma of sewage can waft about. There's a $1.25 toll to access Key Biscayne and a parking fee of $5 per car and $10 per bus once on the island.
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area
WHERE: End of Key Biscayne.
FLAVOR: Key Lime pie - an old Florida treat.
CROWD: Families, snorkelers.
DETAILS: Hurricane Andrew did a number on this jewel long ago, but nature has mended most wounds. The well-shaded beach and park is beloved by families who spend weekend days at the plentiful barbecue grills and picnic tables, play areas and restrooms. For those seeking serenity, this is one quiet spot to absorb nature. Cape Florida, located at the farthest end of Key Biscayne (look for the centuries-old lighthouse standing proudly against the sky), offers 1.25 miles of sandy beach. Bring along the snorkel and fins, because there's lots of interesting sea life hidden in the underwater grasses just a few yards away from shore. There's a $1.50 toll to access Key Biscayne and entrance fees are $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists, $4 for a car with 1 person and $8 for a car with up to 8 people.
Matheson Hammock Park
WHERE: 9610 Old Cutler Road in Miami.
FLAVOR: Root beer in a frosty mug: a little old-fashioned but refreshing.
CROWD: Families, on the young side.
DETAILS: This isn't really a beach per se, but it boasts a man-made atoll pool that gets its waters from the tides sweeping Biscayne Bay. The bottom is rather slimy and murky but the surrounding park is lovely and families love it here for good reason. There's a full-service marina and a snack bar and the Red Fish Grill restaurant, housed in a historic coral rock building, along with picnic pavilions and nature trails. Plenty of free parking in lots, but you pay an entrance fee of $4 per vehicle and $10 per boat.
Homestead Bayfront Park Beach
WHERE: 9698 SW North Canal Dr., Homestead.
FLAVOR: Hamburgers, basic but satisfying
CROWD: Families hunkering down around the BBQ.
DETAILS: Features an atoll beach with amenities including a marina, snack bar, barbecue grills, rental picnic shelter, a playground and lifeguards. Parking is on the grounds for $4 per car, $10 per RV and $10 per boat.
Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach
WHERE: Near the south end of White Street on Atlantic Boulevard in Key West.
FLAVOR: Seaweed salad.
CROWD: Families, tourists.
DETAILS: This beach is on the small side, but includes fish-themed picnic shelters and structures; a pier that's decorated in painted footprints and sand and shore that are brackish and littered with seaweed. Metered parking costs $1.50 per hour. The similar C.B. Harvey Rest Beach Park is next door.
WHERE: On South Roosevelt Boulevard west of the airport in Key West.
FLAVOR: Generic cereal: a facsimile of other sandy, sporty South Florida beaches, but nothing to set it apart.
CROWD: Volleyball players, sunbathers, tourists. (It's Key West, after all.)
DETAILS: A long stretch of sand populated with palms, the beach is a nice place to seek refuge from the excesses of Duval Street. Volleyball nets beckon, as do rental options for water sports. Metered street parking for $1.50 per hour.
Bahia Honda State Park
WHERE: Between Mile Markers 36 and 37 on Bahia Honda Key.
FLAVOR: Paradise, as seen in Corona commercials.
CROWD: Campers, snorkelers, explorers, fishermen, boaters, shallow-water wanderers and gazers.
DETAILS: You can do just about anything here. Stay overnight in a cabin or tent and wake to the golden sunrise. Swim in the Atlantic or the Florida Bay. Wade through shallow, crystal-clear water. Ride a bike. Boat, fish or just park yourself on the attractive sand and relax. You can rent kayaks for $10 per hour. ($20 if you want a double kayak) or take a snorkeling tour for $29 per person. Gear will cost you $2 per piece, but you get to keep the snorkeling mask as a souvenir. Make sure to come early because equipment rentals stop at 3:30 p.m. Park entrance is $5 per vehicle and $.50 for each person you bring. Pedestrians and bicyclists pay $1.50.
--Compiled from Miami Herald reports by Melissa Garcia.
Just another day in paradise at Fort Lauderdale Beach. Photo: Jane Wooldridge