There’s a lot to love about Florida’s buzzy warm-weather getaways—South beach, Fort Lauderdale, Key West—but we're just as taken with the state's lesser-known sandy stretches. Here, our favorite beaches without the crowds.
This barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast offers a sophisticated respite from the clogged beaches of nearby Clearwater or Fort Myers—and a mecca for fishermen, who come to test their luck catching silver Atlantic tarpon. Boca Grande, Gasparilla’s main town, is like the Nantucket of the south—colorful Old Florida beach houses, waterfront estates, and upscale shops, where the local uniform is Lilly Pulitzer and popped collars and the mode of transportation is golf carts. Despite the island look, the attitude is as laid-back as you can get. After a required visit to the restored lighthouse (or joining a fishing charter out on the water), take a stroll along the sand and see if you can spot dolphin, osprey, and manatee offshore.
Where to Stay: Gasparilla Inn
Just north of Jacksonville, Amelia is the northernmost barrier island on Florida’s Atlantic coast before you hit coastal Georgia, loved for its historic Victorian architecture, distinct Southern charm, and 13 miles of beaches blissfully uncrowded most of the year. Other sights to take in: its historic 1838 lighthouse—Florida’s oldest—on a bluff over Egans Creek and Fort Clinch State Park, whose 1,100 acres of sand dunes and tidal marsh are home to the rare purple sandpiper as well as a 19th-century brick fortress used during the Civil War.
Where to Stay: Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort
Marco Island might be the closest you’ll come to the Everglades without actually being there. The biggest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, a favorite for its canal-lined streets and empty crescent-shaped beach facing the Gulf of Mexico, is also a perfect jumping-off point for exploring the nation’s largest subtropical wilderness, whose swamps and tropical mangroves are home to crocodiles, herons, greater flamingoes, and the endangered Florida panther. Our go-to local stretch of sand: Tigertail Beach, an enlarged sandbar just made for paddle boarding.
Where to Stay: Hilton Marco Island
One of America’s most under-the-radar national parks also happens to have one of Florida's most beautiful beaches. During the Civil War, the Union built Fort Jefferson on a barrier isle 70 miles off Key West, and it still stands to this day. After arriving by boat (or seaplane), take a ranger-guided tour of the fort and surrounding ecological moat before snorkeling the surrounding coral reefs. Hoping to stay awhile? For a small fee, you can pitch a tent at the Garden Key Campground just off the main dock, where you can spend the night under the stars. Ferries depart daily from Key West.
Where to Stay: The Inn at Key West
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
While the sister islands of Sanibel and Captiva (an hour from Fort Myers) aren’t exactly a secret, they still retain remain blissfully low-key—think bike-friendly trails, modest cottages, streets without stoplights or chain stores, and one of the best shelling beaches in the country. Pay the $6 toll to cross the only bridge to Sanibel and spend the day hunting for sand dollars and conches before paying a visit to the historic lighthouse, built in 1884. Rather strike out on two wheels? The J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,000-acre wetland and bicyclist’s dream. We suggest avoiding the popular Wildlife Drive and instead following the Bailey Tract trail, whose freshwater habitat frequently draws wading birds, ducks, and turtles. Make sure to stop for a lunch of teriyaki-barbecue wings and Key Lime pie at the Lazy Flamingo.
Where to Stay: Casa Ybel Beach Resort
Caladesi Island State Park
You have to take a ferry or private boat to reach Caladesi, on the Gulf Coast just north of Clearwater, which might explain why its three miles of beaches are so gloriously untouched (they're also some of the only beaches in the state that have been kept natural). Caladesi also doubles as a state park, meaning there are no paved roads but plenty of nature paths and paddling trails that wend their way through tropical mangroves. Don't miss the shore shack, which peddles picnic supplies and beach chairs—perfect for picking up those last-minute items before settling into vacation mode.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort & Spa
Santa Rosa Beach
Calm turquoise waters. Sugar-fine white-sand beaches. Welcome to the Emerald Coast and Santa Rosa Beach, one of the prettiest stretches on the Florida Panhandle, with a thriving local arts scene. The galleries along scenic Highway 30A showcase handcrafted jewelry, pottery, and photography, while nearby Rosemary Beach is home to indie bookshops, cozy cafés, and fabulous Southern cuisine. Bonus: Santa Rosa Beach is just a few minutes’ drive from Point Washington State Forest, where you can trade sand for 15,000 acres of wet flatlands and cypress swamps.
Where to Stay: WaterColor Inn
Little Torch Key
Despite being dangerously close to Key West, Little Torch Key has managed to fly under the radar. This self-contained isle, home to mostly to residents and Key West and Big Pine Island commuters, has undeveloped backcountry ideal for fishing and kayaking and the same powdery sands enjoyed by the rest of the archipelago—but with the added bonus of one of the country’s best resorts. Live out your private island fantasy from the comfort of a chic bungalow suite overlooking the water.
Where to Stay: Little Palm Island Resort & Spa
Just three miles away on Biscayne Bay, Fisher Island is one of Florida’s ritziest zipcodes, far removed from the raucousness of South Beach (to get there you need to take a seven-minute ferry or personal yacht or helicopter). This closely guarded isle has its own unique appeal, from the grand homes along the mile-long beach (whose sand was imported from Bermuda) to the Mediterranean-style Vanderbilt mansion that dates back to the birth of the island itself. If you manage to visit Fishers during your next trip south, stay at the swank Fisher Island Club & Resort.
Where to Stay: Fisher Island Club & Resort