1. CAPE CANAVERAL
Beach access at the end of side roads off State Road A1A, Cape Canaveral
Approximate distance from Orlando: 1 hour
Yes, the other East Coast beaches are better-known and more popular – Cocoa Beach, for instance – but that’s where everyone goes. Sometimes the busier beaches can get so crowded on a hot summer day that they make you feel more like a greasy sardine in a sea of sunblock than a basking mermaid on a sparkling shore. So one sweltering day, while wandering the coast in search of a reasonably bare spot to lay a blanket in the sand, we stopped in Cape Canaveral, just south of the cruise terminal. We traveled along A1A, turned down a side road, headed toward the shoreline and found that, just like in Cocoa, practically every side street ends in a beach-access boardwalk leading over the pretty and surprisingly pristine dunes. The beaches are wide and spacious, littered with pretty seashells and (unlike Cocoa, which requires you to bring your own body weight in quarters to feed the meters) the parking was FREE. And there was plenty to go around. There’s no pier, no Ron Jon Surf Shop and not as many weird beach-bum bars and restaurants. But those are for tourists, anyway.
2. PLAYALINDA BEACH (AT CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE)
Beach access is via State Road 402 (Beach Road), Titusville
Approximate distance: 1.5 hours
Fee: $5 per car
What they’ll tell you about Playalinda Beach in the guidebooks is that it’s a pristine natural seashore, one of the few spots on Central Florida’s east coast that’s unspoiled by development, high-rise hotels or traffic. You can sometimes spot dolphins in the water or sea turtle nests along the beach. And, if you travel way up to the furthest parking lot, you’ll almost certainly encounter naturists who, even though this is not technically a nude beach, have long used it as a gathering place. If you want just the dolphins and pretty seashore, park anywhere. If you want the nude beach experience, drive all the way to the end, to parking area No. 13. Keep your clothes on until you get across the boardwalk to the beach, though. Even though the authorities often look the other way when it comes to nude sunbathing here, it’s still illegal.
3. SMYRNA DUNES BEACH
2995 N. Peninsula Ave., New Smyrna Beach
Approximate distance: 1.5 hours
Fee: $5 per car
Though this beach isn’t located on the open ocean – it’s actually on the tip of the New Smyrna Beach peninsula where the Ponce Inlet, Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean meet – it has one thing going for it that makes it a standout. It’s one of the region’s precious few dog-friendly beaches. Park in the lot, hike along the path (but not on the boardwalk, if you brought your dog – sadly, dogs aren’t allowed on the walkway except in the early morning and evening, though we’re not sure why), and follow the signs for beach access. The beach is narrow along the river, but as you walk toward the inlet, it widens into a great sandy expanse where people set up their umbrellas and beach blankets and romp with their dogs – on leash only, please – in the gentle waves. The ocean’s just on the other side of the jetty, and though you really aren’t supposed to take your dog past that point, if nobody’s looking, you can probably get close enough to let him get a taste of what the real ocean is like. Bonus: There’s also a dog-wash station on the way out of the parking lot where you can rinse some of the sand, seaweed and stink off your dog before he gets back in the car.
4. INDIAN SHORES/INDIAN ROCKS BEACH
Gulf Boulevard, Indian Rocks Beach
Approximate distance: 2 hours
Between the more-traveled sands of Clearwater and St. Pete Beach, nestled snugly in a curious stretch of peninsular narrowing – the bay and the beach nearly come to blows for a hot second – Indian Shores (or Indian Rocks Beach) offers all the charms of a shanty beach paradise without much of the high-rise hotel bustle. Most of the residences punctuating the shore are smaller investment condos, and most of the foot traffic strolls at a leisurely pace befitting the local small business ethos. Gorgeous sands, lapping Gulf tides at sunset and sparser crowds make Indian Shores a real escape. Local bar Mahuffer’s – “the wurst place on the beach,” its sign reads – is a junkyard drunk’s paradise, and therefore should not be avoided.
5. COCOA BEACH
Beach access off side streets off State Road A1A,
Approximate distance: 1 hour
Fee: As many quarters as you can carry to feed the parking meters
Sure, it’s Orlando’s default beach by nature of distance alone, but Cocoa Beach isn’t just a convenience concession. Behind the look-I’m-in-Florida exploitative development of strip malls, gift shops and (of course) Ron Jon’s, Cocoa’s charms are in its hidden spots, tucked away south of the main thoroughfare. (Though, if you want steady people watching and baked body-image insecurities, linger around Coconut’s and the pier). Bonus: Because Cocoa Beach used to benefit heavily from the NASA space program, I Dream of Jeannie was based there, which is perfect, because you always wanted to be Barbara Eden. You should Cocoa.
Honorable mentions: Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island (about 2 hours, 15 minutes) has an old-Florida feel, white sandy beaches and a decidedly small-town vibe. If it weren’t so damn far, we’d probably have it in our top five list; Same with Ponte Vedra Beach (1.5 hours), which is up by St. Augustine; We also love New Smyrna Beach (1 hour, seven minutes), but the car traffic on the beach in the summer gets a little overwhelming. Click the photo below to escape to a gallery of some of our favorite Florida beaches.