The Ultimate Guide to Florida’s Atlantic Coast

Soft sand beaches, outdoor activities and some of the world’s freshest seafood—all and more are on offer from artsy St. Augustine Beach down to trendy South Beach.

BY BROOKE PORTER KATZ | PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAMELA PASCO

St. Augustine Beach
If the Atlantic Coast has an art and antiques capital, St. Augustine is it. Fifty-eight miles north of Daytona Beach, the oldest city in the country (est. 1565) is flush with galleries. They keep their doors open until 9 p.m. during the monthly First Friday Art Walk (832-779-2781). The town of St. Augustine Beach itself sits on the barrier island of Anastasia, home to white sand and St. Johns County Ocean Pier, where you can pick up a fishing pass, bait and gear. If you’d rather eat seafood than catch it, the beachside Salt Life Food Shack (321 A1A Beach Blvd.; 904-217-3256; lunch for two, $40*) prepares a mean yellowfin tuna burger with avocado fries, while Sunset Grille (421 A1A Beach Blvd.; 904-471-5555; lunch for two, $45) touts its popular Minorcan conch chowder. Both also serve simply cooked catches of the day. Just north is a more active shoreline: the bird sanctuary of Anastasia State Park (300 Anastasia Park Rd.; 904-461-2033; admission, $8 a vehicle). Four miles of beaches circle the reserve’s nature trails. To explore the area by water, consider renting a canoe or kayak or booking a trip with Schooner Freedom Charters (111 Avenida Menendez; 904-810-1010; sailings, from $40 a person). You may see marine life and egrets, herons, spoonbills or other birds.

New Smyrna Beach
At this low-key favorite just 15 miles south of Daytona Beach, $10 grants you permission to drive your car right onto the hardpacked (yet soft to the touch) sand. Before parking, you may want to swing by Mon Delice French Bakery (557 E. Third Ave.; 386-427-6555; lunch for two, $13) to order ham-and-brie sandwiches, quiches or custard éclairs for a seaside picnic. The main drag of Flagler Avenue—chockablock with gift shops, cute boutiques and cafés—beckons beachgoers who have swum their fill. On the northern tip of the New Smyrna Beach peninsula, the 73-acre Smyrna Dunes Park (2995 N. Peninsula Ave.; 386-424-2935) welcomes pets, if you happen to be traveling with the full gang. From the park you can see across the inlet to the fire-engine red Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse (4931 S. Peninsula Dr.; 386-761-1821; admission, $7), built in 1887. Or head south to the Apollo Beach entrance of Canaveral National Seashore (321-267-1110; admission, $10 a vehicle) and its quiet, undeveloped coastline. Nearby, bands play at JB’s Fish Camp (859 Pompano Ave.; 386-427-5747; dinner for two, $50). Many people arrive by boat to snack on steamed blue crabs and seared blackened grouper while looking out at dolphins and manatees.

Cocoa Beach
It’s no surprise that the birthplace and residence of world champion surfer Kelly Slater is one of the coast’s top spots to catch some waves—albeit relatively small and mellow ones. But that’s what makes Cocoa Beach, about 60 miles east of Orlando, great for beginners. Lessons at Ron Jon Surf School (150 E. Columbia Lane; 321-868-1980; private lessons, from $65 a person) cover everything from etiquette to paddling—and afterward you can stock up on bathing suits at Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., 321-799-8888), the world’s largest surf store and site of the Florida Surf Museum (4275 N. Atlantic Ave.; 321-720-8033; suggested donation, $2). To watch the pros in action (perhaps even Slater himself), wander to the end of Cocoa Beach Pier (401 Meade Ave.; 321-783-7549). When you’re ready for a change, the boardwalk at Lori Wilson Park (1500 N. Atlantic Ave.; 321-455-1380) extends over the dunes to a wide stretch of sand devoid of anything commercial. The park also affords views of rocket launches from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Just south, Jazzy’s Mainely Lobster & Seafood Company (210 N. Orlando Ave.; 321-613-3993; dinner for two, $70) dishes out the bounty of the ocean. If you can’t decide what to try, the Captain’s Platter offers a taste of fried clam strips, scallops, shrimp and haddock. Three blocks away, the canary yellow and sky blue exterior of Fat Kahuna’s (8 Minutemen Causeway; 321-783-6858; dinner for two, $60) is hard to miss. Its blackened mahi-mahi earns rave reviews.

Vero Beach
The area around this 28-mile barrier island has earned the nickname Treasure Coast, thanks to its history of sunken ships and recovered fortunes—including a 2015 discovery of gold coins worth $4.5 million. Whether or not you come away with a haul, there are plenty of reasons to visit, including the killer sunrises at Sexton Plaza Beach. (You can always nap on the sand later.) Fans of Lilly Pulitzer’s bright tropical designs will find a trove nearby at The Lazy Daisy (919 Azalea Lane; 772-231-4006). When it’s time for lunch, Heaton’s Reef (3500 Ocean Dr.; 772-469-1060; lunch for two, $20)—the poolside bar and grill at Cobalt—cooks up fried-lobster tacos and a smoked-fish dip. You can walk off the meal at the 5,413-acre Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (4055 Wildlife Way; 772-581-5557), the first federal area set aside specifically to protect wildlife. Today, endangered wood storks, white pelicans and sea turtles roam the preserve. (Vero Beach is home to a quarter of Florida’s nesting Loggerhead sea turtles.) Or take the kids to the 64-acre Environmental Learning Center (255 Live Oak Dr.; 772-589-5050; admission, $5) on the Indian River Lagoon. They’re bound to love the interactive museum (complete with a 145-gallon touch tank), pontoon boat rentals and hiking trails.

South Beach
If it’s a beach town with big-city buzz you’re after—including top-notch restaurants and an impressive after-hours scene—consider the southernmost tip of Miami Beach. It’s worth an early-morning wake-up call to join the 7 a.m. class with 3rd Street Beach Yoga (786-529-6423; donation-based). Yogis flow through poses from warrior one to shavasana right on the sand. Afterward you can stroll along the waterfront Lummus Park (Ocean Dr.; 305-673-7730), which stretches north from 5th to 15th Street, passing Easter-egg-hued Art Deco hotels along the way. The Miami Design Preservation League (1001 Ocean Dr.; 305-672-2014; tours, $25 a person) leads in-depth walking tours of these architectural gems. For foodies, a meal at Joe’s Stone Crab (11 Washington Ave.; 305-673-0365; dinner for two, $100) is a must. Just blocks from the shore, the legendary joint is known for its—well, the name says it all. When the sun goes down, The Regent Cocktail Club (1690 Collins Ave.; 786-975-2555; cocktails for two, $28) heats up. Libations range from the Vesper (gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc and Greek mint) to a vodka punch flavored with raspberry, almond and citrus. What could be more Miami than sitting on one of the lounge’s tufted leather couches, cocktail in hand?

*Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

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