The Gulf of Mexico is famous for its warm, gentle water and white sand beaches. Families and frolickers alike flock to more than 450 miles of Gulf Shore beaches from Ft Morgan to Marco Island. Road trips to coastal Alabama and the Panhandle have been a staple for family vacations for decades, and budget airlines have blown the top off Florida’s Southwest Gulf Coast.
With all these options, you might have a hard time choosing the perfect beach vacation, but we have you covered with the best of the best beaches on the Gulf Coast.
Best Sand: Siesta Key
Forget the best beaches in Florida; Siesta Key consistently ranks as one of the best beaches in America. Do you want to know why? The secret to Siesta Key beach is in the sand.
Three hundred million years ago, North America, South America, Africa, and Europe crashed together to form a single supercontinent continent called Pangea, thrusting the Appalachian Mountains up higher than Mt Everest. Over the years, the continents retreated to corners of the Atlantic Ocean, dinosaurs went extinct, and millions of tons of rocks washed down the rivers to the Gulf Coast, forming a phenomenon locals call “sugar sand.”
Siesta Key has nearly 100% quartz-crystal sand that is like walking on a cloud that never gets hot. It squeaks under your feet like the cheese curds in poutine and delights photographers and children alike. The white sandy shores are so white that it looks like snow. You might think you were in Alaska if it weren’t for the palm trees, warm breeze, and inviting ocean.
Pro-tip: The free Siesta Key Breeze Trolley will relieve transportation planning stress during your time on the island.
Best Beach Town: Clearwater
Time and time again, Clearwater Beach gets ranked as the best beach town in Florida. Its beaches are nearly as lovely as Siesta Key and still earn the moniker “Sugar Sand,” but the city sets this destination apart.
Spend your days exploring Caladesi Island State, playing at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, or lying on the soft sugar sand. You could even book a charter from the Clearwater Beach Marina or cruise into nearby Tampa or St Pete. Just make sure you’re back in time for sunset at Pier 60, the mainland’s answer to Mallory Square.
The “Sunsets at Pier 60” is a four-hour-long nightly tradition at Clearwater Beach that offers a variety of crafts and entertainment, plus an incredible view of the sunset from a 1,080-foot fishing pier.
Best Beach Adventures: Alabama’s Beaches
Alabama’s Gulf Coast boasts 32 miles of pristine beachfront with over 15 public-access beaches in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Gulf State Park sits between these two cities, with over 26 miles of bike trails. A series of bays and the intercoastal waterway offer over 100 miles of paddling trails.
Over 50 dive sites sit just offshore, including day charters to the Oriskany, a sunken aircraft carrier now the world’s largest artificial reef. Biking, scuba diving, and kayaking are just some reasons we consider Alabama beaches the best adventure on the Gulf Coast.
Those are just the beginning of your adventures on the Alabama coast. You can also book a sailing charter to watch the Blue Angels practice, a deep-sea fishing trip, or a sunset dolphin cruise. Add in dinner at the state’s first certified green restaurant, the Safari Club Gulf Shores, or a guided nature walk on the Gulf State Park Pier. You’ll begin to understand that beautiful beaches are just the beginning of what Alabama has to offer.
Best Beach Resort on the Gulf Coast
This category is tough to rank because there are many romantic hotels in Florida and on the Alabama Coast. We loved the location of Sheraton Sand Key, nestled between St Pete and Clearwater Beaches. The natural adventures of the Lodge at Gulf State Park kept us active and entertained throughout our entire vacation. Still, one property rises above the rest when considering location and activities – Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, Florida.
Southern charm meets modern luxury in this four-star beachfront property on the Emerald Coast. Kids can’t wait to float in the lazy river, and grownups will love the 10,000 sq ft spa with scenography from the salt crystals and quartz sand of the Gulf. With six on-premise restaurants, you never need to leave the resort, but you owe it to yourself to take a nature walk through the trails in the adjacent Henderson State Park.
Best Beach Party: Gasparilla Pirate Fest
There are those who claim Flora-bama’s Interstate Mullet Toss & Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party is the best beach party on the Gulf. In fact, it’s in the name. The rules of the mullet toss are simple. You stand in Florida and throw a dead fish as far as you can into Alabama. A mullet is more than just a business in the front/party in the back haircut; it’s also a saltwater fish. It sounds like just a reason to party to us, and maybe a bit fishy too, so we’re looking elsewhere for our “best beach party.”
Then again, people might think our choice for the best beach party, Gasparilla Pirate Fest, is fishy because it’s not exactly on the beach, but it sure is a bodacious good time. The world’s only fully-rigged pirate ship, the Jose Gasparilla, sails into the Tampa Bay waterfront in a fanciful reenactment of the Gasparilla Flotilla replete with loud cannons and beads flying everywhere. The pirates dock at the Convention Center, where the Mayor of Tampa surrenders the key to the city, followed by a celebratory “Pirate’s Parade.” It’s the third-largest parade in the nation.
Gasparilla Season is more than an afternoon; it’s eight weeks of activities, including road races and festivals that surely cross a beach somewhere.
Most Unusual Gulf Coast Beach: Venice Beach
Venice Beach, California, is home to the Freak Show and Muscle Beach. Not to be outdone, Venice Beach, Florida, is the Shark Tooth Capital of the World. This makes it our most unusual Gulf Coast beach.
When we first heard this moniker, we thought it was fodder from the tourism office. After more research, we realized that shark tooth hunting was a thing, including an annual shark tooth festival in April.
We procured special strainers and pulled up teeth with almost every scoop while standing in foot-deep water just off the pier. We were even finding teeth when we strolled along the sandy shore. Local restaurants feature impressive teeth displays, including fossilized megalodon teeth from the world’s largest shark that went extinct millions of years ago.
Pro-Tip: You can rent shark tooth strainers at the pier if you don’t have one at home.
Best Seafood on the Gulf Coast
Who doesn’t like seafood when they go to the beach? Everything is so fresh and delicious, but it’s particularly tasty on the Gulf Coast.
There was a time in the early 1900s when cities on the Gulf Coast were known as the Seafood Capital of the World. The region was renowned for fresh Biloxi shrimp and Apalachicola Bay oysters and scallops. However, we love she-crab soup, so our “best seafood” choice is Firefly in Panama City Beach, which just might have the world’s best she-crab soup!
She crabs were once commonly harvested throughout the low country, but today, they are almost entirely sourced from the Gulf. It’s a rich soup, similar to a bisque, made with cream and a touch of dry sherry. The deep, nutty flavor comes from crab meat, roe, and just the right amount of shallots, onions, and mace. When done correctly, the ingredients blend together in a cascade of flavors that delight your senses and linger on your palate after you swallow.
Firefly PCB does it so right it is worth the trip to the Florida Panhandle for the soup alone!
The Most Remote Gulf Coast Beach
The Florida Gulf beaches are known for their accessibility, but Cayo Costa is undoubtedly the region’s most remote beach. It’s a state park that’s only accessible by boat. The logistically easy access from a major airport is to fly to Fort Myers, rent a car, drive an hour to Pine Island, then board the ferry for an hour crossing the Gasparilla Sound to Cayo Costa. Once you land, you board a tram to cross over the island to Cayo Costa Beach.
You might wonder why you’d come to Cayo Costa. The island has no restaurants or hotels. There are only cabins and camping in the State Park. Once you dip your feet in the sand and hear nothing but the surf, you’ll understand. It’s known for some of the best shelling (looking for seashells) in the Sunshine State, with sunsets that defy imagination.
Final Thoughts on Finding Your Gulf Coast Beach
Florida and Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches set the standard for American beach vacations. With luxurious resorts, stunning sandy beaches, and warm, tranquil water, you’ll want to return again and again. You’ll find every type of accommodation, from camping in state parks to renting penthouse condos and everything in between.
Each beach city has a little different vibe. Southern cities, like Marco Island, Naples, and Fort Myers, reflect the Latin influence from nearby Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They’re also close to the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
Clearwater, St Pete, and Sarasota beaches echo the urban pulse of Tampa with surprise sophistication.
Panhandle beaches, like Panama City Beach, Destin, Pensacola, and Gulf Shores, offer diverse activities exploring sand dunes on barrier islands. They also all have substantial backwater bays where boating and birdwatching rule, whether you’re paddling, motoring, or sailing.
All of these choices are an exceptional vacation value, no matter which Gulf Coast beach you choose.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.