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Florida’s Top Beach Destinations

Sun, surf and sand: There’s nothing simpler than the recipe for an ideal beach day.

But what sets a great beach destination apart from the rest is its ability to offer a wide array of activities beyond the shore for groups to enjoy.

While the beach is, of course, the star at these five Florida cities, you’ll quickly realize there’s plenty more to see and do while you’re there.

Panama City Beach

Known for its 27 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and its distinctive, emerald green waters, Panama City Beach averages 320 days of sun annually — making it a fantastic destination for beach lovers.

Groups can enjoy the area’s crystal-clear waters by taking a dolphin tour, a chartered fishing trip or a sunset cruise excursion. “If you don’t get out on our water, you’re missing out on some of the magic of Panama City Beach,” said Dan Rowe, president and CEO of Visit Panama City Beach. “Even just renting a pontoon boat and tooling around in St. Andrews Bay is really a neat experience.”

Those on the prowl for unique gifts and one-of-a-kind finds will want to tour the dozen locally owned shops along the city’s Décor by the Shore trail. After getting a “passport” stamped at all 12 stops, visitors can pick up a prize at the city’s Visitor Information Center.

There’s also an opportunity to do some good while you’re there. Recently, Rowe and his staff began working with groups to schedule sea oat replanting excursions or Habitat for Humanity volunteer experiences at nearby Mexico Beach, which was hit hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018, to help restore the beachfront.

“It’s a unique beach-destination activity, and it’s also a great way for people to give back,” Rowe said of the new voluntourism program, which has been dubbed “Stay It Forward.”

When it’s time to unwind, Panama City Beach is home to more than 20 special events each year, from Mardi Gras celebrations and wine and craft beer tastings to motorcycle rallies and music festivals.

Each April, the city’s Seabreeze Jazz Festival, now in its 22nd year and voted one of the nation’s best, brings in top jazz artists from across the country to perform at Pier Park Amphitheater.

For kids at heart, the Pirates of the High Seas Fest, held each October on Columbus Day weekend, is a best bet. The event includes a parade and a pirate invasion, live music concerts, a massive balloon drop and multiple fireworks displays.

“Beaches have different vibes, but here it’s all about fun,” Rowe said.

visitpanamacitybeach.com

Sarasota

In addition to its world-class beaches, Sarasota is also home to a distinctive cultural history, thanks in part to its role as the former summer home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

The circus spirit is still alive and well in the city, as evidenced by attractions such as the Circus Arts Conservatory, which offers opportunities to enjoy professional circus performances; you can also book fun group activities such as aerial silks classes and trapeze classes, among others.

Groups can also tour the opulent Ca’ d’Zan mansion, the Venetian-inspired former home of John and Mabel Ringling, as well as the vast collections of art and cultural treasures on display at the Ringling Museum of Art and the Ringling Circus Museum, both on the estate grounds.

“The Ringling is a wonderful stop for groups,” said Britney Guertin, communications and content manager for Visit Sarasota County. “In addition to the museums, it’s 66 acres, so there is a beautiful outdoor aspect to it, including a wonderful rose garden; and the one-of-a-kind mansion sits right on Sarasota Bay.”

For nature lovers, the city’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens features 15 acres filled with beautiful and rare tropical plants, and its Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary is home to more than 150 rescued animals: lions, tigers, bears, primates and more.

Sarasota Bay offers fantastic opportunities for kayaking along the local waterways and natural mangrove forests.

“Our mangroves are incredible,” Guertin said. “It’s like discovering something new — a hidden oasis.”

Groups can also book walking tours to explore the city’s historic center and its rich culinary scene. Meanwhile, style-savvy shoppers will feel right at home browsing the luxury boutiques that line famed St. Armands Circle.

visitsarasota.com

Daytona

Daytona offers a convenient hub for exploring all that the central Florida Atlantic coast has to offer, from historic St. Augustine, roughly an hour’s drive to the north, to one-of-a-kind NASA exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center, an hour’s drive to the south.

Driving inland, visitors to Daytona Beach can also easily make the trek to Orlando’s theme parks in just under an hour.

But there’s so much to do in Daytona itself, you may never feel the need to leave.

For starters, groups can opt for a variety of guided tours of the famed Daytona International Speedway, ranging from a 30-minute basic tour to a three-hour behind-the-scenes VIP experience perfect for the most die-hard NASCAR fans.

“You get to see Victory Lane,” said Kate Holcomb, director of communications for the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You get to experience the excitement of the banked curves. Plus, every tour includes access to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. It includes cars, boats, airplanes, motorcycles and even Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Blue Bird, which set a land speed record in 1935.”

One Daytona, a bustling dining and entertainment district near the speedway, offers ample shopping options. Unique finds also abound at the eclectic boutiques that fill Daytona’s historic downtown district.

Daytona is also home to a rich array of arts and cultural attractions, including the nearby Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, Florida’s tallest. At the Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of Arts and Sciences, groups will enjoy seeing preeminent exhibits of American, Floridian and Cuban art, plus restored railroad cars and antique automobiles, a planetarium, a children’s museum and the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in Florida.

Baseball fans can catch the city’s minor league team, the Tortugas, in a game at Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Ballpark. Built in 1914, it’s the fourth-oldest ballpark still used in professional baseball and the site where the legendary barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson played his first professional game.

“For people who love baseball, it’s kind of a bucket-list place to go,” Holcomb said.

daytonabeach.com

Fort Myers

Fort Myers is a shell lover’s paradise. It boasts an abundance of pristine shells on its beaches, as well as unusual shell-based attractions. Groups will enjoy the Shell Factory, which bills itself as the world’s largest shell store, and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on nearby Sanibel Island, the only museum in the country devoted solely to shells and mollusks.

“We are the best shelling destination in the world,” said Francesca Donlan, communications director for the Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel.

Birding enthusiasts also flock to the area to view the amazing variety of waterfowl, herons, egrets and other shorebirds that migrate through or make their home in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

The refuge is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020, with several special events planned throughout the year.

“It’s a true playground for migrating birds and other wildlife,” Donlan said.

History buffs will want to make time to visit the Edison and Ford Winter Estates. As their names imply, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford wintered as neighbors in Fort Myers, and their residences, gardens and laboratories, as well as a museum dedicated to their careers and inventions, are open to public tours

Each September, the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest brings in some of the country’s best songwriters, who perform in small seaside venues while sharing the stories and inspirations behind beloved hits.

In March, both the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins make Fort Myers their home for spring training, allowing fans an opportunity to see their favorite major leaguers in action, in a more intimate, accessible setting.

fortmyers-sanibel.com

Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale features roughly 300 miles of inland waterways, earning it the nickname the Venice of America.

There’s perhaps no better way to explore the city’s vast waterways and area attractions than by taking a ride on a water taxi.

“The water taxi service runs throughout greater Fort Lauderdale, with stops along the Intracoastal Waterway, several state parks and other attractions,” said JoNell Modys, senior executive of marketing and communications for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are stops with access to great waterfront dining. So, not only is it a very efficient way to get around, it’s also a really fun boat ride.”

Groups can call ahead and coordinate shuttle service pickup via boats that can accommodate up to 200 people, Modys said.

Shooters Waterfront Restaurant, which is accessible by water taxi, is a top pick for group dining, since it offers fantastic views of the water plus a menu that likely suits everyone, whether they’re after salads, sushi, seafood or steak.

From Fort Lauderdale, it’s also easy to get a taste of the Everglades, since the metropolitan area’s westernmost edge extends to that famed ecosystem. Companies such as Everglades Holiday Park and Sawgrass Recreation Park offer group tour experiences by airboat, allowing visitors to experience the Everglades and its varied animal inhabitants, from alligators to birds and more, firsthand.

Animal lovers should also make time to visit the city’s 60-acre Flamingo Gardens. Though flamingos may be the namesake star at this botanical gardens and animal sanctuary, it’s also home to the largest collection of native Florida wildlife anywhere, with bobcats, bears, alligators, eagles, panthers and more.

For a leisurely stroll, consider the city’s Riverwalk, which follows the New River downtown and connects sites along the thriving downtown Riverwalk Entertainment District, including the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the Nova Southeastern University Museum of Art and the city’s Museum of Discovery and Science, which is fun for all ages.

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