Florida's Sanibel Island is known for quiet beaches, seashells and wildlife.
(Photo: David Meardon Photography AP)
(USATODAY.com) - With thousands of snowbirds pointing their convertibles south to the Sunshine State for a dose of winter warmth, we asked "Dr. Beach"- aka Florida International University professor and coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman - for 10 Florida destinations that combine sand, surf and a welcoming sense of community. His favorites, in alphabetical order:
Clearwater Beach: Meet "volleyball heaven" on the Gulf Coast, with "some of the best girl- and boy-watching I've ever seen" near Pier 60.
Cocoa Beach: This onetime astronaut hangout near the Kennedy Space Center is famous for the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, along with "a great pier and surf shop," Ron Jon's, whose flagship store will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year.
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Delray Beach: A "surprising find" in South Florida, with a "walkable downtown," locally owned shops and a lively bar scene.
Key West: Free-wheeling Margaritaville "is crowded, but with good reason. Its two beaches (Smathers and Fort Zachary Taylor) may not be that great for Florida, but certainly are by U.S. standards."
New Smyrna Beach: Though Leatherman frowns on the practice from an environmental point of view, this laid-back surfing outpost at the mouth of the Indian River in east central Florida "still lets you drive on the beach."
Pensacola Beach:This Panhandle town features "great public access to incredibly wide beaches," bay or Gulf of Mexico swimming, and nearby Fort Pickens, where Apache leader Geronimo was imprisoned.
Sanibel Island:Yes, "you have to pay $6 to get there" via a causeway. But once you reach this upscale Gulf Coast barrier island, you'll find the country's "No. 1 shelling area," no stoplights, and strict building codes that limit new structures to two stories in height.
Seaside: A master-planned "country beach town" on the Florida Panhandle, Seaside was "made for coalescing over front porches and white picket fences."
Siesta Key: Last year's winner of Leatherman's "best beach in America" survey, this Gulf Coast barrier island southwest of Sarasota has "the finest white sand in the world."
South Beach:Celebrity-packed "Manhattan on the beach" hosts an annual polo tournament each spring and remains "one of the world's most famous" strands.
Now, readers, it's your turn. Vote for your favorite below (or at this link), or tweet your pick to @usatodaytravel using the hashtag #flabeachtown. We'll feature the winner in an upcoming Travel story.