From past to parties, Florida beaches are nearby

Ocean Walk Shoppes, across from the Ocean Center arena, offers family-friendly diversions and occasional band-shell concerts.

South Beach: Internationally known as home to the party lifestyle of the rich and famous, this 23-block stretch of restaurants, trendy nightclubs and art deco architecture is about 15 minutes from downtown Miami, across causeways over Biscayne Bay. Sandy beaches stretch for miles, but most of the attention is focused on the scene along Ocean Drive, home to the Versace Mansion ("Casa Casuarina"), the Art Deco Gift Shop, the News Café and nearby museums.

An al fresco meal at the News Café (newscafe.com) is a nice introduction to the SoBe vibe, but be prepared: The wait for the restaurant can be a long one and parking along narrow Ocean Drive is difficult. Still, the people-watching is first-rate at any hour of the day.

Secluded gems

Playalinda Beach: On the other end of the spectrum from South Beach is the incomparable quiet of Playalinda Beach, an undisturbed portion of Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. Part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the 24 miles of undeveloped beaches offer few modern conveniences: No designated picnic areas, telephones, beach showers, water fountains or food services.

Instead, there's the rhythmic crashing of the waves and the sound of the wind. The route to the beach passes the refuge visitor center (State Road 402, five miles east of U.S. Highway 1) and the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, a good spot to see more than 500 species of birds and wildlife.

Pensacola Beach: The most recognizable landmark at this Panhandle destination is the giant beach-ball tower on the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier (41 Fort Pickens Road). The 1,500-foot pier offers fishing, entertaining people-watching and a gorgeous sunset view.

The most secluded spot is Opal Beach, featuring quiet dunes about seven miles west of the tourist hub. It's a short drive to the National Naval Aviation Museum (1750 Radford Blvd.) at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, a wonderful free museum.

Sanibel Island: Those warning signs along the road for gopher tortoise crossings aren't some theme-park novelty. Wildlife — and the solitary beaches — are still the main attractions on this leisurely Gulf Coast island.

For nature lovers, J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge has more than 6,400 acres of mangrove forest, submerged seagrass beds, cordgrass marshes and hardwood hammocks that offer feeding, nesting and roosting areas for more than 220 species of migratory birds. The refuge also offers opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, bicycling and, of course, bird-watching.

Sunsets on the sand

Anna Maria Island: Perhaps nowhere on the planet are sunsets celebrated with such reverence as Anna Maria Island, where the dimming of the day inspires bell-ringing and spontaneous applause. This seven-mile stretch of barrier island on the Gulf Coast, about 20 miles west of Bradenton, is a slow-moving haven for bicycling, parasailing, ice-cream eating and horizon gazing.

At Anna Maria City Pier, one of the island's two fishing piers, the scenery ranges from stingrays, pelicans and dolphins in the shallow water and the Skyway Bridge in the distance across Tampa Bay.

Clearwater Beach: Street performers, musicians and artists entertain at the daily "Sunsets at Pier 60" on the fishing pier that is the hub of the city's tourist district. On weekends, the pier park hosts movies under the stars.

The Beach Walk, a half-mile paved promenade whimsically decorated with turtle sculptures, connects Pier 60 and the beach to nearby hotels, restaurants and shops on Gulfview Boulevard. Outdoor diners at local fixtures such as Frenchy's Salt Water Cafe have a prime seat for sunsets and people-watching.

Siesta Beach: Coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr. Beach, named Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the nation's best in his annual rankings for 2011. There's a cozy shopping and dining district in nearby Siesta Key, a commute that passes neighborhoods of upscale homes.

Despite plenty of competition in Florida, the coastal views at Siesta Beach offer an incomparable contrast of blue water and white sand. Because the beaches are clean (no smoking is allowed) and known for a gentle surf, sunset watching can be a family affair.

jcabbott@tribune.com or 407-420-6213

If you go

No matter what your interest, there's likely a beach getaway that can be planned around it in Florida. Make sure to bring sunscreen and water or sport drinks to stay hydrated.