The 9 Best Florida Vacation Destinations for 2020 Mariakray | stock.adobe.com

The 9 Best Florida Vacation Destinations for 2021

Terry Ward is based in Florida and has worked as a freelance travel writer since 2000, writing for such publications as CNN, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic, The Washington Post and Scuba Diving Magazine, among many others. She lives in Tampa with her two young children and husband and has traveled with them to the Arctic, Cuba, Morocco and elsewhere. Her favorite family travel destinations are Norway and Florida. See more of her work at terry-ward.com

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If you’re dreaming of escaping the cold for a winter family vacation in Florida, you’re not alone. Floridians like me will tell you that our most pleasant weather arrives during the winter months and lingers well into early spring—and this is the perfect time to head south for a beach vacation with the family.

COVID-19 info: Check out Visit Florida’s official Covid Travel Safety Information page for the most up-to-date information as face covering requirements and other information on beach openings and closures vary from county to county. In general, Florida beaches are all open and the Florida Department of Health is advising visitors to avoid crowded places, maintain 6 feet of distance and to wear a face covering when around others.

Visit the Florida Department of Health’s website for current travel restrictions and rules. 

Vero Beach

Vero Beach

About 1.5 hours southeast of Orlando and two hours north of Fort Lauderdale, Vero Beach sits at the point along Florida’s east coast where things start to feel properly tropical. On a stretch of coarse-sand beaches dubbed the Treasure Coast for the history of a fleet of Spanish galleons that wrecked offshore during a hurricane here in 1715, Vero abounds with modern-day treasures for families in search of adventure. Head out to explore the Indian River Lagoon on a pontoon cruise with Paddles by the Sea during which you’ll almost certainly spot frolicking dolphins. You can hire metal detectors for the day from Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum and wave them along Ambersand Beach in search of treasure coins washed ashore (it happens!). Stroll boardwalks through mangrove environments and visit the touch tanks and exhibits at the Environmental Learning Center with the kids. Or explore the beautiful native Florida gardens and splash pad surrounded by sculptural art at McKee Botanical Gardens.

Stay: The Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa is the perfect oceanfront oasis with multi-bedroom suites with full kitchens that make it easy to settle in and stay a while. You’re in the heart of downtown Vero Beach here, within a short stroll of the weekly Saturday farmers market and cafes and shops.

Indian Shores

Indian Shores

Located roughly between Clearwater Beach and St. Pete Beach, Indian Shores has a local feel that we love—not to mention access to what are arguably the Gulf Coast’s finest spun-sugar beaches. Even during the busier months, you can have the beach here mostly to yourself in the early morning hours (read: when toddlers are wide awake and you’re just reaching for your first cup of coffee). When you’re not building sandcastles or playing in the gentle surf, you can stroll along the sand to the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary to see native Florida rescued birds being rehabilitated for possible release back into the wild.

Stay: Right across from the beach, Legacy Vacation Resort Indian Shores has one and two-bedroom accommodations with full kitchens, comfortable living rooms and private balconies (including some overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway). You can cook up dinner right down by the water on the outdoor grill and enjoy it by the property’s communal fire pit. There’s a heated onsite pool and hot tub as well as a game room, too.

Cocoa Beach

Cocoa Beach

Imagine watching a rocket launch between boogie board rides on the beach with your family. It’s a common occurrence in Cocoa Beach these days, with the SpaceX and commercial space programs staging regular rocket launches just north on Cape Canaveral. This is the stretch of Florida coast where nature and technology mingle. After a visit to Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors Complex by day, you can head out on a summertime turtle walk in nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge for the chance to show the kids the hard work of a nesting mama sea turtle. For Cocoa Beach’s most family-friendly stretch of sand, we like the beach around 13th street south since it’s less crowded than up around Ron Jon’s Surf Shop and the pier. But wherever you unfurl your beach towels, count on golden sands and waves that tend to to be suitable for beginner board riders throughout most of the year.

Stay: Beachside Hotel & Suites is a recently updated property with rooms with balconies from which you can spot the ocean. You’re a block off the beach here, and the hotel has a great family pool and one-bedroom suites with kitchenettes and sleeper sofas.

Hutchinson Island

Hutchinson Island

Families who visit Hutchinson Island for the first time are surprised by what a find the place is for relaxed family fun. This hideaway spot consists of two barrier islands along Florida’s east coast just north of West Palm Beach. The 23-mile long barrier island is great for biking and beachcombing and is one of the only spots in Florida where you can ride horses along the beach. Kids love the chance to spot nurse sharks and sea turtles in the conservation lagoon and pet stingrays at the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center. And you can take the family out into the Indian River Lagoon in nearby Fort Pierce during clear kayaking tours with Get Up and Go Kayaking, too—the guides often stop on a sandbar where the kids can use nets to catch minnows and other marine wonders.

Stay: Hutchinson Shores Resort & Spa is oceanfront and close to the restaurants and shops of downtown Stuart, with two heated outdoor pools.

Longboat Key, Florida

Longboat Key

The stunning white sand beaches of Longboat Key—sandwiched between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico on a palm-covered spit of land south of Anna Maria Island—are the stuff of family vacation dreams. Longboat Key has a peaceful feel, but is still close to the urban vibe of Sarasota and Lido Key (for when you want to access to dining, museums and more).

Stay: Zota Beach Resort has an gulf-front infinity pool and comfortable suites with sleeper sofas. For more of condo-style stay, Sand Cay Beach Resort has units with full kitchens and two bedrooms that can sleep up to six people.

Vilano Beach

Vilano Beach

This favorite Florida surf beach is just a few minutes from all the historic sites of downtown St. Augustine, but you’ll feel far from the tourist fray when you plan a family beach vacation in Vilano Beach. Spend your time searching for sharks’ teeth in the sand, climbing the St. Augustine Lighthouse (home to a cute little pirate-themed playground) or ziplining within eyeshot of alligators at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park when you’re not swimming in the mellow surf.

Stay: The OceanView Lodge has 28 oceanfront rooms, all with private balconies fronting Vilano Beach. If you’re traveling in an RV or want to tent camp, North Beach Camp Resort has beautiful sites across the street from the beach and shaded by live oak trees.

Sunset Pass-A-Grille

Pass-a-Grille Beach

Head just south of busy St. Pete Beach for a quieter stay in pretty little Pass-a-Grille, an old-school Florida beach town with quaint inns and a friendly small town vibe. Eighth Avenue is the town’s main drag, lined with galleries and cafes (Hurricane Seafood Restaurant has a rooftop that’s a sweet spot for sunset). You can head out on a fishing charter or a dolphin cruise to nearby Shell Key Preserve from Merry Pier or just spend your days relaxing with the family on the pretty beach. The kids will love feeding the fish from the docks after a meal at Sea Critters Cafe, too, a favorite local seafood restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Stay: Choose from studios or two-bedroom apartments when you stay at the quaint Coconut Inn, just off the beach, with an outdoor pool and beach cruiser bikes on loan for guests who want to pedal out and explore.

Navarre Beach

Navarre Beach 

This Panhandle-hideaway, located roughly between Pensacola and Destin, has stunning beaches, a range of vacation rentals and inexpensive hotels, and adventures like ziplining to keep everyone happy off the beach, too. Several artificial reefs just offshore from Navarre Beach are perfect for a snorkeling adventure with the family, and you’ll likely spot dolphins during your beach walks here, too, as they’re common in the clear shallows.

Stay: The SpringHill Suites by Marriott Navarre Beach fronts the Gulf of Mexico with a heated beachfront pool and rooms and suites with private balconies.

Miramar Beach

Miramar Beach

In between Destin and Seaside in Northwest Florida’s stunning South Walton County, Miramar Beach makes a perfect base for exploring the region’s unique freshwater dune lakes and Grayton Beach State Park, recently named one of the best beaches in the U.S. A family beach vacation here can be as active or mellow as you like, with jet ski tours, outlet shopping and eco tours rounding out a diverse range of ways to spend your days.

Stay: Embassy Suites by Hilton Destin Miramar Beach has two-bedroom suites for larger families and offers access to a private beach.

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