With a seemingly endless stream of winter storms and near-record cold temperatures snarling holiday travel, many Americans are dreaming of the day they can slip away and dip their toes in some soft sand and wade in warm ocean waters. For many that means a trip to Florida, where the tourist season this year has been setting records for the number of visitors.
Disney World in Orlando had so many visitors over the New Year’s break, they actually had to turn people away at the door — and some lines for a single ride were as long as five hours. The traditional tourist meccas of Tampa, Miami, and Key West have been flooded with bookings.
While the idea of a warm weather getaway is appealing to anyone fighting their way through the latest snowstorm, fighting crowds may be less appealing. Fortunately there are less-traveled beaches in Florida that offer uncrowded and, in at least one case, uninhibited beach access, far from crowds and traffic.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Just north of the NASA launch complex in central Florida are miles and miles of undeveloped coastland free of the high rise condominiums and limited beach access all too common farther south. This refuge is 140,000 acres of federally protected lands, that have largely been untouched by development since 1963. Stretching from the shores of the Banana River across from Titusville, all the way to the ocean, there is an amazingly pristine world to explore, from saltwater marshes to ocean dunes. Recognized as a bird watchers paradise, the area has many nature trails and access points for boating, fishing, and hiking.
A single road accesses 13 beach parking areas north of Cape Canaveral and, for the really enterprising, a backcountry permit is available that will let you hike into beach areas that are so remote that the only other human beings you’re likely to see on a weekday are the park rangers flying overhead in the patrol helicopter. Speaking of the wilderness area, do be aware that "Beach 13," the last parking area before the backcountry hike starts, has a reputation for being "clothing optional." Even though the practice is banned by local ordinance and not endorsed by park policy, the rules are unevenly enforced on federal land — and if you’re taking kids on a backcountry beach hike, there’s a good chance you will see naked people.
When you’re not hiking the pristine beaches, you can take a tour of the Rocket Garden and Cape Canaveral. For nightlife, the jumpin' strip in Cocoa Beach is a short 20-minute drive.
Nestled between the better known tourist areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood has all of the advantages of commercially developed beach area, with a vibrant boardwalk and active nightlife, but without the crowds and traffic. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and nightclubs line the boardwalk on one side, across from a well-patrolled and manicured beach. Just 10 minutes from the beach, the Tri-Rail train station in Hollywood can get you anywhere, from Miami to West Palm Beach, in less than an hour, and there are always lines of cabs waiting to whisk you back to your hotel.
If you want to get away from the developed areas, you can drive just a few minutes north to the Hollywood North Beach Park, and enjoy a less crowded experience — and wilderness activities like kayaking and fishing.
New Smyrna Beach
Located just south of the crowds and traffic of Daytona, and at the northern tip of the Canaveral National Seashore, lies New Smyrna Beach. Due to the nature of the beach and tidal shelf, New Smyrna has one of the few beaches you can drive on during certain times of the day. Tailgating is a favorite pastime, and the nearly constant ocean breeze makes it a mecca for kite flyers, some of whom produce impressive aerial displays with kites big enough to lift a grown man off the ground.
New Smyrna Beach is one of the more popular beach destinations for people who actually live in Florida, as it offers a low-key Bohemian vibe, combined with nearby upscale services. If you want to get away from it all, drive down to the Canaveral National Seashore, and explore an undeveloped beach and shell mounds made by early Native Americans. If you want nightlife, then Daytona is less than 30 minutes in the other direction.
Every October the Beachside Tavern in New Smyrna hosts the Florida Harmonica Championship, with players flying in from all over the world to compete.
The only time to avoid New Smyrna Beach is during Bike Week in Daytona, when the crowds swell to encompass the entire area, and the drone of Harley Davidson motorcycles adds a constant roar to the background.
As you navigate the slippery commute over snow-covered roads, while ice and snow rattle off your windows, just know there are some wonderful crowd-free beaches and warm ocean waters just waiting for the day you can escape the grip of winter.