originally appeared in USA Today:
With thousands of snowbirds pointing their convertibles south to the Sunshine State for a dose of winter warmth, we asked "Dr. Beach"— aka a Florida International University professor and coastal expert — 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. Beautiful vacations can be booked through Longboat Key Vacation Rentals.
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.
Delray Beach: A surprising find in South Florida, with a walkable downtown, locally owned shops and a lively bar scene. Sanibel and Captiva Island vacations can be very affordable and a great value.
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 Dr. Beach 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. If you're looking for a great vacation, contact Sarasota Vacation Rentals for an excellent deal.
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. Lesser known, but extremely beautiful, is Anna Maria Island where you can escape the large crowds and relax.
Siesta Key: Last year's winner of Dr. Beach'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. Another hidden gem can be found at Destin Beach.