Florida’s Pirate Legacy: Myth or Reality?

Being next to the Great Spanish Gold Fleet routes and the tropical waters of the Caribbean, Floridians love their stories of pirates and buried treasure as much as any region of the United States.  No less than 17 cities celebrate some sort of pirate festival.

Speaking of pirate lunacy – Saint Augustine has two celebrations to honor people who ransacked and raped their community.

In reality Florida was located on the northern edges of the region that was the golden age of piracy between 1630 and 1730.  There was little treasure in Spanish Florida and attacking the gold fleets when it left Havana, fully escorted by warships was suicidal.

FLORIDATRAVELER pirates gold fleet map

Florida Was A good Place To Hide After Getting Treasure

So what Florida pirates are real and what pirates are fakes?   Who was a real Florida pirate? Here are some historical facts:

REAL: Henry Jennings.    Jennings, an 18th century British privateer turned Bahamian pirate, got the biggest payday in Florida pirate history.  Tipped off that the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet crashed off Fort Pierce in a hurricane, Jennings organized three ships and 150 opportunists and attacked the Spanish salvage crews recovering cargo in shallow waters.  Jennings set sail for Jamaica with 350,000 coins taken from the Spanish workers.

FLORIDATRAVELER pirate henry jennings

REAL: Black Caesar I.  Since 30 to 50% of the pirates were Africans, it was not shocking there were two pirates called Black Caesar.  The first, a huge African chieftain who escaped on a sinking slave ship, set up shop at Caesar’s Rock near Elliott Key and built up a crew to attack Florida Keys shipping.  He later joined Blackbeard’s crew and was captured by the British navy in the Carolinas. Records show he was hung in Williamsburg in November of 1718.

FLORIDATRAVELER pirate black caesar

MYTH: Black Caesar II.   The second BC, also known as Henri Caesar, was said to be a Haitian Revolutionary who set up camp in Southwest Florida and later joined Jose Gaspar in attacking Spanish shipping.  It was told he was captured and burned alive in Key West, but no records or documents have been found with match any of his listed achievements.

REAL  BUT NO to Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake. They are officially not pirates since both were served as privateers to Queen Elizabeth, and their attacks on Spanish colonies were promoted by England. During the American Revolution, the US Government turned hundreds of pirates into “privateers” if they attacked British shipping.

REAL to Captain Robert Searle.   In violation of orders from the Governor of Jamaica, Searles attacked the sleeping citizens of Saint Augustine in May of 1668 and seized the Royal coffers with the city payroll.  He killed sixty people and looted the city.  His actions forced the Spanish to construct the present fort in Saint Augustine.  Searle fled to South America with both Spanish and British forces after him.

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Searles Invades Saint Augustine Every Year

YES  to John “Calico Jack” Rackham and Anne Bonny. This English pirate captain in his calico clothing wed Anne Bonny in New Providence in 1719, stole a Britis sloop, and engaged in pirating along the Southwest Florida coast.  One of his crew was another female pirate Mary Read.

FLORIDATRAVELER pirate calicojack FLORIDATRAVELER pirate ANNE BONNEY

Pirates Calico Jack and Anne Bonny Hit Florida

Calico and Anne “honey-mooned” at Lovers Key near Fort Myers, but the idea having women aboard as bad luck turned true when they were captured. Calico Jack was hung in Jamaica.  Mary died in childbirth, but Anne Bonny escaped the hospital where she said she was pregnant.

No to  José Gaspar.   No mention of Gaspar appears in writing before the early 20th century, and no archival or physical evidence of his existence has ever been found.  Most historians have traced the stories of Gaspar to John Gómez (also known as Juan Gómez and Panther John), a real person who lived in a shack on isolated Panther Key near Marco Island.  The celebrators in Tampa don’t care if their beloved pirate is real or not.

No to Blackbeard (Edward Teach) and Captain Kidd.  Both were real but did their pirating to the North of Florida.

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Luis Aury Took Over Amelia Island

Yes to Luis Aury.   I view this French privateer as Florida’s last real pirate. Allying with Scottish revolutionist Gregor McGregor, Aury took over Amelia Island in Spanish Florida in the name of the Republic of Mexico, but his goal was to establish a separate nation.  Fearing chaos on the frontier, President Monroe intervened to oust Aury’s forces.  When Aury’s ships left Florida, it was the last serious pirate fleet to hit the land.

 

 

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Floridians Love Their Shell Game

When people visit Florida, they expect to find good seafood and they are usually not disappointed.  We Floridians love our grouper sandwiches and have competitions to locate the best sandwich in our area.

But Floridians really have a thing about shell fish, maybe it is because not all products are available to catch and eat around the year.  When I was in college many moons ago,  my fraternity would go to a rundown Art Deco place called South Beach where some old hotels rented by the hour.  Our destination was not the beach but a  restaurant called Joe’s Stone Crabs.

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The landmark to the shell is still operating down at the tip of Washington Avenue — or should I say it will reopen in mid-October when the harvesting of Florida stone crabs reopens.  Despite being closed from May to October, this restaurant is the #3 grossing independent restaurant in the USA, taking in $36 million dollars in sales last year!

Outside of Louisiana, many people identify oysters with Florida and oysters is still an important crop with 2.6 million pounds of meat taken each year, mostly from Apalachicola Bay.  This industry, unfortunately, is under threat from water-flow issues, mostly coming from Alabama and Georgia.  Without pollution, the raising of oysters is a non-polluting and sustainable industry.

FLORIDATRAVELER oystering apalachicola

There is a new shellfish aquaculture that is booming from Miami to Pensacola.  It is clam farming.  In 1994, when most net fishing was banned, many fisherman started to turn to clam farming.  The hard Atlantic clam dominates the industry, but since 2013 some ten clam farms have been developing the softer Venus clams.

Venus clams have beautiful shells and a sweet flavor that shocks most newcomers. This industry really sounds like farming.  Today there are some dozen Florida firms that produce clam seeds which are then sold to some 150 clam farming firms, who raise the clams in mesh bags at the bottom of the bay for 2.5 to 3 years.  They sell the clams to wholesalers and individual fish stores and restaurants.

FLORIDATRAVELER seeds of clams in hand

These Are Clam Seeds Ready For “Planting”

Only Virginia grows more clams than Florida, but with a larger shoreline the clam industry is certain to grow.  Since clams filter the water, this is a natural and clean business to operate in Florida waters.

FLORIDATRAVELER clams at Southern Cross Cedar Key

Southern Cross at Cedar Key Turns Seeds Into Clams

We can not forget the spiny lobster since the two day open sport season begins next week. Thousands of divers will be hitting the water to get their daily limit of six adult  lobsters with a caraspace over three inches. As a former New Englander, I know that these Caribbean lobsters are small, lack big claws, and won’t win a seafood contest in Bangor.

FLORIDATRAVELER SPINEY LOBSTER

But where in New England can you dive into 85 degree water in a swimsuit and grab yourself a lobster dinner?    On August 6 the regular spiney lobster season begins for seven months with the same six lobsters per person limits.

And less we forget, the Florida shrimp industry is still a $57 million dollar industry with shrimp boats from Amelia Island to Pensacola.  Even here there are changes.  Wood’s Fisheries in Port St Joe have been shrimping for 150 years, but today some of their shrimp come from tanks located twenty miles from the Gulf.

 

 

 

 

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Things No One Told You About Florida

In the forty years I have taught college students about Florida, there are some facts and information that always surprise the students.   Here are some things that most Floridians are ignorant of or have a false impression.

Florida Was Once Africa

Geologists studying Florida’s ancient rock well beneath the surface can verify that millions of years ago when the ancient super-continents split apart, collided, and even rifted again, a section of the northwest African coast became attached to North America. Long before West Africans arrived on these shores, a piece of their native homeland was waiting for their arrival – that piece was Florida.

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Contrary to Most Almanacs – Florida Is The Biggest

Most almanacs list Georgia as the largest state east of the Mississippi with Florida second.  Due to Georgia’s rectangular shape and Florida’s thinner design, most people will accept that information on “face value.”

In actuality Georgia is just the Eastern state with the most land area (57,906.14 square miles) followed by Wisconsin’s 54,310.10 square miles and Florida’s 53,926.82 square miles.  But this figure does NOT include lakes and rivers inside the states.  When you add the water: Florida leads with 65,754.59 square miles, followed by Wisconsin’s 65,497.82, and Georgia’s 59,424.77 square miles.

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Lake Okeechobee Is Ocean-like and Dangerous In Storms

If you don’t think adding water is important, I suggest you drive around Florida’s largest lake Lake Okeechobee.

The St Johns and the Nile Are Not Alone

Someone obviously from Northeast Florida has drilled it into the head that Florida’s longest river, the St. Johns, and the Nile are the only rivers that flow north.  I guess that makes sense to people because on a map gravity tells you rivers can’t go northward.

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How silly!  The elevation of the terrain, no matter how minor, shapes the direction of a river.  There are at least 225 rivers going north around the world.  The Bighorn River in Wyoming and Montana at 461 miles is the longest north flowing river in the USA.

But don’t feel badly about this Northeast Floridians for the 310 mile St. Johns River is unique in many ways.  It starts at an elevation of just 24 feet above sea level and slowly flows northward in many areas almost next to the coastline before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Jacksonville.  Try to find another river that does that trick!

Florida Is Huge Thanks To Its Shape And Water

Driving from Pensacola to Key West on the route suggested by AAA will take you 831 miles and over twelve hours.  Going from New York City to Chicago via I-80 West is just 789.1 miles.

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Don’t Expect a Divided Six Lane Highway To Key West

Florida Shares Something with the USA That Other States Lack

Much of the history of the United States was going westward to the Pacific.  Today the United States is a two coast country with the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Florida is the only state in the nation with two coastlines – the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

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Naples Is Near The Gulf Beach Tip

No place in Florida is further than ninety miles from the ocean.  Florida’s coastline of 1,350 miles is second only to gigantic Alaska and much bigger than California’s third place at 840 miles of coastline.   Hawaii is 750 miles of coastline.

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Florida’s Military Museums Honor Our Veterans and More

There are 1.5 million Floridians who served in the United States Armed Forces so it is not surprised that there are dozens of memorial gardens and local museums to honor the military past and present.  My father met my mother while training at Drew Field for the Third Air Force (Army) and Florida was home to dozens of airbases and other training facilities.

There are several dozen large museums that not only provide a great family excursion, many of them are free to the public and supported by the contributions of Floridians who wish to honor our service men and women.

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Cape Canaveral Rocket Launch Room

Here are some of the most distinguished museums and attractions and some that cover a specific area.

The National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS in Pensacola is home to the amazing Blue Angels and is one of the largest and most beautiful air and space museums in the world. There are over 140 beautifully restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard Aviation and an IMAX Theater.

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The museum is free and due to increasing security around American military installations, you might want to call (800) 327-5002, or go online to see if any exhibits or areas are restricted.

Eastward along the Panhandle’s white beaches is the huge Eglin Air Force Base, home to the Air Force Armament Museum, open everyday but Sunday.  Call (850) 651-1808 for the latest information.

FLORIDATRAVELER air force armament museum map

The Air Force Armament Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to the collection, preservation and exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia associated with Air Force Armament and its platforms of delivery. It is not bunch of photographs but a fleet of vintage military aircraft including the fastest plane ever built – the SR-71 Blackbird!

Florida’s military museums are not just airplanes.  I love the Navy Seal Museum on North Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce.  Located near where the Naval Combat Demotion Units and Underwater Demolition Teams, the forefathers of today’s SEALS, started training, the museum captures the secret world of these brave divers.

FLORIDATRAVELER naval seal museum

Up the Atlantic Coast are the huge rockets of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, located at Complex 26 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

It includes artifacts from the early American space program and includes an outdoor “rocket garden” displaying rockets, missiles and space-related equipment chronicling the story of the US Air Force.

FLORIDATRAVELER rocket garden at airforce canaveral

The museum is open to the public as a part of the “Cape Canaveral: Then and Now” tour offered by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex four days  per week and by free tours offered by the Air Force 45th Space Wing Community Relations office.

For a more personal look at Florida during World War II, you might want to visit the unique NAS Fort Lauderdale Museum, also known as the Link Trainer Building #8.   The site near the airport has reconstructed the barracks where pilots lived and trained – few exist today and none like you stepped back into the 1940’s.

FLORIDATRAVELERgeorge bush room ft lauderdale

You’ll recognize quickly that one of the rooms replicates the 1943 bedroom of a 19-year old trainee named George H. W. Bush.  The buildings support beams of Florida Eastern Dade County Pine are made of a now extinct tree.

For more recent American history you might want to visit the small but imposing Museum and Library of the 2506 Assault Brigade in Miami at 1821 SW 9th Street. It is the story of the fatal Bay of Pigs Invasion and all the Cuban-Americans that took part in that event.

There are a number of museums containing ships from American wars.  The most impressive is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum in Key West.   The Ingham is the most decorated vessel in U.S. service, the only Coast Guard ship earning two Presidential Unit Citations.

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There is an admission charge since this is a non-profit venture to preserve and honor one of the two last remaining cutter ships from World War II.

Every region of Florida has one or more military museums or parks.  In the Tampa Bay area, I love the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo.  The AFHM houses in its 35,000 square feet of indoor space fully operational tanks, jeeps, and armor, while outside are airplanes, even a replica of Chuck Yeager’s Supersonic Jet Bell X1, which broke the sound barrier.

FLORIDATRAVELER Armed_Forces_History_Museum

Join the WWII Troops In France in 1945

One of the more unusual museum elements is the recreation of military environments such as walking through an underground WWI bunker, spying on a Japanese island observation tower, and creeping along a French street after the Normandy invasion.

It is a great family experience to visit Florida’s military past.

 

 

 

 

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Florida’s Best State Parks With Great Beaches

Florida has miles and miles of great beaches, but more and more of them are lined with condos and multi-storied hotels.  If you want a Florida beach with a wonderful all-natural view, you might consider a Florida State Park.

For too many visiting vacationers, Florida’s State Park system is still the most underrated tourist attraction.  Here are my favorite Florida State Park beach settings.

FLORIDATRAVELER BahiaHonda

Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key

 The Florida Keys is wonderful for diving and fishing and boating, but good natural beaches are shockingly rare.  Sitting almost under the Overseas Highway at MM37 is this wonderful park, with two beaches, great snorkeling spots, and glorious sunsets.  Like all major Florida parks, there are campsites and cabins, but they fill up fast all year round.  The Sand and Sea Nature Center is a great addition to the park.

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Port St. Joe

 You can’t miss the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on a map of the Florida Panhandle for it resembles a reversed Cape Cod.  With 9.5 miles of usually empty snow white beaches extending northward beyond the end of the road, the park is vast.  Exploring it past the cabins and Class A RV park, and campsites, you will see towering dune formations, heavy forests, and wildlife that seem oblivious to your presence.

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St. Joseph: The bay to the right and the Gulf to the left

Go to the bay-side and you’ll see clear water for snorkeling and kayaking.   While the summer is the big time for the Panhandle, winter visitors get the treat of sharing their views of nature without other humans.

Caladesi Island State Park, off Dunedin

 While you can actually walk from North Clearwater Beach over to Caladesi, most people take the ferry from Honeymoon Island to this great barrier island.  Selected as America’s best beach in 2008, Caladesi has more than white sand beaches.  It has a terrific three mile nature trail, a full marina, concessions, and recreational rentals.  The best part of this park is it is minutes away from the large cities of Tampa Bay.

FLORIDATRAVELER caladesi docks

 Sebastian Inlet State Park, South Melbourne

 Famous as the most consistent surfing location on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, Sebastian Inlet is also host to a great state park which gives access to miles of lagoon side kayaking, boating, and fishing.  There are few outdoor activities you can not do at Sebastian Inlet.

 FLORIDATRAVELER st sebastian from air

North of the Inlet is the State Park on left and surf on right

The Visitors Centers are actually in two unique museums: the McLarty Treasure Museum, housing some of the treasure of 1715 Spanish fleet wreck off the Inlet, and the Sebastian Fishing Museum, which shows how good fishing is off the jetties.  People have indeed found Spanish coins on the beaches in this area.

Lovers Key State Park, Fort Myers Beach

 South of Fort Myers Beach, minus the motels and condos, is Lovers Key State Park with its two miles of natural beach and winding inlets and lagoons.  To get to the beach, you park and take a tram over a bridge.  You are surrounded by nature at this park.   It is said this was where the famous female pirate Anne Bonny “honeymooned” with her pirate cohort “Calico Jack” Rackham.    With five miles of hiking and biking trails and canoe and kayak rentals, you too can play pirates in paradise.

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Grayton Beach State Park

There are miles of wonderful beaches in the Panhandle, but Grayton Beach State Park has soon stunning features.  The 2,000 acre park has a rare coastal lake surrounded by towering dunes and a forest of magnolias and scrub oaks.  The one mile beach of sugar white sand is rated in every beach poll, but few people realize how good the camping and cabin sites are.

FLORIDATRAVELER Grayton-Beachdunes_Laurie-Ausley_

Dunes at Grayton (Photo by Laurie Ausley)

This is one spot where you can do excellent saltwater and freshwater fishing within ten minutes of each other.  The park gets high marks for kayaking, canoeing, and paddle-boarding.

Big Talbot Island State Park

 The Boneyard Beach of Big Talbot Island is the place to pretend you are in a Robinson Crusoe situation.  The beautiful sand beach is strewn with the bleached skeletons of thousands of dead trees whose shapes twist oddly in every direction.   There is no camping at this place.  It is reserved for enjoying nature with picnics, kayaking into the swamps, bird-watching, and maybe an isolated picnic.

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Big Talbot Looks Like An Adventure

Big Talbot is the location that has won dozens of National Gold Medals for geo-seeking games.  Almost every weekend you will see a group of treasure hunters looking not for Spanish coins but for natural landmarks.

 

 

 

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Florida and Alligators – A Love-Hate Relationship

Last week was a very negative week for the Sunshine State and particularly for Orange County (Orlando) with the mass assassination at the Pulse nightclub and the killing of a two year old Nebraska boy by an alligator at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa at Disney World.

I’m sure many people were shocked there were alligators in a man-made lake, the Seven Seas Lagoon that millions cross every year to get to the Magic Kingdom.  How can this be?  The reality:  If it is fresh water and its Florida – there are gators.

Long time Floridians know that June is the end of the alligator mating season which starts in April with the loud bellowing of male gators in search of females and the romance cycle continues in May and sometimes June.  The development of Florida into the third most populated state in the nation has put both man and gator at greater risk. Male alligators in particular will travel across Interstate highways and golf courses to locate that lucky pond with a female gator.

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May 2016: in mating season gators can be mean-spirited.

May and June is a dangerous time for small dogs and even cats whose owners reside alongside Florida lakes.  Nighttime is when gators come out to eat and all across the Deep South you can floodlight the nearest canal and be surprised to see the shiny eyes of alligators staring at you.  There is a good reason to build seawalls if you live on a Florida canal.

There are 1.3 million gators in Florida and almost 20 million people.  The fact that there are just one or two fatal gator attacks in Florida each year on the average is a statistic that shows that gators usually avoid humans and are mainly active at night.

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Sarasota statue spoofs Florida icons of old people, gators, and crime.

Florida and alligators have a strange love-hate relationship going back to the earliest paintings of Florida made by French artist Jacque le Moyne in 1564 at the colony of Fort Caroline on the St Johns River.  LeMoyne was shocked to see the Timucuans clearing the land and killing what Le Moyne viewed as giant creatures.  Of course, explorers wanted to see these gators when they saw the art work.

FLORIDATRAVELER jacques-le-moyne-hunting-crocodiles-from-brevis-narratio-1563

Florida gators were never 40-foot monsters.

Alligators have played a key role in the promotion of Florida as a tropical and exotic place.  By 1900 there were thirty alligator farms in Florida since it was easy to catch gators and stick them in a pit and charge admission.  To boost sales, we got gators to jump for fish and hired Seminoles to wrestle gators.

FLORIDATRAVELER alligator frame postcard

The gator became the mascot of the University of Florida.   The gator became a popular symbol on Florida souvenirs.  Now we eat alligators at many Florida restaurants.  Gator tastes like chicken.  Gator meat is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. It is available in a variety of cuts including tail meat fillets, ribs, and kids meal nuggets.   My wife would like us to eat all the gators in Florida.

FLORIDATRAVELER UF Albert_and_Alberta

 Go Gators! But stay out of my backyard!

But alligators have been around since prehistoric times.  They are survivors and removing them from a lake is a difficult task.   Some new gators might show up the next mating system for bull gators drive the smaller male gators to look for new places to stay – like your backyard pool.

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Unofficial Guide To Florida Beachside Restaurants

It’s summertime in Florida and both tourists and locals are heading to Florida’s 663 miles of beach (not shoreline – beach). Part of the sandy excursion for many adults is a stop at a restaurant on the beach for burgers, seafood, and lots of cold refreshment.  The older you get, the more important the food becomes compared to the warm water and hot sun.

I have a few rules about what constitutes a “real beach-side restaurant” – first, it must be ON the beach.  Not across from the beach which is often the case in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and other urban haunts. You want to be able to go from restaurant to water in sixty seconds!  Restaurant owners are as sneaky as resort PRers when it comes to website descriptions.

FLORIDATRAVELER beach food

Beach food should come on paper plates: seafood, seafood!

“Waterfront restaurant” in Florida may mean it is on the Intracoastal Waterway or bayside.  “Ocean view” may even mean a narrow speck of blue water between two condos.  If the diners are wearing anything less than shorts and beachwear, you can be suspicious of its location. Even restaurant websites can disguise shortcomings so I like to examine the customer photographs in Yelp and Tripadvisor.

To my criteria, a good “beachside restaurant” is on a public beach, preferably near a pier and beach volleyball courts.  The view should not be buried behind twenty foot sand dunes and the menu should be Florida or tropical and the drink list as long as the food listings.

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My Summer Hangout: Frenchy’s Rockaway on Clearwater Beach

My favorite nearby beach-side restaurant is Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on Clearwater’s North Beach parking by the Art Deco hotel and the 1920’s beach pavilion.  Great grouper dishes, large menu, great views of volleyball and North Pier.  Like many places, you better arrive early to get the best parking.

Here are some of the best beachside restaurants I know:

Salute On the Beach on Atlantic Boulevard in Key West is not just distinctive in its funky open-air beachside ambiance, it makes seafood Italian style on its menu.

FLORIDATRAVELER Salute Key West

Salute in Key West is ON the beach

I love to vacation over at Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, a compact concave of hotels, restaurants, and shops with a downtown strip seconds from the beach.  There by the City Pier is the cool Aruba Beach Café, where as one might expect there is always a party going on.  Look for big tropical drinks, live Caribbean music, and good seafood.

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It seems that having a nice fishing pier sets the stage for the correct beachside restaurant.  That’s the case with Benny’s on the Beach by Lake Worth Pier on South Ocean Boulevard.  If you have ever visited Daytona Beach, you probably have heard about the Ocean Deck Restaurant and Beach Club.   The three-story complex has been serving seafood and loud reggae music since 1940.

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Benny’s Is Not One of Those Expensive Pier Restaurants

Jacksonville Beach has several beachside places, but I like the outdoor seating and Mexican menu at The Pier Cantina and Sandbar.   A good margarita even enhances the nearby view of Jacksonville Pier.

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I once lived in the Panhandle and its newly beachside communities attract younger families from the Deep South.  It’s hard to pick one in Panama City, but I’ll select the Hooked Pier Bar and Grill with all the necessary ingredients:  view of pier, on the beach, fish tacos that are killers, and lots of parking at a nearby shopping center.

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Since we started at Key West, we must end 700 miles away on Pensacola Beach.  The Casino Beach Bar and Grill down Fort Pickens Road serves up signature glorious seafood and drinks from 7 am to 2 am in the summer months.

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Casino Beach has a pier and a great seafood grille.

Have a wonderful trip to the beach and visit a beachside restaurant.

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