Florida beaches

Florida beaches offer up something for everyone. In this shot are Jacksonville Beach (upper left), Sebastian Inlet (upper right), Pensacola Beach (lower left) and Siesta Beach (lower right). (Staff and Wire Services)

There's more to a beach vacation than sand and surf.

Distilled to those basic elements, every Florida beach getaway might seem the same. Yet there are also infinite variables that imprint distinct personalities to stretches of the state's 1,250 miles of coastline, a distance second only to Alaska:

Breathtaking sunsets on the Gulf Coast. Atlantic Ocean waves that have launched the careers of world-class surfers. Remote dunes dotted by sea oats that offer the perfect spot for a book and a blanket. Fishing piers that are magnets for afternoon anglers. Bustling beaches within walking distance of shops, galleries and nightspots.

So if the view of the blue horizon seems to be the same, look over your shoulder: There's probably something cool right behind you.

Blue water and Blue Angels

From Central or South Florida, the road trip to Pensacola Beach is a daunting drive, especially the final leg across the seemingly endless Panhandle west from Tallahassee on Interstate 10.

All that windshield time is worth it, however, to catch the first glimpse of sunshine reflecting off the waters of Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico from the Bob Sikes Bridge. It's the gateway to one of the state's old-fashioned beach towns, with a rustic flip-flop vibe that persists despite the occasional high-rise condo or beachside resort.

The most recognizable landmark is still the giant beach-ball tower, which casts its shadow 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 more-secluded Opal Beach, with its quiet dunes, is about seven miles west.

There are plenty of shops and restaurants within shouting distance of the pier and adjoining Casino Beach, the busiest piece of Pensacola Beach. For breakfast, sample the breakfast burrito at Native Cafe (45 Via de Luna Drive) — and make sure to top it with the homemade salsa.

At lunch, try a dozen oysters, a grouper sandwich and a beer at Peg Leg Pete's (1010 Fort Pickens Road), where it's possible to avert the inevitable wait for a table by snagging a spot at one of the two character-laden bars.

For a break from the sun, head to the mainland and the National Naval Aviation Museum (1750 Radford Blvd.) at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. It's free admission, with more than enough exhibits to occupy an afternoon.

The base is home to the Navy's famous Blue Angels stunt squadron and the museum offers a close-up look at those famous jets, as well as a chance to step inside a Marine One presidential helicopter.

Siesta and the circus

When it comes to beach endorsements, they don't come much better than this:

Coastal expert Stephen P. Leatherman, better known as Dr.Beach, named Siesta Beach in Sarasota as the nation's best in the 21st edition of his annual rankings in 2011. It took the award, in his words, for its "beautiful blue-colored water," the wide beach and gentle waves.

Even to Floridians accustomed to coastal views, the contrast of blue water and white sand at Siesta Beach is something worthy of a postcard. The beaches are clean (no smoking is allowed) and a gentle surf adds to the family-friendly atmosphere. The upscale homes and beautiful landscapes make pleasant sightseeing year-round.

The Siesta Beach Pavilion has an information kiosk where locals provide thoughtful recommendations for dining and shopping in nearby Siesta Village. There, they make a tasty grouper sandwich at the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, which makes it worth the tricky task of finding a parking spot on the narrow, attractive streets.

There's more elegance at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, where the permanent collection of works by Rubens, Velazquez, Van Dyck and others offers a quiet, air-conditioned respite from the beach. Admission also includes a tour of Ca' d'Zan, John and Mable Ringling's Venetian gothic mansion that reflects the couple's opulent lifestyle in the 1920s.

Nostalgia is the main attraction at the Ringling's Circus Museum, also on the grounds, with artifacts that celebrate the careers of icons such as high-wire artist Karl Wallenda and elephant trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.