Visitors to the City Beautiful are sometimes surprised to discover that Orlando is—gasp!—landlocked. The metro area is full of gorgeous lakes, but we’re smack dab in the middle of the state, so reaching a beach takes a bit of time.
Fortunately, with the exception of the Panhandle, Florida is a relatively narrow state, so one of the advantages is that in Orlando, you can easily drive east, to the Atlantic coast’s beautiful sunrises, or west, to the Gulf coast’s gorgeous sunsets. Heck, you can even do both, ideally while listening to Florida band Sister Hazel’s album Chasing Daylight (one of my favorites!), which is inspired by the idea of watching the sun set on the west coast and then driving east to catch it rising again. If you’re longing for a bit of time in the salt and sand while you’re in town, here are five great beaches to try. All are within a one- to two-hour drive of Orlando.
One of the beaches that Orlandoans consider “ours,” Cocoa Beach sits just east of Orlando, a straight shot down the State Road 528 toll road. It’s incredibly easy to reach—you just get on the expressway and continue until you pass the cruise ship port and hit the beach. It’s home to a huge Ron Jon Surf Shop and a handful of popular beachfront bars.
New Smyrna Beach
Quieter and more residential than the Cocoa Beach waterfront, New Smyrna Beach is further north on the east coast, but it’s also an easy drive from Orlando. Make sure to check out historic Flagler Avenue, which leads from the Indian River to the beach; it’s lined with plenty of eateries and shops.
If it’s the Gulf coast you’re craving, venture southwest to Clearwater Beach, where the sand is powdery white and the sunsets are dazzling. See Winter the dolphin, of Dolphin Tale fame, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, or enjoy the nightly Sunset at Pier 60 festival with music, food and fun. If you have a bit of extra time, consider taking the 20-minute ferry ride to pristine Caladesi Island, one of the prettiest beaches in the country.
Just as famous for its NASCAR speedway as its seashore, Daytona Beach nonetheless offers a great Atlantic oceanside environment. It’s easily accessible from Orlando via I-4, and it features plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars. You can even drive your car right onto the beach in some areas.
Canaveral National Seashore
This public park features a gorgeous beach as well as opportunities to fish or take nature hikes. You’ll see tons of wildlife here, including 14 species of threatened or endangered animals. Keep your eyes open for bald eagles, wood storks, falcons and manatees, as well as thousands of sea turtle nests.