Moms with baby strollers race over smooth sand as if it were asphalt.
Dads disappear under sugar-white sand, heaped on them by kids.
And children jump in and out of the shallow water, shouting "Watch me, Mommy. Watch me!"
Kids ... and moms ... and dads — everywhere you look.
You don't need an expert to tout Siesta Key, an eight-mile-long slip of land on Florida's Gulf Coast in Sarasota County, as a perfect playground for families.
Even so, it can't help but gather accolades, the latest from Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach. His annual Top 10 Beaches in America listed Siesta Key in 2009 as No. 2. (Hanalei Bay in Hawaii ranked first.). The beach kept its silver medal status again in 2010. (Editor's Note: Siesta Beach was named best beach in 2011 -- Read the story.)
"Siesta Key shouldn't feel badly coming in second," says Leatherman, a professor of environmental studies at Florida International University.
"It's really a great, big beautiful beach. The water is clean. The sand is blazing white. A great place for families. Great for people who want to get away and unwind."
The vacation vibeIndeed, Siesta Key, named for an island development, is an appropriate moniker. This laid-back barrier island — about three-fourths of a mile at its widest — exudes a "Relax, you're on vacation" vibe.
Most of the action plays out on Siesta Key's Crescent Beach, named for its curved shape and spanning 2 1/2 miles. And for good reason.
It's the sand.
Thanks to Harvard's geology department, which studies such things, you learn that the clean, flour-like sand is 99 percent pure quartz grains. Those grains are very fine, without coral or shell fragments.
As you walk the beach, the sand feels cool, even in the blazing sun. That, and the beach's flatness, explains why so many walkers, joggers and even cyclists gravitate to the shore.
This soft, powdery sand packs down firm and smooth, which accounts for the elaborate sculptures that dot Crescent Beach. Not just sand castles, either, which children top with wet sand that swirls like frosting. But a menagerie, too, including a tubby manatee and fierce-looking sharks.
During the summer, a weekly one-mile kids' run takes place on Siesta Key's public beach, about a half-mile strip within Crescent Beach that stretches 600 yards wide in spots.
On Tuesday evenings, as many as 400 youngsters dash along the ocean's edge, some accompanied by parents shepherding children so young they don't walk, they toddle, until they finish the run atop dad's shoulders.
The only downside: Siesta Key's beaches are so popular that parking, which is free but limited, is problematic. Parking spots at Siesta Key's public beach number 860 and fill by early morning.
Keeping the kids busyWhen it's time to cool off, the Gulf invites. It's calm with few waves to knock over the wee ones. It's shallow so kids can walk out several yards.
Near the shore, the water isn't deep enough for sharks and most fish. The biggest threat is sting rays, so remember to shuffle and stir up the sand. The rays will scoot.
Older kids gravitate to any of the eight volleyball nets on the public beach. Or they rent jet skis or fly above it all, tethered to a parasailing boat.
Another favored spot to congregate: The little shopping mecca on the beach, home to an ice cream shop, a hair braiding and temporary tattoo kiosk, a store selling beach gear, including T-shirts and flip flops, and, conveniently, an ATM.
Kids cluster at the concession stand, too, which offers everything from burgers to bratwurst.
Away from the beach, you can head to one of two marinas, which offer boat rentals and fishing trips. Or rent kayaks and watch the birds and manatees at the Jim Neville Marine Preserve at the key's south end.
Two-wheeling across townAfter leaving the beach, the best way to see Siesta Key is by bike.
The island, connected to the mainland by two bridges, is only six streets at its widest. One main road cuts through the key and offers either a bike lane or sidewalk for safety.
Siesta Key is tourist-snowbird territory, whose year-round population of 12,500 swells to 20,000 during the winter. So don't expect a bonanza of stores and eateries.
Two small shopping areas, one north and one south, offer two dozen restaurants, along with ice cream emporiums, beach wear and shell shops, most independently owned.
Don't look for hotel chains, either. The island lodgings are mainly rental properties, including condos and cottages, town homes, and mom-and-pop hotels circa '50s and '60s, some still sporting jalousie windows.
If you want beachfront lodging, make sure your accommodation opens directly on the sand. There's a reason local businesses rent small wagons for families to haul coolers, rafts and other beach paraphernalia from apartments that are dozens of yards from the beach.
Some serious sandNow, about that beach: For geology geeks, here's a shorthand version of why the sand is so special.
Before it was sand, it was rock. Over millenniums those rocks moved from the southern Appalachian Mountains into rivers, which carried sand grains into the Gulf and down Florida's west coast.
The sand is really, really old because the feldspar and mica, originally part of the rock, are gone, leaving only quartz.
When Dr. Beach named Siesta Key among his top beaches, he wasn't just looking at soft sand. He studies 50 criteria to select his top 10 — from water cleanliness to sand color. And he's hardly the first to honor Siesta Key.
In the Great International Sand Challenge in 1987, Crescent Beach was rated "The World's Finest, Whitest Sand," beating out more than 30 entries, including the Bahamas and Grand Cayman. The Travel Channel named Siesta Key as America's top sand beach in 2004.
In Siesta Key, folks take their sand seriously.
In April, police arrested a 70-year-old retired businessman trying to block crews from spreading brownish colored sand trucked in to fill a hole.
Making it clear the imported stuff didn't measure up, he posted signs that read: "This Dirt Must Go."
Liz Doup can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4722.