Secrets from the Sunshine State
Five isles less traveled but ready to show off
You may not have given it much thought, but Miami Beach is an island. So are Palm Beach, Key West, Sanibel, Amelia and Marco, to name a few of Florida's popular resorts.
But the state has a lot of less-known islands that are also worth visiting. Some still retain a bit of Old Florida - the laid-back, down-home lifestyle of an earlier age. Some sport high-rises and other trappings of modern tourism. But all possess an individuality that sets them apart from the usual.
Here are five less-known islands worth visiting.
1. Perdido Key
Why go. In 2004, Perdido Key was devastated by Hurricane Ivan, which pushed a wall of water 20 to 40 feet high. But Perdido Key has come back strong from that disaster and once again is hosting thousands of visitors.
It's a laid-back resort with miles of white-sand beaches. Mid- and high-rise condos with more than 2,500 units line the long, narrow island, which is a 45-minute drive from Pensacola Beach. While many visit the island simply to kick back, there are a golf course and many water-related activities - deep-sea and freshwater fishing, swimming, sunbathing, sailing and surfing. Perdido has a federal preserve and a state park; about 66 percent of the island is protected.
A legend is the Floribama bar, right on the Florida-Alabama line. Cold beer flows continually, patrons play beach games, and bands play nightly, though Jimmy Buffett no longer performs there.
Place to stay. Eden Condominiums, $140-$570; 1-800-523-8141, www.edencondominiums.com.
More information. Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-328-0107, www.perdidochamber.com.
2. St. George IslandLocation. St. George is a long, skinny barrier island in the northern Gulf of Mexico near Apalachicola. Separated from the mainland by a four-mile-long bridge at Eastpoint, it is 28 miles long but only two miles at its widest point. The closest major airports are Tallahassee Regional, 59 miles northeast, and Panama City-Bay County International, 61 miles northwest.
Why go. Known for its serene setting, the island has miles of uncrowded beaches and a laid-back lifestyle. Inland are forests of slash pines and live oak hammocks. Swimming and sunning are favorite pastimes.
Birders can spot a variety of migrating birds during fall and spring. Redfish, sea trout and pompano await anglers (a salt-water fishing license is required).
The eastern nine miles of the island are a state park, which offers hiking trails, boardwalks, observation platforms, and two boat ramps. There is a campground on the bay side of the park. During World War II, the island was used for military training.
Visitation is seasonal; few guests come in winter.
Places to stay.
Rental properties: Rental agencies offer houses, beach cottages, condos and townhouses, usually by the week for $550 to $7,000. One is Vacation Rentals.com, www.vacationrentals.com.
Buccaneer Inn, 100 rooms/suites, beachfront, has a conference center, $55-$205 per night; 1-800-847-2091, www.buccinn.com.
St. George Inn, 17 rooms/suites, recently renovated, 850-927-2849, $115-$200, www.stgeorgeinn.com.
Places to eat. Apalachicola Bay is one of America's great oyster grounds, and area restaurants offer them in many dishes in season. Off island, it's a short drive to Eastpoint and Apalachicola, both of which have a variety of restaurants.
Blue Parrot, St. George Island, upper-moderate prices; 850-927-2987.
That Place on 98, Eastpoint, moderately priced; 850-670-9898, www.thatplaceon98.net.
Owl Cafe, Apalachicola, moderately priced; 850-653-9888.
More information. Forgotten Florida, www.forgotten-florida.com. St. George Island State Park, 850-927-2111, www.floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland/default.cfm.
3. Cedar KeyLocation. Cedar Key isn't one of the Florida Keys; it's on the Gulf of Mexico, an hour's drive southwest of Gainesville and reachable by causeway. The nearest major airport is in Gainesville.
Why go. This is a funky, laid-back island that has retained some of the ambience of Old Florida despite the growing incursions of tourism. Weather-beaten wooden buildings sit atop pilings on the Dock Street waterfront, giving them a ramshackle look.
The pace of living is distinctly tortoise-like. Residents take time to smile and wave to visitors. Waitresses never hurry your food. Even the pelicans stroll nonchalantly on the pier.
Things to do. If lethargy's not your thing, go fishing for redfish and mackerel. Dig for clams at low tide. Take a tour boat to Atsena Otie island, once the booming site of factories that used local cedar to make slats for pencils. Go birding off Seahorse Key, which about 2,000 frigates and other shore birds call home.
Downtown has a ramshackle look, though the bar in the historic Island Hotel offers a remarkably international selection of beers. Perhaps that's the influence of such guests as Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Another oddity: Six-toed cats roam downtown, as they do in Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West.
Places to stay.
Cedar Cove Beach and Yacht Club, hotel and time-share resort, from $109; 1-800-366-5312, www.cedarcove-florida.com.
Island Hotel, downtown, from $80; 1-800-432-4640, www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com.
Beach Front Motel, on waterfront, $65-$135; 1-866-543-5113, www.beachfrontmotelcedarkey.com.
Places to eat.
Island Hotel, high-moderate prices; 1-800-432-4640, www.islandhotel-cedarkey.com.
Island Room, elegant, 352-543-6520, www.islandroom.com.
More information. Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, 352-543-5600, www.cedarkey.org.
4. Gasparilla Island
Location. Gasparilla is a Gulf of Mexico barrier island about 23 miles southwest of Punta Gorda. It is connected to the mainland by the Boca Grande causeway. The nearest major airport is Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers.
Why go. One of Florida's most storied hostelries, the Gasparilla Inn is a bastion of old-time elegance, though it is considering bending its rule that men wear jackets and ties after 6 p.m.
A winter oasis for such famous people as Thomas Edison and Katharine Hepburn, the inn still attracts some of the nation's elite. The family of George H.W. Bush are regular guests.
Not so welcome on the island are iguanas, which have multiplied in such numbers that the county hired a trapper to get rid of them.
Condos and homes also dot the island. Visitors can be seen swimming, shelling, fishing, hiking and biking on the Gasparilla Island-Boca Grande rail trail, which runs the length of the island. At its southern terminus is Gasparilla Island State Park, home to the Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum.
In spring, anglers descend on the island; its location next to Boca Grande Pass makes it a prime site for world-class tarpon fishing.
Places to stay.
Gasparilla Inn, open November to June, $290 (rooms only) to $631 (for modified American plan); 941-964- 2201, www.gasparillainn.com.
Anchor Inn, one and two bedrooms, $157-$297; 1-800-741-3074, www.anchorinnbocagrande.com.
Innlet on the Waterfront, standard rooms and efficiencies, $140-$175; 941-964-2294, www.innletonthewaterfront.com.
Places to eat.
The Pink Elephant, 941-964-0100, www.gasparillainn.com.
South Beach Grille, 941-964-0765.
Loose Caboose, 941-964-0440.
Outlet Restaurant, 941-964-2246.
More information. Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce, 941-964-0568, www.bocagrandechamber.com.
5. Useppa Island
Location. Useppa Island lies in Pine Island Sound near Fort Myers. It can be reached only by boat. The island can pick up "members" at Bokeelia on Pine Island. The nearest airport is Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers.
Why go. Useppa Island is operated as a private club, so you have to be a member or guest of a member to stay on the island. However, nonmembers can arrange a "get-acquainted" visit, and a luncheon cruise is open to visitors on daily boat tours from South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island.
Facilities include a swimming pool, spa, tennis and croquet courts, and a museum that includes mementoes from when the CIA used the island to prepare for the Bay of Pigs invasion. Guests like to stroll on the Pink Promenade, a paved path through tropical foliage.
In the early 20th century, the waters around Useppa and Gasparilla islands became world famous for tarpon fishing, attracting many wealthy sportsmen. Publisher and landowner Barron Collier, after whom Florida's Collier County is named, built a vacation estate here; his guests included Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Mae West, Gloria Swanson, the Rockefellers and Zane Grey. His home is now the Collier Inn.
Places to stay. Gasparilla cottages, and rooms and suites at the Collier Inn, are available for rent, $195-$695; 1-888-735-6335.
Place to eat. The Collier Inn offers fine dining. You can buy snacks at the general store or at the Tarpon Bar. Off island, you can boat a mile or so to Cabbage Key, or go farther to restaurants on Captiva or Gasparilla island.
More information. Useppa Island, 1-888-735-6335; www.useppa.com.