Florida

Florida Island Vacations

Filed Under: Florida

When most travelers hear "Florida islands," they immediately imagine the crowded Florida Keys, the likely destination for most visitors seeking an island getaway in the balmy Sunshine State. But Florida's 1,197 miles of coastline is also home to a seemingly endless number of charming barrier islands that remain blissfully peaceful and haven't succumbed to throngs of tourists or high-rise real estate development. Enjoy a respite on one of Florida's "other" islands; we've selected our 5 favorite Florida island vacations.

Theodore Lee, flickr
Anna Maria Island
It's easy to be enamored of an island where the preferred pastime is paying homage to the sunset. On 7-mile-long Anna Maria Island, you will, in fact, find both locals and tourists flocking to the island's Gulf Coast beaches, bars and restaurants to watch the stunning daily spectacle. The ultra-laidback vibe of Anna Maria pays homage to "Old World" Florida, a time before glitzy resorts, glam high-rise condos and chain restaurants clogged so many of Florida's beach town shores.

You'll want to join the locals at Anna Maria's wide, sandy shores, such as Bradenton Beach or Bean Point; it's easy to explore the various beaches via the island's complimentary trolley. Kayakers, boaters and windsurfers will likely convene with other like-minded outdoors lovers at Palma Sola Causeway Beach. Whether you're an Old Salty Dog who loves fishing or you could care less about baiting a hook, plan to hit the island's Rod & Reel Pier, a fishing hot spot marked by a budget-friendly seafood restaurant at the pier's end.
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Sanibel & Captiva Islands
Escaping to the sister islands of Sanibel and Captiva is to escape much of the hustle and bustle that's permeated so many of Florida's beach towns and keys. On these tranquil barrier islands along Florida's Gulf Coast, you won't see stretches of cookie-cutter high-rise condominiums or the tacky amusement parks that litter so many other parts of Florida, and you most certainly won't hear the annoying buzz of jet skis or other watercraft with engines; they aren't allowed within 300 yards of the islands' shores.

Instead you can blissfully stroll through the island's charming main street, while under a shady sheath of palm tree fronds. The island's shell-strewn beaches are stunning: Among the more popular is Turner Beach, which faces west and is a delightful place to watch the sunset. If searching for seashells by the seashore gets dull, visit the J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which you can explore by bike, foot, canoe or kayak.
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Key Biscayne
Don't be fooled by the "Key" in its name; Key Biscayne lies just north of the official Florida Keys, on the state's Atlantic Ocean side, just off Miami's coast. The quiet, 4-mile-long barrier island provides respite for tourists overwhelmed with downtown Miami's chic, urban scene. Among Key Biscayne's highlights are lovely Crandon Park and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, home to one of the finest beaches in America.

While you'll likely lie on the soft, sandy beach or hit the calm, turquoise water to kayak or windsurf, you might also be tempted to hike Key Biscayne's many nature trails or tour the park property or visitor's center. Though the island is mostly residential, it does boast a handful of accommodations, including the stellar Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, where high-end room amenities, multiple restaurants, a luxury spa and a prime, beachfront location make it one of South Florida's most desirable properties.
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Gasparilla Island
If you're seeking a Florida getaway that combines equal parts wilderness retreat and "Old Florida" style with luxe accommodations, head to Gasparilla Island, a small barrier island off Florida's Gulf Coast. Tales of piracy pervade in this now-tranquil island, said to have once harbored legendary 19th-century pirate captain José "Gasparilla" Gaspar, who is said to have buried a treasure somewhere on its shores, which has yet to be found. While tales of Gaspar might just be folklore, the island's gorgeous beaches and lush wilderness areas are enough to draw visitors for a stay.

Gasparilla is an outdoor lover's paradise: The island is rich with opportunities for snorkeling, swimming, fishing and nature hiking. Since 1913, discerning travelers to the island have lodged at the Gasparilla Inn & Club, a 137-room resort featuring its own golf course and spa. Plan at least an afternoon to explore the beach near its iconic lighthouse, a particularly good place to go shelling during winter months.
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Amelia Island
Florida's northernmost barrier island, tranquil Amelia Island, lures travelers seeking a quiet and charming seaport community far removed from city doldrums. Pack your sunscreen and sneakers, because when you aren't exploring the quaint town of Fernandina Beach, you'll want to spend much of your vacation enjoying Amelia Island's copious outdoor activities. Thirteen miles of beaches will satisfy folks hoping to relax on the sands or hit the water for a swim. Amelia Island also offers excellent kayaking, fishing, biking and hiking along sand dunes or within the island's interior parks.

Once you've had your fix of basking in the sun, spend quality time wandering through Fernandina Beach. History buffs will find plenty to admire in the Victorian, Italianate and Queen Anne-style homes that line the town's streets, while shoppers and foodies will be ecstatic to discover an array of delightful boutique shops and eclectic restaurants. Island accommodations suit all manner of travelers and tastes, from swanky beachfront resorts, like the Omni Amelia Island Plantation (which reopens in spring 2013, following an $85 million-renovation), to homey bed-and-breakfasts in the heart of the historic center.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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