February 15, 2009
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 three less-known islands worth visiting.
Cedar Key isn't one of the Florida Keys but is hundreds of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico, an hour's drive west of Gainesville and reachable by causeway. To get there: Take I-75 north to Gainesville, then State Road 24 west to Cedar Key. Nearest major airport is in Gainesville, about 50 miles east.
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 tortoiselike. Residents take time to smile and wave to visitors. Waitresses never hurry your food. Even the pelicans stroll nonchalantly on the pier.
What to do:
If lethargy's not your thing, go fishing for redfish and mackerel. Dig for clams at low tide. Take a tour boat out 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 an estimated 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 past 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.
Where to stay:
*Cedar Cove Beach and Yacht Club, hotel and time-share resort, from $109; 1-800-366-5312, cedarcove-florida.com.
*Island Hotel, downtown, from $80; 800-432-4640, islandhotel-cedarkey.com.
*Beach Front Motel, on waterfront, $85-$135; 866-543-5113, beach frontmotelcedarkey.com.
Where to eat:
*Captain's Table, seafood and sunset view, moderately priced; 352-543-5441.
*Island Hotel, upper moderate prices; 800-432-4640, islandhotel-cedarkey.com.
*Island Room, elegant, 352-543-6520, islandroom.com.
Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce, 352- 543-5600, cedarkey.org.
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. To get there: Take U.S. 41 or Alligator Alley west, connect with I-75 north. At Punta Gorda or Port Charlotte, take U.S. 41 to State Road 776, then go south onto State Road 771 and across the Boca Grande causeway. Nearest major airport is Southwest International at Fort Myers.
One of Florida's most storied hostelries, the Gasparilla Inn is a bastion of old-time elegance.
A winter oasis in years past for such 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 populate the island. Visitors may be seen swimming, shelling and fishing, or hiking or 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 upon the island, whose location next to Boca Grande Pass makes it a prime site for world-class tarpon fishing.
Where to stay:
*Gasparilla Inn, open November to June, rooms $265 to $395; 941-964-2201, gasparillainn.com.
*Anchor Inn, one and two bedrooms, $157-$297; 1-800-741-3074, anchorinnbocagrande.com.
*Innlet on the Waterfront, standard rooms and efficiencies, $120-$175; 941-964-4600, innlet.com.
Where to eat:
*The Pink Elephant, 941-964-4540, gasparillainn.com.
*Loose Caboose, 941-964-0440.
*Outlet Restaurant, 941-964-2246.
Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce, 941-964-0568, bocagran dechamber.com.
St. George Island
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, it is 28 miles long but only two miles wide at its widest point. To get there: Take I-75 north to I-10, west on I-10 to U.S. 319 (Tallahassee), south on U.S. 319 to U.S. 98. Go west to Eastpoint, the mainland end of the causeway to St. George. Closest major airports are Tallahassee Regional, 59 miles northeast, and Panama City-Bay International, 61 miles northwest.
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.
Bird-watchers 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.
Where to stay:
*A number of agencies offer rentals of houses, beach cottages, condos and town houses, usually rented by the week for $550 to $7,000. One is VacationRentals
*Buccaneer Inn, 100 rooms/suites, beachfront, has conference center, $55-$205 per night; 1-800-847-2091 or 850-927-2585, buccinn .com.
*St. George Inn, 17 rooms/suites, recently renovated, 850-927-2849, $108-$190, stgeorgeinn.com.
Where 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, thatplaceon98.net.
*Owl Cafe, Apalachicola, moderately priced; 850-653-9888.
Forgotten Florida, forgotten-florida.com or St. George Island State Park, 850-927-2111, florida stateparks.org/stgeorgeisland/default.cfm.
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