NORTHERN WINTERS reliably stoked the desire for a tropical beach getaway. But given the many Covid hurdles still in place for international travellers, the closer this beach is to home, the better. It’s no wonder, then, that Florida, with the longest coastline of any state in the contiguous United States and seasonally mild temperatures, has seen some of the highest hotel occupancy rates in the country in recent weeks. , according to hotel data firm STR. Still, there are more than enough sandy beaches to accommodate the influx of visitors, especially if you skip the bustling Florida Keys in favor of the lesser-known islands of the Sunshine State. Here we focus on five distinct islands, each home to beautiful beaches as well as other indisputable charms.
For shell collectors: Sanibel Island
A 40-minute drive from Fort Myers, Sanibel is a lush, laid-back place with pretty, shell-strewn beaches and gentle waves often punctuated by leaping dolphins. Visitors come for a welcome lazy window, happily interrupted by little more than swimming (Tarpon Bay Beach is the star of local beaches) and beaching (Turner Beach is best for shelling; prime time of the day are the times before and after low tide).
Sanibel offers 22 miles of paved bike paths, so the best way to get around is on two wheels. Some hotels, including the Island Inn (see below), rent bicycles to guests. Alternatively, reserve your wheels at least five days in advance at Billy’s Rentals.
Stay there: The friendly, well-run Island Inn offers spacious and very comfortable beachfront rooms that don’t break the bank (from around $280 a night). Alternatively, you can rent a luxury condo through Kingfisher Vacations (from around $180 a night).
Eat in : Book a table at Sweet Melissa’s Cafe well in advance, the new American cuisine is excellent. Head to the Clam Shack, owned by a Rhode Island couple, for outstanding fried clams and lobster rolls.
For capricious families: Siesta Key
If you have teenagers who are moaning about a family vacation, tell them to watch “Siesta Key” on MTV. The reality show, now in its fourth season, is set on this 8-mile-long barrier island off Sarasota in the Gulf of Mexico. The destination’s real claim, however, are its beaches — nonstop miles of powdery white sand and good public amenities, like beach restaurants and chair and umbrella rentals.
While Siesta Beach is popular with visitors, locals prefer Siesta Key Public Access Beach 2 because it’s quieter and rarely crowded. And for a cloudy day, a 10-minute drive from Sarasota on the mainland is one of the South’s best small museums, the Ringling, and great theaters, ballets, cinemas, and shopping. Bonus: Sarasota is also home to an exceptionally friendly airport, with direct flights from Boston, Chicago, New York and other cities.
Stay there: The Hyatt Residence Club Sarasota on Siesta Key Beach offers waterfront suites with well-equipped kitchenettes, plus a pool and gym (from around $870 a night). Or rent a villa or apartment through Siesta Key Luxury Rental Properties (from $210 a night).
Eat in : With a bohemian beach shack atmosphere and an appealing eclectic menu, the Cottage is a favorite among visitors and locals alike; don’t miss the seared tuna club sandwich.
For Those Seeking Privacy: Fisher Island
Fisher Island has been a world apart since its inception when a federal dredging project to improve the Port of Miami separated it from Miami Beach in 1905. Over the years, the tiny island of just 173 acres has been purchased and sold by an estate. of American businessmen. In the 1920s, auto magnate Carl Fisher traded the island with William K. Vanderbilt II in exchange for a yacht. Vanderbilt built a lavish private estate, including the still-standing Mediterranean-style mansion designed by Palm Beach architect Maurice Fatio.
Today, the exclusive island remains a private luxury community that consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States, accessible only from the mainland by private boat or ferry service that operates 24 hours. on 24 from a landing on the causeway that connects Miami to Miami Beach.
Stay there: The Fisher Island Club, open only to non-residents on a member’s recommendation, offers a range of comfortable accommodations, from hotel rooms to historic cottages and villas. Each booking includes the use of a golf cart to get around the island. Guests have access to the impeccably manicured sands of the Beach Club and a PB Dye-designed golf course, one of South Florida’s most coveted courses. There are also 17 tennis courts (membership fee is $350,000 plus dues; room rates on request only).
Eat in : The Fisher Island Club is home to several restaurants, including the Garwood Lounge in the Vanderbilt Mansion.
For old-school, old-school Florida: Gasparilla
This thin strip of white sand that hangs off Florida’s west coast was once a favorite vacation spot for swells like the DuPonts and JP Morgans,
who arrived in their private wagons. Now most visitors fly to Fort Myers Airport, located about 80 minutes south of Gasparilla by car, or by private plane to the Boca Grande Jet Center or Coral Creek Airport, just a short drive away. across from Gasparilla Sound. Those arriving with pets usually head to Dog Beach, a serene place to hang out with your pooch. But Boca Grande Pass Beach is the real winner – a setting as idyllic for sunbathing and swimming as it is for watching manatees.
Stay there: Architect Francis Kennard designed the Gasparilla Inn and Club in 1913, drawing inspiration from Cape Cod’s “Frame Vernacular” wood-shingle seaside architecture. Many of the inn’s first guests were well-born Bostonians who came to winter. Generation after generation, the same families vacation here, so book as early as possible and note that the hostel remains a pretty dressy place; see website for dress code (from $285 a night). If the Gasparilla Inn and Club is full, or you find room rates too high, try Parsley Baldwin for a good selection of vacation rentals (starting around $180 a night).
Eat in : Beyond the resorts, Gasparilla is home to some great restaurants, including Newlin’s Gourmet, praised for its lobster rolls and chicken salad, and Scarpa’s, for Italian cuisine and seafood.
For sports stays: Amelia Island
Forty minutes northeast of Jacksonville, Amelia boasts 13 miles of gorgeous beaches and one of Florida’s most charming small towns, Fernandina Beach. It is also one of the most sporting maritime islands: sea kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, hang gliding and horse riding are all offered.
If you’re unsure how to choose the best beach on the island, regulars vouch for Burney Park, equipped with lifeguards, showers and picnic tables. The park is located in historic American Beach, a 200-acre area that was once a vacation destination for wealthy African Americans and is now the first stop on the Florida Black Heritage Trail.
Stay there: For a top-notch resort and golf course, book the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island (from around $980 a night). Or opt for one-of-a-kind charm at the 17-room Amelia Schoolhouse Inn, which was created from an 1886 red-brick schoolhouse on the National List of Historic Places.
Eat in : Don’t miss the shrimp and grits in Burlingame and check out the Palace Saloon, a favorite haunt of the Carnegies and Rockefellers when Fernandina Beach was an upscale resort town in the 1880s.
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