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Florida is well known for its unspoiled beach destinations, but many don’t realize that it also has some pretty stunning islands to explore as well. Put your toes in the sand, let the salty breeze flow through your hair, and let the stress of the world fade away while relaxing on island time. No need to pack your passport for these destinations, save your money and visit one of these islands in Florida that will surely give you that exotic island escape you’ve been looking for.
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Edging coastal Georgia and less than 30 minutes away from metropolitan Jacksonville, Amelia Island is a true Southern jewel. With thirteen miles of pristine sand and clear water, Amelia Island has a lot to offer with outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding, and surfing. In the spring, thousands of seafood lovers flock to the area during their annual Shrimp Festival to indulge in all things shrimp. If seafood isn’t your thing, take a stroll on the beach and you might get lucky, some beachgoers have found starfish and sharks teeth along the shore to take home as souvenirs. With its luscious landscape and untouched beaches, Amelia Island will surely be a family favorite.
Sanibel Island is a laid-back beach, known for its lack of chain stores, stop lights and population of less than 7,000. An island that has been described as true, quiet island bliss, Sanibel is known equally for its unassuming personality and being the shelling capital of the world. People travel all over the world to scour the beaches every morning for unique pieces that have washed up ashore. Due to its banana-like shape, Sanibel runs west to east and catches 300 species of shells from the Caribbean that are easily accessible to even the littlest beachgoer. Impressive for being able to maintain its small-town feel despite its popularity, Sanibel is a perfect island destination for the whole family. Nearby Captiva Island is another Florida favorite.
A beach and bird lover’s dream, St. George Island is situated against the Gulf of Mexico in Northwest Florida. Claiming to have over 300 types of birds, this 1,962-acre piece of land bordered by both Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf provides a unique place to spot them. Nature lovers aside, the 28 miles of snowy-white sand and pristine waters to create one of the best beaches in Florida’s Panhandle and is perfect for sunning and swimming. Consistently ranking in one of the top beaches in the U.S., you won’t find any high rises or chain stores in this area. St. George provides one of the last preserved barrier islands in Florida, so beach and bird lovers visit fast to experience this serene and uncrowded spot before it’s too late.
Situated about as far southwest as you can go in Florida and right on the edge of the Everglades you’ll find Marco Island. The crescent-shaped sandy beach faces the Gulf of Mexico and is far less touristy than it should be. The island has a massive network of canal-lined streets surrounding an area that is clean, quiet, and perfect for those looking for a truly relaxing vacation experience. While you won’t find nightclubs or even nightlife on Marco Island, you can visit the Ten Thousand Islands, a small mangrove of islands through the Everglades. Here you can take a swamp buggy or airboat ride through the preserve if you’re feeling adventurous.
Sitting northwest of Fort Myers, Gasparilla Island is just a small strip of land that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico and is one of the best places in Florida to visit if you hate crowds. Known for its tarpon fishing opportunities, the seven-mile island offers a tranquil escape. Once a popular destination for famous families like the Vanderbilts and Duponts, it’s now a beloved Old Florida destination where most folks get around by golf carts and bikes. In addition to embracing its laid-back ambiance, you can visit the Boca Grande Lighthouse, which dates back to 1890.
If you’re looking for a colorful, offbeat island adventure in Florida, pack your bags and head south to Matlacha (pronounced MATT-luh-SHAY), where you’ll find a small coastal village full of charming attractions. Pass the candy-colored shops in Matlacha and venture to Pine Island, where you can marvel at the remnant Indian mounds that surround the Randell Research Center and imagine what life was like centuries ago before the arrival of Spain in the early 1500s. You can also hike the scenic Calusa Heritage Trail.
Accessible only by boat or kayak, Cayo Costa is a barrier island in Florida that has managed to retain its natural wilderness and sense of remoteness with a landscape of pine forests, oak-palm hammocks, and mangrove swamps. Piled with seashells, this 2,426-acre park features scenic trails and plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife, including manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, and osprey. With nine miles of undeveloped shoreline, you can enjoy swimming and snorkeling, set up a picnic in the shade, or stay overnight in a tent under the stars, as this is a top beach camping destination in Florida too.
Offering some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in Florida, Captiva Island is an unspoiled paradise. This 10-square-mile island has postcard-perfect surroundings, where you can enjoy kayaking, paddle boarding, or fishing (all in one day if you feel like it), while private boat cruises explore its hidden gems. The island is covered in exquisitely beautiful seashells and subtropical vegetation that makes it a great spot for beachcombing, while its downtown area features charming coffee shops, boutiques, and laid-back restaurants.
Get back to nature on Merritt Island, a barrier island best known for being home to the Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge and Kennedy Space Center. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is where to go to find untouched natural surroundings, filled with some of Florida’s most impressive wildlife. It is a protected area where it’s not uncommon to spot manatees, alligators, river otters, and sea turtles. The 140,000 acres are a hotspot for birdwatching, best seen while hiking the scenic footpaths, visiting the observation deck, or fishing.
Located on a unique sea island in Northeast Florida, Big Talbot Island is a state park and nature preserve. It’s the perfect destination for nature lovers, where you can explore its island habitats by hiking the scenic Blackrock Trail to the shoreline or enjoy a picnic under one of the pavilions overlooking the water. Fishing and touring the salt marsh are popular activities, as well as kayaking excursions with local tour guides. Make sure to stroll to Boneyard Beach to see the photogenic salt-washed skeletons of live oak and cedar trees that once grew near the shore.
One of Florida’s most charming small towns, Cedar Key is an Old Florida jewel located on the Nature Coast. It’s like a step back in time, where you’ll see ’50’s-style motels, quaint shops, and a lack of chain restaurants. The island’s quiet Hemingway-esque fishing village offers an abundance of outdoor adventures to choose from, including fishing excursions and sunset cruises. Its rustic ambiance and slower pace of life are highlighted by its quaint mom and pop shops and landscape filled with fishing boats. Spend a day at the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, or pop into Tony’s Seafood Restaurant for a creamy bowl of clam chowder.
Little Palm Island is one of Florida’s most luxurious island getaways, the only catch is that it’s only accessible by staying at the lavish Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. It’s the perfect island destination for beach lovers, where you can enjoy a tropical paradise in a unique stand-alone thatched-roof bungalow suite on an intimate stretch of sand. In addition to luxury amenities like a gourmet restaurant and opulent spa, your stay includes paddleboards, kayaks, and sunset sailing.
Less than a 15-minute drive from Sarasota, Siesta Key is an eight-mile Long Island. Its best known for its 99 percent pure quartz sand that is pure white in color, while water sports and birdwatching make it the perfect beach vacation destination. Marvel at colorful coral formations at the shallow, snorkeling-friendly area at the Point of Rocks on Crescent Beach or head to Turtle Beach for fewer crowds and a chance to see turtles nesting. It’s an excellent choice for love birds who want to stay and watch the sun dip below the Gulf horizon, while a snack bar, playground, volleyball courts, and restrooms make it a great spot for families too.
Nearly 70 miles away from Key West you will find Dry Tortugas National Park, a set of seven coral islands with clear blue waters and vibrant coral reefs perfect for snorkeling. Noted as one of the most remote islands you can find in the United States, here you will find shallow waters (around 5-15 feet deep) so clear that the exotic and tropical fishes, coral, and other marine life such as sea turtles will feel like they are right at your fingertips. The reef, along with a recorded 300 species of birds is accessible from the park’s sugar-white, sandy beaches. The ecosystem in Dry Tortugas is like no other, as the archipelago coral reefs are said to be the least disturbed in the Florida Keys, with nearly 99 percent of this 100-acre park being submerged completely underwater. In addition to snorkeling, the park is well known for its excellent scuba diving and saltwater fishing. Plan ahead for this destination, as visitors typically recommend arriving by chartered ferry or seaplane and camping overnight.