Florida’s fabulous Keys are well known, but what of the Sunshine State’s other islands? Following a sweep of coastline from the panhandle’s extreme west near the Alabama border, all the way down to the distant Cedar Keys south of Gainsville, we take a look at some of the lesser known outposts along Florida’s northern Gulf shores…
Gulf Islands National Seashore
The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 160-mile string of barrier islands stretching from Okaloosa in Florida to Cat Island, Mississippi. Famed for their intensely white quartz-sand beaches and two-tone water, the islands are warm and sunny most of the year and make a great winter destination.
Despite the overdeveloped stretches of generic motels and condos along the main highway, it’s easy to find vast, deserted swathes of dune habitat rooted down by beach grasses, particularly to the east and west of Pensacola Beach on Santa Rosa Island. Here you’ll find a sandy, semi-wilderness for hiking, beachcombing, boating, birdwatching and wildlife-spotting, where conservation efforts have considerably increased the sea turtle and gopher tortoise population, and it’s not unusual to see a bottle-nosed dolphin out to sea. Further west on Perdido Key the dunes are severely restricted in terms of development, due to the tiny endangered Perdido Key beach mouse who calls them home.
The majority of accommodation and dining options can be found in Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Gulf Breeze and Perdido Key.
Further east past Panama City lies St. George, one of the barrier islands off the coast of the oyster-harvesting town of Apalachicola. This stretch of Florida’s Gulf shoreline is known as the Forgotten Coast, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that St. George and its uninhabited neighbours St. Vincent and Dog Island remain remarkably unspoiled.
Uncrowded, 28-mile long St. George makes an ideal weekend retreat as part of a wider Florida road-trip. Hire a kayak and dip in and out of sandy coves and salt marshes, cycle the paved bike paths or designated off-road trails, and stay overnight in a clapboard beach cottage, or a room in the antebellum-style St. George Inn.
Seafood is an obvious speciality. At the Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe, you’ll find beachfront dining and a tiki bar on the largest sea-view deck on the island. Grab a plate of blackened deep sea scallops, a frozen margarita and settle down for the Gulf Coast sunset show.
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
About 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, the port of Cedar Key is one of the Gulf Coast’s genuine treasures and lies totally off the tourist trail. Despite being so close to the mainland this isolated island community of around 800 souls can only be reached by a single road, but at the end of it you’ll find a remote, tranquil taste of old Florida; a working fishing town home to artists, writers and runaways.
Surrounded by the other twelve islands of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most popular island activities is a boat trip or a backwater tour. You’re likely to spot a variety of native and migrating birds including, if you’re lucky, nesting bald eagles and peregrine falcons. A clutch of galleries, gift shops and old wooden houses line the laid-back main streets, and lodging options range from cosy guesthouses and Victorian-inspired B&Bs to simple beachfront rentals. Wander down to the pelican-scattered pier for a host of dining venues, but don’t miss a chance to sample the local clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant on 2nd Street. The winner of three international World Champion Chowder awards, it just might be the best you’ve ever tasted.
Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Florida – to Orlando from London Gatwick and Manchester, plus summer services from Glasgow and Belfast and to Miami from London Heathrow. Virgin Holidays are the UK’s market leaders in holidays and fly-drives to Florida.