We’ve written before about what to see and do in the Florida Keys, but what of the Sunshine State’s other islands? Following a broad sweep of coastline from the panhandle’s extreme west near the border with Alabama, all the way down to the relatively remote 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.
Though there are 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 catch sight of a bottle-nosed dolphin out to sea. Further west on Perdido Key the dunes are protected in their entirety from any development, due to the tiny endangered Perdido Key beach mouse who calls them home.
The majority of accommodation and eating 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 is the stretch of Florida’s Gulf shoreline 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, 22-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, a room in the antebellum-style St. George Inn or even at the beautiful Poincianna Plantation mansion overlooking the sea.
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 to take a boat trip or a backwater tour, where you’re likely to spot a huge 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 atmospheric main streets, and sleeping choices range from cosy guesthouses and Victorian-inspired B&Bs to simple beachfront rentals. Wander down to the pelican-scattered pier for an abundance of dining options though be sure to head back to 2nd Street to sample the local clam chowder at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant – winner of three international World Champion Chowder awards, it just might be the best you’ve ever tasted.
Virgin Atlantic operate three daily flights to Florida – two to Orlando from London Gatwick, and one to Miami from London Heathrow. Virgin Holidays are the UK’s market leaders in holidays and fly-drives to Florida. Visit the website for details of all destinations in the Sunshine State, including the Florida Panhandle.