Florida’s Gulf Coast: Five Wonderful Island Escapes

Aerial view of Cabbage Key, Florida. Fred Mays photos.
Aerial view of Cabbage Key, Florida. Fred Mays photos.

Five Secluded Island Getaways on Florida’s Gulf Coast

By Fred Mays

Banyan Street, Boca Grande, Gulf Coast Florida.
Banyan Street, Boca Grande on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Florida is a big, very populous state with lots of tourists, and consequently finding a little quiet peace on the beach gets harder all the time.

Yeah, there are over 1,350 miles of coastline, and you would think that’s enough to give everybody their own place on the sand. But no, everybody seems to want to pile in the same spot you picked.

But there are places where you can get away from the crowds and enjoy a little sand dune solitude. Here are my picks for couple’s getaways on Florida’s Gulf Coast where you can find great beaches, fine restaurants, and comfortable hotels.

Cabbage Key

Cabbage Key bar adorned with currency on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Cabbage Key bar adorned with currency on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The attractions here are the quiet, laid back atmosphere, a great bar and a fine dining restaurant at the Cabbage Key Inn.

The bar’s “wallpaper” is made up of hundreds of dollar bills stuck up by customers. There are eight cottages and six rooms in the inn for overnight stays.

A perfect setting for a romantic getaway weekend. Prices range from $100-$145. If the cottages sell out there is the co-owned Tarpon Lodge across the Intracoastal Waterway on Pine Island.

 There’s not much sandy beach on Cabbage Key, but if you’re looking for solitude this is the place to be. The Key is an isolated island in the protected waterway north of the popular Sanibel-Captiva destination. You can only get there by boat, either your own or a short water taxi trip from Pine Island.

The Key makes a great spot for bird watching and fishing. There is a short hiking and nature trail around the island.

$$$ Moderate to Expensive

Boca Grande

Over a century ago this was the winter hang out for the barons of the industrial revolution. There was even a railroad so they could travel here in their private rail cars. Reports are that back then you could only get a room at the luxurious Gasparilla Inn if you provided references. Seriously!

Today Boca Grande is a pricey but fun small town getaway. There’s a public beach at the Gasparilla Island State Park. The railroad tracks are gone now, replaced by a bike path that runs the length of the island.

Gasparilla Inn, Boca Grande, Florida's Gulf Coast. GoNOMAD travel.
Gasparilla Inn, Boca Grande

Getting around town is often done in golf carts. Don’t miss a quick trip to Banyan Street, where a one-block area is lined with a canopy of ancient banyan trees. The iconic Gasparilla Inn is the upscale place to stay. There are other more moderately priced options such as the Innlet Hotel.  The historic Palmetto Inn, built in 1908, is pet-friendly.

footprints in the sand Navarre Beach

Restaurants range from the tony Pink Elephant, Sisters (great Italian food), the Loose Caboose for lunch, and several other excellent spots around downtown.

Access to Boca Grande is either by boat, or crossing the Gasparilla Island Causeway (toll $6).

Winter is busy, but the big season in Boca Grande is May and June for tarpon fishing competition. Thousands of anglers from all over the world come to compete for huge cash prizes. Just try to get a room.

$$$$ Expensive

Anna Maria Island

beach scene Anna Maria Island
Beach scene Anna Maria Island.

Located on the south side of Tampa Bay, you access the island via causeways in Bradenton and Cortez.

There are three communities on the island…Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Anna Maria. I recommend the sleepy Anna Maria village, located at the far north end of the island, a six-mile drive from the causeway.

The town of Anna Maria has fine dining at the Sign of the Mermaid, and casual beachside dining at the popular Sandbar restaurant. There is also the very affordable fresh seafood at Rod and Reel Pier.

Anna Maria Beach, Gulf Coast, Florida. GoNOMAD Travel.
Anna Maria Beach.

Anna Maria is mostly residential. There are small “Mom and Pop” type hotels. Home rentals are available. No high-rise condos. In fact there are no high-rises anywhere on the island, which has a two-story height limit.

A bike trail runs the length of the island. Bring your own or there are bike rentals readily available. There are public beaches in all the communities and they are relatively uncrowded, even in high season.

$$$ Moderate

Cedar Key

The Neptune bar at the Island hotel Cedar Key
The Neptune bar at the Island hotel Cedar Key

Life is so laid back and slow moving here that folks in Cedar Key say it takes them two hours to watch “60 Minutes.”

Naturalist John Muir once walked here (Yes..walked!), a thousand miles from his home in Indiana. Once a forestry center for harvesting red cypress trees for pencil manufacturing, the sleepy town evolved into a fishing community, and today is a popular secluded getaway.

The top place to stay on Cedar Key is the historic Island Hotel on Second Street, which features a fine dining menu in its restaurant, and a balcony overlooking the street where Jimmy Buffett once serenaded crowds.

The Island Hotel on Cedar Key.
The Island Hotel on Cedar Key.

Check out the King Neptune painting in the bar. Another more moderately priced option is the quaint pet-friendly Faraway Inn on Third Street, by the water, which has rooms and cottages.

They roll up the streets early here, but nightlife can be found in bars and restaurants along Dock Street.

$$ Affordable to Moderate

Navarre Beach

The moment you get off Interstate 10 at Milton and head south on Route 87, you see the sign that tells you the beach is 32 miles ahead. While not exactly secluded, Navarre Beach is out of the way on the Florida panhandle and relatively uncrowded.

Navarre is on the eastern edge of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, about an hour east of Pensacola. Anybody who knows their beaches knows the Florida panhandle has some of the best sand found anywhere.

Navarre Pier sunset.
Navarre Pier sunset.

The beach is across a short causeway from town. There is a public parking area and beach access right at the foot of the causeway. You can walk to access the Navarre pier for fishing or to just enjoy the sunset. Heading west there are condos and resorts, and past that you hit a residential area with beach houses and rentals.

There are several hotel/resorts on the island and rates are pretty reasonable, starting around $115. Hotels on the mainland side are cheaper.

Fine dining is at a premium here, but there are a number of restaurants and fast food places along the main street in Navarre. I would recommend Broussards’s Bayou Grill, a casual Cajun seafood place on the island, right by the causeway. Great Key Lime pie.

$$ Affordable to Moderate

Fred Mays

Fred Mays is a freelance eco-travel writer/photographer in Dallas, Texas. He formerly lived in Florida for 27 years. Visit his website at fredmays.com.

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