Almost everyone daydreams about vacationing on an island. However, expensive airfares have made flying a nightmare for families—not to mention the hassle of packing your favorite beach gear into suitcases. Luckily, Florida has many beautiful islands accessible by vehicle. So, load up your snorkeling gear, beach umbrellas, and economy-size containers of sunscreen. And, of course, swimsuits will be needed at these less-crowded destinations that offer a lot more than just surf and sand.
FLORIDA KEYS: STOCK ISLAND
Since 2001, my husband and I have owned a timeshare on Key West’s north side overlooking Cow Key Channel, a quiet narrow strip of water surrounded by mangroves, and the only sound we hear is the buzz of Jet Skis. Rather than heading to the overcrowded, overpriced touristy restaurants on Duval Street, we cross back over the bridge to Stock Island, where we find some of the best seafood in the Keys. Seriously, we spend more time there than we do on Duval Street.
Key West residents once kept their livestock on the island, hence the name. Today, people describe it as “the way Key West used to be” before the cruise ships and maddening crowds arrived. Its restaurants are weather-worn, casual, and worth every cent.
Eat: On a sunset cruise a few years ago, we asked the boat captain where he ate. Without hesitating, he replied, “Hogfish Bar and Grill,” and it has since become one of our favorites. An open-air restaurant on Stock Island’s Front Street, Hogfish Bar has every kind of fish sandwich imaginable, but no visit is complete without trying the signature hogfish, a local snapper that cooks up flaky and sweet.
Do: There’s no denying you’ll have to drive a bit to get to a beach, and my favorite is Bahia Honda State Park about 32 miles back up U.S. 1 toward Marathon. You’ll have everything you need there with beach showers and covered picnic areas. Stock Island is also home to the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, which began as a Depression-era tourist attraction. You can also find eclectic art galleries on Stock Island, including COAST, a creative collective workspace with open-air studios, and Collections featuring jewelry, art, and furnishings. And if things get too quiet on Stock Island, downtown Key West is only 15 minutes away.
Stay: Stock Island is getting a lot of attention now that its first two hotels opened just last year. Both the Oceans Edge Resort & Marina and the Perry Hotel are ready for visitors.
FLORIDA PANHANDLE: PERDIDO KEY
Just about as far west as you can go in Florida lies Perdido Key, home to the whitest sand you will find in the state thanks to the Gulf Island National Seashore. With a name like Perdido Key, people often think this island is in the Florida Keys, but it’s actually a few miles from Pensacola via Highway 98 and the famed Blue Angel Parkway.
In Spanish, the name Perdido means “lost,” and indeed this island is the place to lose your cares. In addition to beach time at the pristine Johnson Beach on the National Seashore (where a weeklong pass is $15 for a carload), outdoor enthusiasts will find miles of trails at Big Lagoon State Park and Perdido Key State Park.
Eat: Situated on the state line is the legendary Flora-Bama Bar & Restaurant, open since 1964. You’ve heard about it in Jimmy Buffett songs, and the oysters and live music make the waterfront grill a memorable stop. When you tire of seafood, head to Jellyfish Restaurant on the second floor of the Villaggio Shopping Center for the smoked meatloaf. While the seafood, fish tacos, and fried green tomatoes at Jellyfish are awesome, it’s the meatloaf that my family talks about long after we’re home.
Do: Perdido Key has plenty to do when you want a beach break. The National Naval Air Museum, just over the bridge toward Pensacola, is a must-see, especially for Blue Angel fans. In fact, check the schedule because the elite Navy flying team practices at 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and admission is free for both the practices and the museum. Visit Uncle Sandy’s Macaw Bird Park in north Pensacola, near Highway 90, to help feed the beautiful rescue birds in an all-volunteer sanctuary. The Perdido Kids Park also keeps the little ones entertained.
Stay: There aren’t many chain hotels on the island. It’s mostly vacation rentals and Air BnBs. Contact Perdido Key Vacation Rentals.
EAST COAST: AMELIA ISLAND
An hour north of Jacksonville, Amelia Island had me at my very first Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival about 15 years ago. This historic island separated from the mainland by the Amelia River has 13 miles of pristine beaches and 40-foot dunes, lush golf courses, and many old Victorian homes. The charming town of Fernandina Beach is the hub of the island with great boutiques, restaurants, and lots of history.
The town is anchored by two state parks. Fort Clinch State Park on the north end of the island not only has a 19th-century brick fortress for exploring, but also several miles of beach, paved bike trails, and six miles of hiking trails. Amelia Island State Park on the southern tip has 200 acres of unspoiled wilderness with beaches, salt marshes, and coastal maritime forests.
Eat: The Patio Place on Ash Street is a dog-friendly bistro, wine bar, and creperie featuring both savory and sweet crepes with flavors from around the world. Lulu’s at the Thompson House serves New Orleans and Charleston-inspired dishes in a cozy coach house.
Do: It’s not too late to plan to attend the 55th annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival on May 4-6. If you want to visit on a quieter weekend, you’ll have more time to explore the historic district and the Amelia Island Museum of History. For a retro step back in time, stop by the Fernandina Pin Ball Museum in Sadler Square to play on some vintage machines. Book time with Kelly’s Seahorse Ranch to ride horses on the beach at Amelia Island State Park.
Stay: Elizabeth Pointe Lodge offers refined Southern hospitality everywhere…from wrap-around porches to exquisite rooms.
It has been featured as one of Southern Living’s Great Inns of the South. Amelia Island has many other accommodations to fit all budgets.