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Four Fabulous Gulf Islands

Florida - Sunday, February 17th, 2013

I have been visiting Florida’s Gulf Coast for longer than I care to admit, but I will admit that I love it here – so much so that our winter retreat is on Sanibel Island. Over the years we have used it as a base to explore many of the barrier islands that stretch all the way from the panhandle to the Everglades. Here are four that represent the best of what many call the ‘real’ Florida.

Finding an unspoiled and nearly  deserted beach within eyesight of the towers of Clearwater Beach might seem unlikely, but it can be done. Caladesi Island is a Florida State Park that has remained much as it was long before the Gulf Coast became the tourist magnet it is today. Reached by way of a 15 minute boat ride on the passenger shuttle from Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, the island is ideal for a day at the beach. Upon arrival you’ll find a small marina where kayaks can be rented to explore the mangrove bayous. There is also a café and store which sells just about anything you need to enjoy the island. Highly recommended is walking the 2.5 mile nature trail that winds its way through a pine and palm forest that transitions into a lovely shaded live oak forest, unique to the Gulf islands. Along the way you are likely to see one of the many armadillos or gopher tortoises that roam the island. At the end the trail leads to a magnificent stretch of white sand that has twice been named the best beach in the United States. Following it back to the landing point provides great shelling and birding opportunities. Visit the photo gallery.

It’s possible to drive to Gasparilla Island, but don’t forget the GPS. You won’t find a single road sign or billboard announcing the existence of this hideaway until the last turn toward the island. Named for a famous pirate, the island is seven miles long with a bike path running the entire length. The small town of Boca Grande has an end of the road feel to it – funky and laid back with golf carts the preferred way of getting around. In contrast the century old Gasparilla Inn has entertained DuPonts, Vanderbilts, Fords and lately the Bush family. The property straddles the entire width of the island so that you can watch the sun come up on the one side and watch it set, drink in hand at the Beach Club on the Gulf side. Three excellent restaurants and a Pete Dye golf course right on the water enhance the experience. Don’t overlook driving a golf cart to the two lighthouses on the island or fishing for tarpon which congregate in these waters in late spring.

If you drive to the Boca Grande lighthouse on Gasparilla Island you will see a large uninhabited island just across Boca Grande pass. This is Cayo Costa, the wildest and least spoiled of any of Florida’s gulf islands. Almost the entire island is a state park with an incredible nine mile beach on the gulf side. The water is unusually clear and offers the best snorkelling in the area. Fishing, shelling and kayaking are other pastimes that are worth pursuing. There are next to no facilities, but there is a campground and a number of very primitive cinder block cabins that have no water or electricity. If you really want to get away from civilization Cayo Costa is the place to do it. The island is accessible by a ferry from Bokeelia on Pine Island or private boat. A fun way spend a day is to rent a pontoon boat at Jensen’s Marina on Captiva and chug up to Cayo Costa for a picnic on the beach. Whichever manner you choose to get there, Park Rangers transport visitors the half-mile to the beach side by golf cart.

Also accessible only by boat is tiny Useppa Island which is entirely owned by the Useppa Island Club. Approximately 100 home owners live in almost complete seclusion only twenty minutes from the mainland. At one time so exclusive that children were not even allowed to visit, it is now possible to stay in the former winter home of Barron Collier, a legendary figure in southwest Florida, whose residence is now the Collier Inn. Aside from the inn there are a number of cottages spread out along the Pink Promenade, a mile long pink concrete sidewalk that connects everything on the island. Golf carts and bikes are the only means of transportation on the island, but it is small enough that it can easily be explored on foot. The first thing that becomes obvious on walking any distance is that Useppa is not like the other barrier islands; it is incredibly lush and definitely has a tropical Caribbean feel. In places the Pink Promenade is completely canopied by centuries old banyans and live oaks. Orchids, some wild, some potted are everywhere. If there is one Florida island where stepping off the boat is like stepping into the past, it is Useppa.


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