Looking for a tropical getaway without getting on a plane? These island escapes offer unspoiled coastline, abundant outdoor activities and time to unplug. All for a tank of gas.
by Rick Sylvain
Barely a mile out into the Gulf of Mexico, clammer Bobby Witt throttles down the Mudrunner for an unexpected treat. Gulf waters around us are suddenly roiling with dolphins, blowholes spouting, dorsal fins cutting through the surface like wide black knives.
“Looking for mullet,” Capt. Bobby explains. “When the dolphins find the mullet they form a kind of circle and slap at the water to stir the fish. Adult dolphins go crazy, the kids stay out of the way.”
OK, this is the most frenzied action I’ve seen in 24 hours on Cedar Key, where the pace is so slow I’m not sure the tide bothers coming in.
Talk about farm to table, on Capt. Bobby’s Cedar Key Clam Tour, we are boating to an underwater farm. In Gulf waters just offshore, Witt and locals like him farm clams on the seafloor, a thriving trade on northwest Florida’s Nature Coast. In fact, the two main industries in Cedar Key are harvesting shellfish—and visitors. Except the visitors aren’t coming for crowded beaches, golf resorts, hulking hotels or a nonstop pace. They are coming for an all-but-forgotten, laid-back Florida.
Three miles from mainland Florida and accessible by bridges, Cedar Key is so isolated that just when you think State Road 24 must have been a wrong turn, the pine forest surrenders to salt marshes, tidal creeks, mudflats and mangrove-fringed bays.
Historic Second Street, what passes for the main drag, comes into view and beyond that, the eateries, shops, bars and fishing pier along busier Dock Street, which fronts the Gulf.
A statewide net ban in 1994 crippled commercial fishing in the Cedar Keys, ending a way of life on these barrier islands. Fishermen retrained themselves in clamming. Now among the nation’s leading suppliers of farm-raised clams, Cedar Key the town is reborn and revitalized. Clamelot.
WHY GO: Slightly more than two hours by car from Orlando, sleepy Cedar Key (pop. 900) offers charming 19th-century architecture, abundant water birds, beautiful unspoiled bays and bayous, spectacular sunsets and sunrises. On charters with licensed guides, tourists can fish the local waters. Golf carts may be rented for tooling around. Or sign up to rent a canoe or kayak. Birding, hiking, biking, nature trails and browsing galleries are popular.
Just off the historic (1886) Cedar Key Cemetery, a boardwalk invites a quiet stroll skirting the waters of a back bayou, above quiet marshlands. A very good history museum traces Cedar Key’s past in art, artifacts and an 1880s house moved to the site. Cedar Key was once a railroad and lumbering boomtown with a thriving commercial fishing trade.
Where to stay: Nothing says Cedar Key quite like the Island Hotel, a romantic bed-and-breakfast. Built in 1859 as a general store and post office and said to be haunted, the old inn boasts seashell tabby walls and oak beams, sloping wood floors and a comfy, old-slippers feel.
Scattered about are efficiencies, guest houses, condos and motels. In a home dating to 1880, Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast is done up prettily in ice cream colors. Innkeeper Alice Phillip Oakley does her breakfast presentations to sublime perfection. cedarkeybedandbreakfast.com
What to eat: The Island Room at Cedar Cove plates pastas, steaks and seafood including Oysters Rockefeller. Gulfside on Dock Street, Chef Joran Keeton serves up waterfront views with his seafood specialties—downstairs at the casual 83 West and upstairs for finer dining at 29 North. Up a blue wooden staircase on Dock Street is Steamers. Cedar Key steamed clams and farm-raised oysters on the half shell get raves. Duncan’s, “where the elite eat in their bare feet,” is a waterside hangout for locals.
Roadside and ramshackle, Annie’s Café hugs a back bayou on SR 24. Annie is long gone, but her great granddaughter Glenda Richburg works a mean grill. Take a table on the screened porch or outdoor deck, order lunch with a side of homemade coleslaw and you’re as local as local gets.
No visit is complete without having the clam chowder at Tony’s. Creamy and seasoned to perfection with chewy chunks of clam, Tony’s chowder is a steaming bowl of Cedar Key love.
At the Island Hotel, Chef Kim Cash keeps it simple with her line cooks, where the signature dish is sautéed artichoke hearts with scallops, shrimp and mushrooms with a shot of sherry. From her parcel of the community garden, Cash grows parsley, green onions, Italian kale, Swiss chard and tarragon for her balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Be sure to check out: To experience the heartbeat of Cedar Key, boat to a working clam farm. Capt. Bobby takes visitors on informative adventures that follow the backcountry bayous out to the Gulf. It is in the Gulf shallows, on leased lands marked by white poles delineating each farmer’s territory, where bags of maturing clams are laid in rows like crops on the seafloor. For Capt. Bobby and others who make their living off clamming, the bags are buried treasure. Excursions of Capt. Bobby’s Scale Key Clams cost $50 per person. (352) 212-2555.
Meanwhile, Cedar Key just saunters along, ever defined by the sea. “No chain places, no big developments,” says Alberta Harris, a visitor from Tampa relaxing at the island’s Neptune Lounge. “The big conversation is who caught the fish for the fish dip.”
by Cara Allen
Located just 500 yards off Key West, Sunset Key is a sublime, sun-soaked paradise. Accessible only by private ferry, the 27-acre island is home to luxury cottages nestled in lush tropical landscaping with generous resort amenities and an upscale Caribbean restaurant perched on the sandy shoreline.
WHY GO: Enchanting Sunset Key offers privacy, first-class service and luxe facilities with an upscale but understated ambience.
With no cars, you can hear the warm turquoise waters lapping the shore from your hammock on the beach. After morning yoga on the sand and a dip in the pool, sip a Key lime colada and stroll the grounds where luxuriant landscaping blooms with exotic plants. For a closer look, Sunset Key’s horticulturist gives a tropical garden tour twice a week.
The Spa at Sunset Key is a favorite getaway with a full range of treatments like a detoxifying algae mud wrap or a Key West aloe wrap to soothe a sunburn. Spa suites with secluded garden patios are perfect for post-treatment lounging with a glass of Champagne.
Where to stay: Pastel-colored Sunset Key Cottages (40 in all) are delightfully luxurious, with tin roofs and wraparound verandahs and balconies. Kitchens are fully equipped, but you might prefer to just sit in the rocking chair in your fluffy bathrobe. Some cottages come with private plunge pools. Each morning a basket of freshly baked pastries, warm muffins and fruit is on your doorstep. sunsetkeycottages.com
What to eat: On the waterfront, award-winning Latitudes serves alfresco breakfast, lunch and dinner, but even inside there’s a pretty view of the ocean. Cuisine is Caribbean inspired with an emphasis on locally sourced seafood. Don’t miss the lunch favorite—local grouper, grilled, blackened or lightly fried and topped with caramelized onions and Key lime tartar sauce on toasted Cuban bread. Or the fish tacos feature flaky, tempura-battered grouper, crispy slaw, tomato salsa and chipotle sauce.
Dinner gets fancy with picks like local lobster and crab cakes with Thai chili sauce or chilled shrimp with mango chayote salad and tropical sambal. Key West pink shrimp marries with lobster, chorizo and sofrito sauce in the pasta. But it’s probably the simple butter-roasted Florida lobster tail, served with silky parsnip puree, fingerling potato chips and lobster sauce that makes guests happiest. If you prefer turf to surf, there’s a honey and ancho chile crusted Wagyu beef skirt steak. Finish with a slice of Key lime pie (topped with meringue, of course).
Be sure to check out: Listen for the ice cream man each day at 3 p.m. arriving via his conch cruiser cycle for free sweet treats.
Adult libations start at 4:30 p.m. daily at Latitudes outdoor bar when guests gather to sample locally distilled, private-label Latitudes Rum.
For the ultimate extravagance, take a curated, 12-hour outing to Cuba on a private flight to explore the country’s culture and cuisine, including meals at notable Havana restaurants, a cigar factory tour led by a cigar sommelier, an architectural outing and a tour of the Havana Club Museum of Rum and a private rum tasting.
Or just relax. The technicolor sunsets may be the best reason of all to book a cottage, watching the day come to a close with your toes in sand.
Rates start at $695 a night; Florida resident discounts available. sunsetkeycottages.com
by John Graham
Tiny Matlacha is just 128 acres, so small that five Matlachas would fit into Manhattan’s Central Park. But this little former fishing village still has room for loads of Old Florida flavor. A three-hour drive from Orlando into Lee County, Matlacha sits between Cape Coral and the relatively massive Little Pine Island.
WHY GO: You’re never far from the water in Matlacha. There are no sandy beaches, but you’ve got the sun rising over the water, the sun setting on the other side, fishing, boating, Instagrammable architecture and not a single chain restaurant or hotel.
The first thing you learn in Matlacha is to say “mat-luh-shay.” The name means either “water to the chin” or “water to the knee” in the language of the Calusa, the native people who once lived here. Yes, those are not the same thing. The Calusa didn’t have a written language, so we’re on our own here. Just know that the water is a big part of life in Matlacha.
Where to stay: Bridgewater Inn is the most famous place to stay in Matlacha, right at the foot of the bridge. You can step out your front door and be fishing in seconds. Some rooms have kitchenettes; some have a microwave and mini fridge. Sheets and showers are clean, but don’t be surprised by wear and tear and window-unit AC. If you demand the comforts of a chain hotel, there are plenty back in Cape Coral. bridgewaterinn.com
The tiny house trend has hit town with Matlacha Tiny Village. The two units (so far) are technically trailers, since they’re on wheels. About 200 square feet, they can sleep up to six. The village is on the site of a former trailer park, and the owners also have a couple more conventional cabins, as well as the Matlacha Cove Inn up the road with a dock/patio that faces the sunset. matlachatinyvillage.com; matlachacoveinn.com
What to eat: You got up for that sunrise and now you need coffee to go with it. Perfect Cup does lattes and smoothies, but it also roasts its own beans with multiple brews at a self-serve station. The menu leans toward well-executed diner standards with a few more creative plates such as the Big Daddy omelet with lump blue crab, asparagus, and provolone.
My one trip outside Matlacha proper was for lovely, flaky croissants and fresh fruit tarts at Pine Island Getaway Café in nearby St. James City. The new bakery is owned by two brothers—French-trained chefs—who grew up in St. Maarten.
Shrimp boats used to anchor behind Bert’s Bar & Grill when part of the place was a hotel and recreational craft still pull up for lunch. You can sit inside, but with the water view, why? Smelt is a house specialty—tiny, cleaned, fried fish you eat bones and all. They’re brought in several times a week from … Michigan.
Island Seafood Market combines a fish market with a lunch counter. Get those red grouper filets to go—or they’ll walk one back to the kitchen for your baked fish sandwich.
For a mid-afternoon snack, Friddu brings to town the dual foodie trends of gourmet ice pops and bubble tea. Matlacha Specialty Market is the handy place to get a cold six-pack—or Kona coffee, ghost pepper honey, and duck meat pâté.
Miceli’s has a huge waterfront patio facing the sunset, so it’s a popular dinner spot. The menu is mostly Italian and seafood. “Our #1 Pasta Dish” is a take on shrimp scampi—plenty of sweet Gulf shrimp and a creamy version of the traditional garlic butter sauce. Live bands play outside seven nights a week.
Be sure to check out: Day or night, you’ll see folks dangling fishing poles off the Matlacha Pass drawbridge. It’s been called “the fishingest bridge in the world” for decades, although the current span dates to just 2012. Something about water flow and shelter under the surface attracts grouper, snook, trout, redfish and more.
If you’d rather watch than catch, Captain Jack Boat Tours (captain jackboattours.com) has a 90-minute Back Bay Eco Tour that takes you past mangrove islands, osprey, stingrays and maybe manatee in the colder months. The two-hour Dolphin and Nature Tour goes out to the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve with the option of lunch at Cabbage Key, which legend says inspired Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
Gulf Coast Kayak (gulfcoastkayak.com) promises “no experience necessary” with guided tours, fishing trips, and “blaze your own trail” rentals. Depending on the day, you might also book a stand-up paddleboard nature tour or a nighttime full moon kayak trip.
Matlacha shops carry everything from shoes to fudge, but make sure to hit the art galleries. Lovegrove Gallery and Gardens stands out, even among the bright paint jobs around town. Leoma Lovegrove calls herself an “impressionist-expressionist,” mixing nature and pop culture with splashes and slashes of color.
On the other hand, Wild Child Art Gallery showcases the work of 100-plus Florida artists. Out back, you can sometimes see one or two of those artists working at the water’s edge or teaching a class.
by Kendra Lott
WHY GO: While this tiny turn-of-the-century harbor town on Gasparilla Island is far from shabby-chic, it does have a surprisingly laid-back vibe for a town founded by the DuPont family and favored by former presidents. No matter what your social station, you’ll experience Southern hospitality and serene seascapes. Look to early fall for a getaway, as many of the local businesses shut down during August and September. Better to beat the snowbirds and enjoy a quiet October weekend at the tail end of tarpon season, when just a few fish are still biting and the shelling crowd is sparse.
Where to stay: The Gasparilla Inn is a pastel paradise straight from the “only in Florida” file. At once formal and whimsical, the 1911 landmark inn and its facilities—including tennis courts, a Pete Dye championship golf course and a certified green marina—now span several blocks between the Gulf and the Boca Grande Bayou. the-gasparilla-inn.com
What to eat: The Inn’s Dining Room is a splurge, but the menu changes frequently to feature local and organic seafood, prime steaks, lamb and veal in classic but perfectly executed preparations. There’s a dress code at dinner, but the rattan and palm frond decor is irresistible and the staff’s friendly formality elevates the experience.
The Temptation is a turquoise-leather time capsule that no one should miss. It first opened in 1947, and hand-painted murals depict scenes and residents from that era. The bar opens at 10 a.m., a full 90 minutes before lunch, which includes comfort classics like homemade lobster and corn chowder or grilled cheese with tomato and bacon along with fresh local seafood. Dinner is more upscale, with an emphasis on specials featuring seafood and Duroc Farms pork, and the wine list has been recognized by Wine Spectator.
For sweets, check out the full-service restaurant The Loose Caboose for house-made ice cream; Pink Pony scoops the Amish-made brand Big Olaf’s Creamery, made in nearby Siesta Key.
Be sure to check out: Boca Grande Pass, the opening between Cayo Costa and Gasparilla Island, is considered home to the world’s best tarpon fishing, but plenty of delights beckon from land. Golf carts and bikes are the preferred means of transportation here, perfect for cruising the tree-lined streets or taking the short ride to Gasparilla Island State Park for picnicking, snorkeling or shelling. A highlight of the park is the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse, which was built in 1890.
You’ll need a boat for the day trip to Cayo Costa State Park and its 9 miles of beaches, pine forests and mangrove swamps with few buildings in sight; the only development on the island is a smattering of structures to accommodate tent camping. The King Fisher Fleet offers day cruises to this beautiful barrier island departing from nearby Punta Gorda.
by Kendra Lott
WHY GO: Centuries before circus magnate John Ringling set his sights on this 16-square-mile barrier island near Sarasota as a site for a luxury resort, native Americans from the Timucua and Caloosa tribes vacationed on its white-sand beaches. The mounds of oyster shells, or middens, that they left behind endured longer than Ringling’s plans, which fizzled along with the Depression-era economy. Developers took notice again when the town was incorporated in 1955, and visitors today can enjoy upscale amenities along with unspoiled views, natural wonders and easy access to facilities devoted to preserving the area’s flora and fauna.
Where to stay: Rooms at The Resort at Longboat Key Club offer views of the Intracoastal, the Gulf or the golf course. The gracious grounds also include an award-winning tennis facility with 20 Har-Tru courts, a full-service spa, marina, and an array of dining options. Florida residents can take advantage of discounts on overnight rates. longboatkeyclub.com
What to eat: It’s too often true that waterfront restaurants with gorgeous views slide by with so-so food. Not so at Dry Dock Waterfront Grill on Sarasota Bay, where red grouper fresh from the Gulf is grilled or blackened, then brushed with a mix of white wine and Worcestershire and served on a brioche bun for a swoon-worthy sandwich.
The Shore is a standout in busy St. Armand’s Circle, where upscale retail outlets, scoop shops and spas share space with Italian statuary from Ringling’s collection. The second-floor eatery above the brand’s popular clothing store serves killer craft cocktails and seafood-centric fusion fare along with vegan options, all in an open and airy mid-century dining room.
Be sure to check out: At Ted Sperling Nature Park in nearby South Lido, outfitters offer guided kayak tours through the area’s mangrove tunnels. The mangroves provide shade for kayakers as well as a natural habitat for fish, crustaceans and birds. Lucky kayakers might spot a pod of dolphins or manatees; the less fortunate might find themselves the target of hopeful cormorants, water birds who dive repeatedly under kayaks in hopes of a snack.
Seeing sea creatures is a sure bet at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium on City Island. One of the oldest marine research labs in Florida, Mote’s aquarium is open to the public and home to sharks, otters, manatees, sea turtles and assorted reptiles in habitats that mimic their natural environments. Across the bay, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens offers an afternoon’s worth of entertainment in a strollable tropical oasis. The gardens’ many living collections range from towering banyans to tiny bonsai.