Island-hopping Florida's southern Gulf Coast

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In the minds of many, Florida and her coast is dark blue water, crashing waves, Spring Break, bottles of booze and the thumping pulse of a beachside nightclub. We propose an alternative view. Consider this: sugar sand beaches lapped by bathwater-warm waves closer in color to light washing through leaves than a stormy azure. Low rise development, where there’s any development at all. And no cars.

No cars! In Florida! It’s possible, people. The above describes the barrier islands of Lee County’s Gulf Coast, the impressionistic watercolor to the blazing neon of the Atlantic Coast. Hey – we love us some neon. But sometimes, you need to get a little laid back.

Consider Cabbage Key, where Jimmy Buffet was served his famous cheeseburger in paradise. You can, in fact, order the same meat between two buns on this island at the Cabbage Key Inn. But let us be frank: the cheeseburger is good, but what makes it great is eating it on this 100-acre island, swaddled in mangroves and studded with shell mounds left by the Calusa Indians, where you will find neither cars nor even a paved road for them to drive on.

What you will find is the afore-mentioned Cabbage Key Inn, wallpapered in up to 80,000 signed dollar bills (the ones that fall to the floor are swept up and donated to charity). Nearby is Useppa Key, which manages to be rustic and ritzy all at once (rustickzee!). How’s that? Well, the entire island is run as a private club, so you need to make arrangements to visit – a bit of a formality perhaps, but expected. Your reward is a gorgeous barrier island of emerald hues and powdery beaches, plus a sense of utter isolation from the mainland.

Gasparilla Island spans Lee and Charlotte counties. You can drive here, but if you come to the southern part of the island, past the village of Boca Grande, the disconnect with the modern world will kick in. Way down here you’ll find Gasparilla Island State Park, with its 1890’s lighthouse, and Don Pedro State Park, only accessible by boat, peppered with migratory birds, bald eagles, the occasional manatee sighting and one perfect mile-long beach.

Southeast of Gasparilla is Pine Island, another car-accessible island jewel floating off Florida’s coast. Pine Island connects to the mainland via the small island of Matlacha, which has evolved into a bohemian artist community; stop here to shop for art. On Pine Island itself you should visit the Randell Research Center, one the main spots for studying Florida’s Native Americans and museum in its own right; there’s a well-maintained Calusa trail onsite that borders as an interpretive walkway into the history of the area’s indigenous inhabitants. At the Museum of the Islands, you’ll get an in-depth peek at the quirky communities that have called this island home.

Our last island is…well, we won’t say we saved the best for last, but some of you may agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. Cayo Costa, home of Cayo Costa State Park, is another car-less island that must surely be one of Florida’s most beautiful natural spaces: delicate mangrove wetlands, acres of elegant pine and tropical forest and some simply fine beach.