The Florida issue

In the Gulf, enough islands to match any personality

A tour of eight of Florida's Gulf Islands reveals that each key of the archipelago has a unique vibe -- offering enough variety to match any personality.
By Andrea Sachs
Sunday, November 8, 2009

If I were a brown pelican, flying high above the Gulf Islands of Florida, I imagine that I would see thin strips of land trimmed in white, surrounded by water as clear and blue as the cloudless sky above. However, I am not a bird. I am flightless, and as I drove -- the way we wingless ones travel -- across bridge after bridge to eight different islands in the chain, I found that though they all inhabit the same body of water, they are hardly identical octuplets. Nor are these islands clones of the Florida Keys, the more popular and party-wise archipelago on the east coast.

The Gulf Islands near Sarasota are arranged like steppingstones along the western coast of Florida. You can skip from one to the other -- Anna Maria Island to Longboat Key, City Island, St. Armands Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key, Venice and Manasota Key -- with few interruptions. But don't think that geography and ease of travel equal homogeneity. As I ventured from one key to another, I couldn't help noticing that what I had left behind only faintly resembled what I had just arrived at. The structures, natural environments, amenities, mind-sets and even sand compositions varied remarkably, creating islands with unique, identifiable characters.

They say that no two snowflakes or Baldwin brothers are alike; I'd like to add the Gulf Islands to that list.

Anna Maria Island: Low-key and all-natural

Anna Maria Island is Florida as a living diorama, with no chain hotels, a speed limit that never exceeds 35 mph and a building limit of three stories. It is also home to a genteel first lady.

"We are loath to go the route of Longboat Key, with condo high-rises," said Rhea Chiles, the wife of former Florida governor Lawton Chiles, whose family has owned property here since 1958. "The look of the place has been passed down from one generation to another. It's all of those words: quaint, neighborly, natural."

Chiles was the visionary behind the Studio at Gulf and Pine, a multi-use space that exhibits local artworks, including a painting of her own, and holds classes, such as the book club I was making her late for. So I left Chiles to her plot twists for the turns of a kayak.

Shawn Duytschaver, whose family opened the first gift shop on Anna Maria, owns Native Rentals, where he rents boats and preps guests before pushing them off to fend for themselves. He suggested that I paddle Robinson Preserve, a 400-acre mangrove and salt marsh reserve that opened last year and is buffered from motorized traffic. (By comparison, he said that around nearby Lido Key, kayakers must contend with the din of boats and cars.)

At the put-in spot across the Intracoastal Waterway, he handed me a laminated map and said I could probably make it to the bald eagle nest before sunset. He also informed me about the black "bugs" in the mangroves. They're not spiders, he said, but crabs. Underlying message: Don't freak out and abandon ship.

I found the small entryway to the preserve but got my left and right confused. Instead of kayaking in the wider bayou (to the right), I ended up in the narrow tunnel where mangrove roots kicked out like chorus girls. In several areas, my paddle was wider than the channel. At one point, I was so wedged in, my only choices were stand up and pick up the boat or attempt an eight-point U-turn. Only the crabs know which option I took.

Abandoning the mangrove, I entered open water, where mullets were jumping so high and so close to my boat that I could feasibly have landed one with some clever maneuvering. I hadn't gotten far into my laissez-faire fishing when I spotted a bald eagle sitting stoically in a tree. Having reached my goal, I turned back, a much easier trip now that I was wise to the tangle of mangroves.

On the Gulf Islands, sunset is a momentous occasion. At Sundown, a restaurant on the beach, waiters ask diners to guess the time of the sun drop. Those with the correct answer win a bottle of champagne.

The wait for a table exceeded the time left before sunset, so I watched the show from a dugout in the sand. At 6:58, a bell rang. Couples kissed and families snapped photos with the cranberry-streaked sky as a backdrop. I overheard a waiter consoling his customers for their losing time, trying to ease their disappointment with dessert.

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