How to procure that getting-away-from-it-all feeling in a vacation state filled with small armies of people seeking the same thing? Head to the fringes -- Florida's islands.
Some of the best spots in the state are the islands that speckle the coast, gritty little outposts protecting the mainland. Florida is an ecological Epcot and there are islands to represent each world -- the wetlands, the tropics and the arid stretches of the Panhandle's beaches. Here are four distinct destinations, each rich in natural beauty and, not so incidentally, pretty high on the charm scale. Some are isolated; others are deservedly standard stops in all the tourist brochures. All four begin on the plus side, because all come with an automatic 20 extra points for atmosphere.
Starting in the northwest, St. George Island and Dog Island, just southwest of Tallahassee, are barrier islands with blanched white sands and shaky vital signs. These skinny, shallow pieces of land guard some of the richest seafood water in the country. It is here you can eat shrimp that will make you weep with joy.
Further south down the state's west coast, 45 miles southwest of Gainesville, is Cedar Key, a soggy piece of central Florida wetlands. The key is an artists' colony with some of the world's most unusual seafood restaurants, built up on wooden stilts in the Gulf and tilted toward the sunset.
Further south, west of Fort Myers, is Captiva, the little-sister island to Sanibel, one of the state's most popular islands. Here in south central Florida the atmosphere is both arid and tropical, the Gulf always waveless and warm.
And down on the southern tip of the state is the isolated, cockeyed province known as Key West. Everyone should go there. I believe in mandatory busing to Key West, even though it is one long drive.
St. George Island
At last. Somewhere among the condominium-crazed construction, the swelling suburbia, the crowded coasts, the theme parks, the parking lots and the lots for sale is a chunk of beach heaven.
It's a tenacious representative of an endangered species of sorts -- a Florida beach left in an unspoiled, untouched natural state. No souvenir stands, no fast food, no kitsch and no glitter. St. George Island, off the rounded edge of the Panhandle coast, has the stuff beach dreams are made of.
St. George Island, Dog Island to the east, and Little St. George Island and St. Vincent Island to the west, are barrier islands protecting the mainland and the expansive, seafood-rich waters of the Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico.
Barrier islands are stalwart bodyguards. Constantly provoked and battered by the Gulf waves, the islands' dunes and shorelines are in a constant state of flux. They are marked by sparse vegetation, marshes and sandbars; the requisite dunes often reach up to 30 feet high.
The white-sand beaches are empty and stunning -- it's like walking through frame after frame of post-card scenery. There are no palm trees, no flowering bushes, no flesh procession. The most taxing activity the island offers is bird watching. But the sunsets are eminently photographable, the seafood is unparalleled and the pace is a definite slow dance.
The place to stay is the 9-month-old St. George Inn, a two-story country inn with faint traces of Tara and a two-story wraparound porch. A blessed bonus: The rooms have no telephones or televisions. The sense of isolation is delicious -- an instant antidote to memos and While You Were Outs.
Just remember to take munchies from the mainland: There is only one convenience store on the island, and it's no bargain. Take paperbacks, a cassette player and tapes, a journal, a lover.
St. George is the destination if stress has evaporated your soul and left you with the energy level of a cauliflower. For an advanced case of urban irritation, three days on St. George restores the equilibrium.
The 30-mile or so drive toward Cedar Key from Rte. 19 on the mainland is like a 3-D journey through the set of "Swamp Thing." You keep waiting for Adrienne Barbeau to rise from the side of the road in something slimy and clinging. The asphalt sits on barely settled ground, inches above water level. Steam rises through the marshes, herons perch on one leg, stands of cedar trees and saw grass shoot through the shallow water in clumps. It is the kind of landscape that would go "goosh" if you stepped on it.
About 45 miles southwest of Gainesville, there are about 100 islands clustered in the Gulf of Mexico known as the Cedar Keys. The city of Cedar Key is the largest piece of drydocked turf in the area -- and the best island around for some heavy-duty seafood therapy.
At one time, in the 1880s, Cedar Key was one of the largest cities in the state, with a railroad terminal, a bustling port -- some called it the Venice of America -- and a healthy pencil industry. But a particularly ferocious hurricane at the end of the 19th century wiped out the port and leveled the town. The little place never quite recovered its size or status, although it never lost its charm. Cedar Key today is a quaint little slice of old Florida.
The year-round population hovers at about 700. The only time the city is crowded is during the spring arts festival, held annually in March.
Main Street is a five-block strip of weathered wooden storefronts, about a two-hour stroll's worth. Amble into the rustic Cedar Key State Museum, set in 18 pristine acres of carefully uncultivated wilderness on the west side of town, and the Historical Society Museum, at the corner of Second and D streets, and soak up the city's history. Mosey over to the town pier and watch the shrimpers bring in the day's catch.
Then onto the real event of the visit: eating. The key has plenty of great seafood restaurants -- the best are perched on wooden stilts in the Gulf near the city dock. The specialties of the key are hearts of palm salad, swamp cabbage and the catch of the day. Park yourself in the screened porch of one of the elevated restaurants and marvel at the seaside tranquility. Then order a dozen more oysters.
Captiva is the wonderfully exotic name of one of two islands off Fort Myers, usually cast as a pair. You usually don't hear Captiva mentioned without Sanibel. The duo earned their niche on the Florida Outstanding Beach list as the best shelling spots in the state. But it is Captiva, a five-mile long sandy spit of land, that lures. It is less crowded, less developed, less well-known -- but here, less is more.
Families are drawn to Captiva. Kids with plastic buckets build moats around their sand castles. Parents strolling on the shore have the telltale Captiva Hunch as they scout for shells.
If you need some activity with your R&R, Captiva is the island. In addition to shelling, the island offers water skiing, snorkeling, windsurfing, sailing, swimming and biking. Cycle toward Sanibel: The neighboring island has more than 15 miles of bike paths. Pedal at any speed out to the Point Ybel Lighthouse and up to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Preserve. More than 200 species of birds nest there. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, a 250-acre tract, has nature trails, exhibits and tours of the island. The contrast between the white sandy beaches and the marshy interiors with their strong wildlife populations offers the chance to see two sides of Florida in microcosm.
At the tip of southern U.S. civilization lies this tilted, benignly outrageous outpost, a town where all of life's fringe dwellers have stopped because there just isn't anyplace else to go in this country. Key West, 160 miles from Miami, is the kind of place that dares you not to fall in love with it, or the person you are with at the time. If your relationship's sparks need oxygen, Key West is the bellows.
Head to the Conch Republic (the island's self-proclaimed moniker, adopted during its attempt to secede from the United States several years ago) if you need color, street theater or just plain beauty. This a place where the sunsets are applauded nightly by the dockside crowd at Mallory Square. Playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived here for 30 years, called the city "a haven for those who seek to drop out of conventional society."
Ponce de Leon, in his fruitless search for the fountain of youth, bumped into the keys in 1513. Unimpressed with his find, he sailed on, leaving "Cayo Hueso" (Bone Island) to the Florida Indians. Since then the scrappy little city has survived pirate raids, hurricanes, water shortages, the destruction of a trans-key railroad and the loss of profitable industries. But with the construction of the Overseas Highway in 1938, the island's popularity was ensured.
Yes, Key West in peak season is crowded. But even the crowds can't detract from the atmosphere. "Charming" is the inevitable adjective, and it still fits. Old Town is the heart of the old city, where the streets are lined with turn-of-the-century homes decorated with gingerbread and painted in pastels. Boutiques, bars, seafood restaurants and sidewalk vendors abound. Cars are anathema. This is a walker's and bicycler's paradise.
Key West is an American Caribbean island in climate and temperament. Always, there are breezes off the Atlantic and the Gulf. And there is the ever-present smell of jasmine -- strolling outdoors is like walking through the lobby of a perfume factory.
All hedonistic pleasures abound in a city that supports the eclectic, the artful, the sandaled. In addition to the multitude of restaurants, shops and galleries, there are tourist attractions galore, including the Spanish-colonial Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and the Audubon House. Perhaps the best way to take in the sights is by riding the delightfully touristy Conch Tour Train for a 14-mile tour of the island.
If you need a shot of the absurd while you recoup from the artlessness of your 9 to 5 world, Key West is the place.
Laura Kelly is managing editor of South Florida magazine.