16 Top-Rated Islands in Florida
When many dream of an island vacation, they envision tall palms drooping over impeccably soft, white sand. The sea in the foreground is multihued with vibrant blues. This utopia, they know, can be found in faraway lands such as the Cook Islands, and the Maldives. What they may be less aware of, though, are the multitude of Florida islands providing a similar idyllic vibe.
Florida is best known for its giant theme parks (like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios) and pulsating cities. But an archipelago of over 4,500 islands lies in the Sunshine State, waiting to be discovered.
With so many isles on offer, it can be tough to decide which to visit. Whether you're looking for a serene private island or one bursting with charm and culture, you'll find the perfect holiday on this list of the best islands in Florida.
1. Marco Island
Looking for gorgeous shells? How about soft, white sand and rave-worthy food? You'll find them all at Marco Island. A short drive over the bridge from the lovely city of Naples, this luxuriously developed isle is the largest of the Ten Thousand Islands Chain; an archipelago extending into the Everglades.
Marco's crowning features include two beautiful beaches - South Marco Beach (head here for a sunset) and Tigertail Beach (its powdery sand serves up amazing shells). These are some of the best beaches in the Naples area. Another bonus: Marco's multiple golf courses and diverse selection of shops and restaurants.
Hop on a cruise to explore Marco Island from the water and try your rod at deep sea fishing. If you're lucky, you'll come face to fin with a dolphin frolicking nearby.
2. Sanibel Island
Families have flocked to this west coast hot spot for centuries, and for good reason. Sanibel Island, which lies in the Gulf of Mexico, offers a much quieter beach setting than its east coast cousins Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
Unlike the powdery sand found on Marco Island, Sanibel's beaches are a bit rough on the feet. With a ton of shells (including sand dollars) washed up on its shores, this is a perfect place for families to go shelling or to play "I spy."
Situated in an east-west direction, with little urban development, Sanibel collects hundreds of shell species that were carried to its coast from the Gulf of Mexico. Shells are such a big thing here that Sanibel (along with the beaches of Fort Myers) helped create National Seashell Day to mark the first day of summer (on June 21st). It's also home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts on Sanibel Island
3. Amelia Island
Amelia Island is often overlooked by travelers destined for Florida's warmer, southern coast. This wild northern beauty, though, really shouldn't be missed.
A barrier island in the Sea Islands Chain, Amelia is a tranquil playground for the wealthy, featuring a few of Florida's most luxurious beach resorts, like the Ritz-Carlton. Its main town, Fernandina Beach, ups the charm factor dramatically. History abounds within its streets, lined by Victorian buildings and eclectic shops and restaurants housed in fishing cottages.
Considering the clientele, there's no shortage of perfect fairways, and its 13 miles of sand-dune-lined beaches are pristine. Whether you're planning to shop, dine, paddle, swim, or relax beachside, Amelia Island is one of Florida's most lovely and underrated gems.
4. Key West
Key West is no stranger to visitors. In fact, millions of people spend their holidays at this southernmost point of the US. This includes multiple presidents like Harry S. Truman, who conducted business here in a "Winter White House," and famed writers such as Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, who both found inspiration (and houses) in this sunny locale.
Yes, Key West has a happening nightlife and vibrant arts scene. There's plenty to do, see, and spend your money on. One of the best things to do in Key West, though, is less commercialized: head to the beach. A mere seven miles off the coast lies the world's third largest coral reef, the Great Florida Reef, teeming with active marine life. It stretches for hundreds of miles along the east coast of the US.
Watching the sun set is another popular thing to do. Head to Mallory Square to enjoy a spectacular view of the horizon along with live music, food stalls, and street performances every night.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Key West
5. Gasparilla Island
A relatively small but wildly beautiful barrier isle spots the Gulf Coast just northwest of Fort Myers. It's called Gasparilla Island, and boy is it ever charming (and refreshingly undeveloped).
Gasparilla Island State Park is a great family destination. Its phenomenally soft sand, crystal-clear water, and sweet lighthouse are worth a look-see. Insider's tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the often-evasive manatees swimming offshore, as well as dolphins playing nearby.
Boca Grande is this Florida island's main attraction. The town itself is quaint and charming; a fishing village filled with pastel-colored buildings, fun shops, and tasty restaurants. The favored mode of transportation in this laid-back locale is twofold: golf carts and bicycles.
6. Little Gasparilla Island
A hop, skip, and short boat ride north of Gasparilla Island lies its smaller and undeveloped cousin, Little Gasparilla Island. Situated at the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, about halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, Little Gasparilla presents the idyllic, serene beach vacation you've been dreaming of. There are no high-rises in sight!
With no roads or cars on the island, you'll have to rely on your own two feet to get around. That won't be a problem considering the sumptuous feel and cleanliness of its sugar-white sand. Beware where you step in the summer, though, this is where sea turtles come to nest.
7. Anna Maria Island
Seven miles of splendid sandy beaches greet visitors to Anna Maria Island, located about 50 miles south of Tampa in the mouth of Tampa Bay. With three quaint cities, Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria, and Holmes Beach, there are plenty of options for places to stay, shop, and eat. All of them offer a feeling of "Old Florida" charm, boasting colorful houses, adorable stores, and a welcome lack of high-rises.
The main reason people flock here is to experience the most remarkable sunsets. You'll never be alone when watching the horizon at dusk on this Florida Island's Gulf Coast beaches.
Insider's tip: The island boasts a free trolley to take visitors from one beach to the next.
8. Crab Island, Destin
Located in Destin, just south of Marler Bridge, Crab Island is more of a sandbar than a true isle. The only way to get here is by sea, so you'll have to head out in some sort of seaworthy contraption (i.e. boat or kayak) to explore this unique natural wonder.
Crab Island is best known for its (yep, you guessed it) crabs! This crab-shaped sandbar is home to thousands of the little creatures who roam the ocean floor. It's a fantastic place to lay anchor and spend a day walking, splashing, or frolicking in the warm, turquoise water.
Although a bit of a party haven, this interesting locale is a fun, safe spot for those traveling with kids. Insider's tip: If you're traveling as a family, spend the morning here and then leave, before the adults turn this into party central.
There are no buildings here - this is a sandbar, after all - so head into Destin to take advantage of its many attractions, shops and restaurants. That said, due to Crab Island's popularity, vendors have been cropping up in droves lately, so you'll still be able to source everything from sunblock to a burger to an inflatable trampoline on-site.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Destin
9. Key Biscayne
When the noise and drama of Miami become too much, head to nearby Key Biscayne. A barrier island with a remarkably quiet vibe and phenomenal beaches, Key Biscayne is a perfect place to unwind. Crandon Park offers three miles of soft, sugar-white sand on which to rest your weary self or have a sandcastle build-off with the kids.
Looking for a bit of adventure? Head to the island's Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. Here, you can do everything you ever dreamed of on land and in the sea (well, almost everything). From kayaking to snorkeling to biking to rollerblading, there's no lack of things to do in Key Biscayne.
10. Little Palm Island
As you might have guessed, Little Palm Island isn't very big. This tiny slice of paradise is a luxurious and exclusive spot reserved for high profile celebs, presidents, and others who enjoy the high life.
A private island getaway, Little Palm is the US's answer to the Seychelles, dripping with the exquisite thatched-roof bungalows of its only inhabitant - the Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. Everywhere you turn are spectacular ocean views and sparkling paths made of crushed seashells (you'll want to wear sandals). Lush foliage abounds, and the waves crash gently onto the shore, lulling visitors into a much-needed state of relaxation.
One more reason you need to visit Little Palm Island: you'll never have to fight a crowd for a stellar spot on the beach. Talk about an ideal spot for a romantic beach vacation.
Technically a collection of six islands, Islamorada is known as "The Village of Islands." This pretty achipelago blends the region's tropical magnificence with urban offerings like funky restaurants, vibrant galleries, and historic sites. Stretching for 20 miles on Tea Table Key, Shell, Plantation Key, Lignumvitae, and Lower and Upper Matecumbe Keys, Islamorada is a truly unique place to spend a holiday.
Popular with anglers, it's been deemed by some as the "Sport Fishing Capital of the World." If that doesn't float your proverbial boat, there are plenty of sandy beaches to explore, warm azure waters to snorkel, and a Theater of the Sea to visit.
12. Cedar Key
If you're looking for Old Florida charm, Cedar Key won't disappoint. One of a cluster of Islands about an hour southwest of Gainesville, this isolated isle is packed with historic buildings and shines with a rainbow of slightly ramshackle shops. Many teeter above the Gulf of Mexico on stilts, adding to the town's charisma.
Once a key player in the trans-Florida railroad in the late 1800s, Cedar Key also played a major part in the Eagle Pencil Factory. As a result, the area was deforested, and what little remained was destroyed by hurricanes. The current trees are 100 years old and home to some incredible wildlife, much of which can be appreciated from within the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
13. St. George Island
Home to what many consider one of the world's best beaches, St. George Island is a tropical paradise worthy of a visit. Crystal-clear water, velvety sand, and miles of shoreline populated only by shells helped cement the Island's place on this list. A favorite vacation spot for families and pet-lovers, St. George Island is both tranquil and resplendent.
Peppered with unobtrusive homes and lacking the thumping nightlife found on other Florida Islands, visitors can concentrate on the isle's main draw - its dazzling natural landscape. Salt marshes, sand dunes, and impeccable beaches beckon the weary and heal them with their beauty.
14. Pine Island
Fishing and swimming and kayaking, oh my! The largest of the islands off Florida's Golf Coast, Pine Island is a quaint haven for those looking for a charming and intimate natural retreat away from cities bustling with tourists.
Dripping with mangroves and bursting with lush pine forests, this island features nature at its best. A haven for artists from near and far, Pine Island is comprised of four distinct and eclectic communities: St. James City, Bookeelia, Pineland, and Matlacha. The latter is Pine Island's central town. It gushes with a multihued Bohemian vibe that screams "tropical vacation." You'll find fun shops, restaurants, and a beautiful park here.
15. Longboat Key Island
Populated by retirees who know a good thing when they see it, this 12-mile slice of paradise was once a quiet fishing village. Today, its former serenity has fallen prey to those same retirees who longed for upscale condos, a golf course, and tennis club. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Along with the modernization came decadent restaurants and lovely stores to entice those with a penchant for shopping.
If you're hoping to spend a relaxing day wandering through mangroves and lying on a quiet, isolated spot of sand, Longboat Key isn't it. If you're a fan of hobnobbing with the moneyed and don't mind fighting for a parking spot near the beach, you've found the right place.
Insider's tip: Nearby Greer Island (located at the northern end of Longboat Key) is remarkably beautiful and quiet.
16. Hutchinson Island
It's surprising that Hutchinson Island, a hidden beauty stretching from Stuart to Fort Pierce, isn't more popular. Its impeccable coast is lined with pristine sandy beaches, offering plenty of options for whiling away a day in the sun. Shelling, sandcastle building, sunbathing, swimming, beachcombing, and SUPing are a few oceanside faves that will entertain the whole family.
Not enough action for your crew? The island's also home to historic towns which boast shops, restaurants, museums, and water parks. Head out on a boat tour to try your luck at deep sea fishing, hit the links for a round of golf, or take a surfing lesson. We guarantee you'll never be bored.
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