Summer is just around the corner, and with that, many are setting their sights on a beach vacation in Florida. Though places like Destin, Miami, and Tampa are always high on everyone’s list, you can try something different this year and visit one of the many amazing islands off the coast of Florida — that aren’t the Florida Keys (though they’re lovely, too!). Florida has 4,510 islands in total, but we’ve managed to narrow that list down to our nine favorite islands that are a must-visit for any Florida vacation.
Sanibel Island offers quite a unique experience for visitors. Since the island developed in a west-to-east fashion, the waters from the Caribbean and Gulf Coast wash ashore thousands of seashells every day that sit in piles along the sandy coast. It’s the perfect destination for shelling — and it typically has fun events on National Seashell Day on June 21! Beyond the beach, the island has a lot of family-friendly places to visit, like the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which has tons of hiking trails, or the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, a fun place to learn more about shells and marine biology (it even has live exhibits!). Other notable places include the Sanibel Island Light, or a visit to the affordable, funky cow-themed restaurant, The Island Cow.
A Kid-Friendly Hotel Pick:
Gasparilla Island is a quaint seven-mile island that’s a quintessential Florida island escape. It’s the home to the upscale residential community of Boca Grande and was a destination for elite families like the Vanderbilts and Duponts. Most residents and visitors get around by golf carts and bikes, but with the Old Florida charm to discover, you might want to walk around the island and enjoy it at a leisurely pace. The Boca Grande Lighthouse, which has been standing since 1890, is the focal point of the entire island. Take note, fishermen — Gasparilla Island is the home to a water pass known as the Tarpon Capital of the World!
A Beachfront Hotel Pick:
For those who want a beach vacation and a chance to see the Everglades, Marco Island is a perfect destination. The island has two public beaches and is just a 40-minute drive to the Everglades. Head to Tigertail Beach which has shallow waters — you can wade across the lagoon to Sand Dollar Island, a natural conservation area. For more outdoor fun, head to Briggs Nature Center for a half-mile boardwalk, go fishing, or book a canoe trip. And if you have a chance, check out the Dome Homes, a collection of white dome-like homes on stilts in the water on the southern tip of the island.
A Historic Hotel Pick:
Merritt Island is best known as the home of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. In the morning, you can visit the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and maybe even meet an astronaut. Then you can head to the beach in the afternoon! You can also enjoy the wildlife refuge here by watching manatees from an observation deck, hike the many trails, go fishing, or take the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive where you’ll see animals like alligators and river otters. If you’re lucky, a visit to Merritt Island might be made super memorable with a rocket launch from the NASA Kennedy Space Center.
A Kid-Friendly Hotel Pick:
5. Matlacha Island
There’s a small-town Florida charm on Matlacha Island that you can’t often find these days. Matlacha Island sits right next to Florida’s largest island, Pine Island, and has a creative atmosphere. There’s only one mile-long road on this small island, and it’s dotted on either side by colorful fisherman-like shacks that are a combination of homes, restaurants, shops, bars, and galleries. Many of the homes have kitschy decor in the lawns such as polka-dot dolphins, colorful mailboxes, creatively decorated bikes, and even stuffed dolls in chairs. Spend your time exploring the shops, fishing, kayaking, or enjoying fresh seafood at one of the waterfront restaurants. And if you get bored, it’s just a short drive to Pine Island!
A Luxury Hotel Pick in Cape Coral, a 30-minute drive from the island:
Amelia Island is a barrier island on the northeast corner of Florida, just a 30-minute drive from the Georgia state line and a 50-minute drive to Jacksonville, Florida. It’s the only place in the United States that has had eight different flags and is home to the oldest hotel in Florida, the Florida House Inn, which was built in 1857. This lovely island has 13 miles of beaches, diverse types of lodgings, golf courses, and upscale artisan shops. The historic downtown of Ferdinand is a Victorian-style seaport with cute shops, art walks, and lots more to keep you entertained.
A Beachfront Hotel Pick:
For travelers who want a lot of peace and quiet during their Florida island vacation, Cayo Costa, a state park of Florida, is the perfect island for them. It can only be reached by private boat or charter service with companies like Captiva Cruises. Cayo Costa has tons of hiking and biking trails, kayak rentals, and nine miles of white sandy beaches. The waters surrounding the 2,426-acre island are pretty clear and filled with manatees, dolphins, huge shells with mollusks, and lots of sand dollars. It makes for fun snorkeling expeditions! Like Sanibel Island, the beach is covered in shells. Travelers can rent a cabin or enjoy tent camping on Cayo Costa. For those who prefer hotels, book a room on the nearby Captiva Island and head over during the day.
A Boutique Hotel Pick on Captiva Island:
Siesta Key is an island that’s just a 16-minute drive from Sarasota, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. This eight-mile long island is best known for its beaches which are reportedly 99 percent quartz, and therefore almost a pure white color. Like most beach destinations in Florida, Siesta Key is perfect for those who enjoy water sports, days at the beach, and bird watching. Head to the Point of Rocks on Crescent Beach, a shallow area that’s perfect for snorkeling due to a large marine life and cool corral formations. Don’t forget a visit to Turtle Beach — it’s less crowded and is known as a major turtle nesting area, so maybe you’ll have a chance to see a baby turtle!
A Romantic Hotel Pick:
If you love beautiful sunsets, quirky restaurants, and white-sand beaches, head to Captiva Island. There are two-and-a-half miles of beaches, and Turner Beach is well-known as an amazing fishing location. Visitors can enjoy kayaking, shelling, paddle boarding, and private boat cruises on Captiva. The downtown area is a cute collection of colorful houses that were turned into coffee shops, boutiques like Chloe’s of Captiva, and restaurants like Key Lime Bistro, which has amazing key-lime pie and a cool patio. Though families are welcome here, it’s best suited for couples who want a low-key yet upscale vacation on the beach.