Florida Islands: The Caribbean of the USA

Florida's romantic offshore isles give all you might wish for in an away-from-it-all island retreat: reclusive beaches, lavish tropical foliage, water sports of every description and sunsets that are breathtaking. But each island has its own brand of spell. Sanibel and Captiva are recognized for their pristine beaches, which offer some of the world's great shell collecting, and the beauty of the emerald-green Gulf of Mexico. Amelia Island, at the northeast corner of the state, extends world-class golf and tennis, and a historic district lined with glorious Victorian mansions. The Florida Keys merge extraordinary natural wonders with a "don't worry, be happy" style that has gained them the title, "America's Caribbean Islands."

Once a playground for pirates, Amelia Island - a 13-by-2-mile island near Jacksonville, receives travelers in true Southern style. The island's only town, Fernandina Beach, boasts a 50-block "Silk Stocking" historic zone, lined with sherbet-hued Victorian mansions. Explore the region on foot or by horse-drawn carriage; either way, make sure to stop at the Palace Saloon, Florida's oldest tavern, which was at one time patronized by members of the Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Du Pont families.

From the moment you cross the causeway that links the town of Fort Myers with Sanibel Island, you will feel the peacefulness of island life starting to take hold. The largest of the 100-plus Lee Islands, Sanibel and Captiva provide the best of both worlds: a quiet refuge and resorts that envelop you in luxury. Active couples will find a surplus of activities, from sailing, windsurfing and deep-sea fishing to over 50 miles of unspoiled beaches that feature over 400 kinds of colorful seashells.

On the north side of Sanibel, more than 5,000 acres have been designated as a National Wildlife Refuge, having hiking and canoe trails along which you may glimpse manatees, bald eagles and other distinguishing flora and fauna. After a morning of exploring, grab a boat to Cabbage Key for lunch at the rustic Cabbage Key Inn, which has received the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Neil Young and Ernest Hemingway.

Stretching 180 miles from Miami's Biscayne Bay nearly to Cuba, the Florida Keys, with their serene lagoons and rustling pine groves, have more than their share of legends—from the timeless love of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the movie Key Largo to Hemingway's adventures in Key West. Honeymooners can fly to Key West or drive the 113-mile Over-seas Highway, reaching seascapes of unbelievable beauty, edged by swaying palms, mangrove and silver button-wood trees. Plan to arrive in Key Westin time for the nightly "sunset celebration" at Mallory Pier, where musicians, jugglers, mimes and the occasional fire-eater get together to applaud the glowing red ball as it glides softly into the silvery sea.

© 2011 Athena Goodlight

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