1. Ten Thousand Islands
South of Naples, south even of Marco Island, this sweeping landscape leading into Everglades National Park is a largely untouched swathe of pure South Florida beauty. Flanked by a handful of small communities at the end of State Road 29, this is Florida in many ways as it once was on our coast.
Outdoor adventurers will find themselves pulled between ocean and inland activities – often right next to each other, since in the coastal Ten Thousand Islands you’re never far from the gulf. One of the best ways to see the Everglades backcountry is with the man whose photography is synonymous with it. From his home and gallery in Ochopee, famed nature photographer Clyde Butcher leads walking tours. Few people know this primordial land like Butcher; he’s a memorable guide as well as a remarkable photographer.
The area’s beaches are the definition of “unspoiled” – and even more so if you’re willing to have an adventure and paddle in a bit. But beware, the area can get confusing. If you’re not an experienced paddler, go as part of a tour or with somebody who is.
Accommodations are also part of the rustic experience. Tent campers need permits for backcountry camping, which you can get in Everglades City. In addition to campsites, including some right on the beach, the national park also offers camping in chickees built over water. For those who prefer a few more creature comforts, local accommodations also include options like Everglades City’s homey Ivey House, a place that also offers paddle tours. Trail Lakes Campground, which is affiliated with Everglades Adventure Tours, features tent and RV sites as well as chickee and wood cabins. And if you book early, Clyde Butcher himself even has a couple guest cottages.
2. St. George Island
This Panhandle destination has grown in popularity over the years by taking the opposite approach to many of the state’s busiest beaches. It has maintained a strict commitment to low-density building that’s allowed it to retain Old Florida charm, while still giving visitors plenty of options when it comes to places to stay.
Much of the island and surrounding area is protected land; the east side of the island makes up Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, while the entire western barrier island is the Cape St. George Island State Reserve. The nearby mainland includes the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge and the beautiful if worryingly named Tate’s Hell State Forest. With all that public land, the place naturally offers all sorts of opportunities for undeveloped beaches and backcountry hiking.
Lighthouse fans are in luck, as the area offers two restored, historic lighthouses, St. George Island’s Cape St. George Light and Carrabelle Beach’s Crooked River Lighthouse.
Plenty of accommodations from tents to RVs to hotels at various price points are available. The St. George Inn offers Southern charm, with wraparound porches circling both floors and rocking chairs available for pondering the sunset. On the nearby mainland, Apalachicola’s Gibson Inn offers proper grandeur, but still a down-home Panhandle stay.
3. Jekyll Island, Georgia
The islands that make up Georgia’s coastline offer an interesting mixture of history and outdoor life. Jekyll Island’s among the most popular, but this place still has a small, intimate vibe.
Paddleboard and kayaking opportunities abound, as does the chance to put a pole in the water and do some fishing. On land, you can take advantage of an activity you can’t do on every beach (and definitely not Fort Lauderdale Beach) – horseback riding. Three Oaks Farm runs horseback tours of Driftwood Beach, including sunset rides. (Three Oaks also offers horse-drawn carriage tours and other horsey fun.)
Dining options range from get-something-easy-for-the-family spots to some high-end fare. For a truly elegant experience – one in which the men will need a jacket – dine at the Jekyll Island Club Resort’s expansive Grand Dining Room.
Actually, the Jekyll Island Club Resort is worth a word. Island accommodations runs the gamut from camping to inexpensive motels to proper luxury. If you like your stay to have a bit of history, check out the resort. Built in the 1880s as a private club, it hosted some of the country’s wealthiest families including the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. In addition to the main Club House and Club House Annex, the resort includes a number of cottages, many originally built for some of the Gilded Age’s wealthiest families.
4. Sanibel & Captiva
Just off the coast near Fort Myers, these Lee County barrier islands have long been popular Florida getaways. One of their biggest selling points has got to be their mixture of accessibility and nature – it’s not hard to get there, but once you’re on Sanibel or Captiva, you definitely feel like you’re far away from city life.
Sanibel’s beaches are known for shells; the island sits near an underwater shelf that essentially acts as a gentle shell delivery system. This is definitely a place where you can keep kids (and grownups) busy hunting for the perfect ocean treasure. If you really can’t get enough of shells, Sanibel’s also home to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Weekly events include mollusk trivia, mollusk bingo and on Mondays, the always popular mollusk reproduction talk.
The area’s peaceful nature is no accident; since incorporating as a city, Sanibel has enforced strict building codes aimed at keeping major development at bay. It’s tough to go wrong with any of the beaches, but Lighthouse Beach is always a popular destination. Home to – as you might guess – a historic lighthouse, as well as a fishing pier, it can get busy. But no worries; a less crowded beach is never far away on Sanibel.
There’s some fine dining on Sanibel, but some of the best meals you’ll find are more of the downhome Florida variety. Check out the Island Cow, in a colorful Old Florida building with mostly outdoor seating, for a menu that includes all the local seafood you’d ever want. That includes, in true Florida fashion, grouper done several different ways – all washed down with some tropical refreshment.