It's a cruel joke, asking a single, unattached writer to research Florida's most romantic islands. To send her places that make brides-to-be go weak in the knees. To make her watch as lovers feed each other strawberries in a hammock-for-two, or gaze into each other's eyes over a candle-lit table on the sand, playing footsie with their bare toes.
Cruel, indeed, because at some of these sensuous places, it feels downright blasphemous to show up solo. The "your-wish-is-our-command" staff members don't make it any easier: "Will your gentleman be joining you for the moonlight serenade?" "Would you prefer the honeymoon cottage? Which evening would you like to book the Lover's Sunset Sail?"
No. No, thank you. And I'll pass.
I exaggerate, of course. The very things that give an island its romance also make it a delicious place to escape from the world, refresh the spirit and restore the soul. And lots of guests joyfully do just that.
So I accept the mission. At times, I join others traveling solo, occasionally I enjoy the company of the most handsome young man I know (my son), but mostly it's just me, working on my tan, then dining alone at the corner table, sighing deeply and furtively taking notes.
Even that last part isn't so bad. The housekeeping staff, accustomed as they are to lovers, almost invariably turn down both sides of the bed. That's two chocolate truffles, just for me.
And besides, I may fall truly, madly, deeply in love at any moment. When that moment comes, it will be quite handy to know exactly where to take my Prince Charming for a romantic interlude.
St. George Island
The Ambience: Undulating white dunes and golden sea oats, just the two of you, and miles of sand, blue-green sea and sky. Tucked between uninhabited islands and protected national seashores on Florida's northwest curve of the Gulf of Mexico, St. George Island has no traffic lights and the largest "high rise" is only three stories tall.
Your Beach House: You can get cozy in an Old Florida cottage wrapped in verandas, or luxuriate in a six-bedroom Mediterranean mansion drenched in marble Jacuzzis, libraries and billiard rooms, extravagant sound systems and massive expanses of glass, fully stocked right down to the crystal champagne flutes.
Idyllic Pleasures: Sunrise over the Gulf; sunset on Apalachicola Bay. Bicycling, kayaking and boat trips to nearby Dog Island and remote St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge.
Best Adventure: Apalachicola Bay is the oyster capital of the South, maybe the world. Shrimping is a close second. You get to help the captain pull in the nets and sort the catch, and afterward, if you're lucky, he'll steam up a massive pot for you right on board, served with cold beer and Cajun red sauce. The salt marshes are surreal at dawn, and dolphins cavort around your boat on the moonlight charter.
Eatin': You'd hardly call it dining, but it doesn't get any better than the succulent fried oysters, seafood and family cookin' offered across the area. Kick it up a notch at Tamara's Café.
For more information, contact the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce at 850-653-9419 or visit www.apalachicolabay.org.
The Setting: It's Florida with a deep South accent. It's thousands of acres of coastline, covered with gnarly, old live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. You cross little footbridges across wild, windswept dunes to get to impossibly wide Atlantic beaches. Arrive at night and taste the salt in the air. Snuggle in as the crashing of waves slips ever so gently into your dreams. The romance is in just being here. You could do nothing, but you won't. Amelia will entice you into her arms like a long-lost love.
Where to Stay: You can sink into the laid-back luxury of a villa at Omni Amelia Island Plantation, overlooking one of Florida's most gorgeous golf courses, the golden marsh or the ocean. Just down the road is historic Fernandina Beach, a quaint 19th century Victorian seaport, where hundred-year-old inns share the cobblestone streets with couture boutiques, fine art galleries and touristy-tasty chocolate shops.
Most Romantic Adventures: Go on an "owl prowl" with a naturalist from Omni Amelia Island Plantation's nature center; stroll the grounds of Florida's oldest plantation once farmed by slaves (Kingsley Plantation, circa 1884); go horseback riding on the beach at Amelia Island State Park.
Tastes of Amelia: Crab - boiled and brought to your table to crack, at The Crab Trap, or more elegantly served in haute cuisine presentations in the resorts. Shrimp - boiled, fried, stir-fried, and grilled with exotic spices.
For more information, phone the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council at 904-277-0717 or visit www.AmeliaIsland.com.
Sea Shell Key
The Setting: Her name was Mickey Green. She was a pilot who saw it from the air, just off Marathon, about midway in the Keys - an uninhabited spit of land covered in palm trees. She landed, bought it (for $500), built herself a cottage, and now, half a century later, it's the perfect spot for a romantic rendezvous when you yearn to be absolutely, uncompromisingly alone. It's recently been renovated by its current owner and they can barely keep up with the wedding requests and film crews.
Architecture: The 1,000-square-foot Conch Key cottage has a great room with cathedral ceilings and French doors to the screened front porch.
The Amenities: There are canopy beds in the two bedrooms, and a sunken Jacuzzi tub. You get your own boat (for transportation to and from the island), your own coconut trees, and (if you care) a full complement of fishing tackle and a generous supply of bait. The crystal waters are teeming with parrotfish and angelfish, and your only nosy neighbor might be a great blue heron or two. Ahhhh!
The Setting: Originally established as a private men's fishing club, this lush barrier island between Boca Grande and Sanibel Island is accessible only by boat. You must be invited by a member of the Useppa Island Club to access this private island.
The island is fringed with pristine white Old Florida-style "cottages" with tin roofs, gingerbread trim and gazebos and docks for the owners' mega-yachts and serious sportfishing boats. There are no cars, just bikes and golf carts to meander along the shell paths lined with bougainvillea, palmettos and banyan trees. For a hundred years, passing boaters have gazed enviously at the very exclusive three-story clubhouse, which was off limits to visitors. The Useppa Island Club runs the Collier Inn, along with 11 very exclusive suites and cottages ideal for guests of its owners, fishing parties and romantic escapes.
Collier's Inn Most Romantic Suite: The Centennial Suite, appointed with chintz and wicker and period antiques, was designed for lovers, with a breathtaking bay view, Jacuzzi and sumptuous four-poster bed.
Idyllic Pursuits: Strolling, sunning, swimming. You must play croquet, of course. Then there's sailing, tennis, kayaking, tarpon and backbay fishing charters.
Dining Pleasures: Al fresco dining to white linen formal. Crab cakes and Bahamian conch chowder are legendary; the fresh baked breads and pastries are divine. Tasty shrimp and native fish right off the boat daily.
How Romantic Can it Get? Take a midnight stroll along the island's main road, the Pink Promenade, and breathe in the heady fragrance of the night-blooming cereus.
When to Cuddle Up Inside: During lunch hour, when a party boat arrives from Captiva and spills its crowd of visitors.
Neighboring Islands Near Useppa
Everybody takes a day to "do lunch" on Cabbage Key, famous for its rustic island bar with about $70,000 worth of dollar bills stuck to the walls. Nobody does Key lime pie better, and Cabbage Key's cheeseburger is so good they swear it inspired regular guest Jimmy Buffett to write a song about it.
For rustic romance, head straight for Cayo Costa State Park, where the tiny one-room cabins come with basic bunks and showerheads at the restroom facilities. Bring: your own linens, food, CD player (with fresh batteries) and skewers for roasting marshmallows. Enjoy: stunning white sand, shell-strewn beach, solitude.
Sanibel Island, the famous shelling paradise that's about 65 percent wildlife reserve, has dreamy inns and old-fashioned beach cottages.