Take a romantic trip to one of Florida's islands where wild beauty, age-old enchantment and enduring solitude inspire fantasy.
My Georgia-born cousin once asked me, "When you live in Florida, where do you go on vacation?" For her, to reside in my home state was to embark on a lifelong holiday.
Considering my native surroundings, her question wasn't completely groundless. As a child, the beach was my sandbox. I grew older, and reveled in the small towns and forests of old Florida alongside my husband. Today, our back window opens to anhingas preening and mangroves floating on water. But "living on vacation" confounds one's ability to truly get away. That's when we take to the islands - where wild beauty, age-old enchantment and enduring solitude inspire fantasy even for locals like us.
To experience Lovers Key in its full natural glory, just say "no" to squandering early-morning hours in bed. On Fort Myers Beach, what awaits outside beholds pleasures aplenty, and early lovebirds reap the sweetest spoils. After slumbering at Lovers Key Resort, a pastel sunrise summoned us to the balcony of our suite, lending Mother Nature's mood lighting to the scene below. Pelicans silently soared to a stop on islands embraced by mangroves; the waters of Estero Bay rhythmically nudged the resort's sandy shoreline; two chaise lounges pulled close together dipped into the bay from the beach.
Possibly sleepy, positively entranced, we sat together, soaking up the heavenly hush of it all. The hum of the day's first boater signaled that we would soon be sharing the tranquility we'd been coveting. We moved on to Lovers Key State Park, located close enough to the resort that you can linger in your room and get a head start on exploring.
Hearing that The Travel Channel rated the 2.5-mile beach within this 700-acre solace Florida's most romantic, we passed up the tram to walk hand-in-hand down a shell path and over bridges to the shore. Our early arrival rewarded us with an endless blue view of surf and sky. Along the way, crabs sidled past and an osprey gathered notions for its nest on a slice of sand distancing the estuary from the Gulf. Our walk ended at the seaside gazebo, where many a wedding vow has been exchanged.
A half-hour drive from Lovers Key on Sanibel Island, Tarpon Bay Explorers operates a sunset cruise through the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Stop first at Bailey's General Store, Sanibel's century-old grocer, where we selected from chilled white wines and a well-stocked aisle of reds for the toast we would take on board. (Tarpon Bay's Captain Mike shares his binoculars, but he doesn't cruise with cups or a corkscrew, so bring your own.) At the refuge, the show opened with terns, ibises and double-crested cormorants; climaxed as dolphins and manatees idled by; and closed with a sunset worthy of a standing ovation.
Over dinner, we marveled at how every facet of our destination coaxed the outside in, illustrated in the view from our suite that fixed the bay before us in a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling frame. Our table at the resort's Flipper's Grill (and the scallops and shrimp blended with Romano cheese and Béarnaise sauce the restaurant serves in a real shell) brought the bay even closer - including a glimpse of the two chaise lounges we first saw this morning, now perfectly positioned for star-gazing. After our early morning, we were due for some lingering.
If closeness cultivates a loving relationship, giving each other a little space cultivates a lasting one. Enter St. George Island, where 22 miles of beach lies interrupted (welcomingly) by more trees than people.
Multi-day kayak rentals from Journeys of St. George Island come with complimentary delivery of the vessel and accoutrements (life jackets and "wheels" to help you get the kayak where you're going) to your rental home. We put in where the sandy edge of our property met the bay and let the waters take us where they may, the wood-shrouded island to one side; a dolphin to the other. Back on land, we idled past dunes inside Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, occupying nine miles on the far east end, where wispy seaside vegetation personified our vacation-induced levity.
Of course, no exercise waxes aphrodisiacal like star-gazing, and several wooden decks off of our rental home offered a vantage. Above the pines, millions more stars than we could ever spot amidst the urban illumination of home sprang from their canvas. And at that moment, we closed the space between us to share in the infinite solitude.
OLD FLORIDA ROMANCE
My husband and I love the heritage of our community on the center of Florida's west coast, though you're likely to find just as many high-rises as you are historic sites. Taking the west-coasters to Amelia Island on Florida's First Coast, then, transported us not just to another place, but to another time. Glitz is flirtatious, but there's something positively enthralling about timelessness. You'll feel it the moment you pass under your first oak canopy, Spanish moss swaying.
Playing up its best features, Amelia Island oozes with escapes into old Florida. Ride horses on the beach at Amelia Island State Park. Leisure through Fort Clinch State Park, stopping to follow its forested trails and admire its vistas. In one, a salt marsh cut through the majestic clutter of the forest revealing a heron, striking and still. The fort itself stuns with a panorama of Cumberland Sound and an unspoiled shoreline fringed by a maritime forest.
Amelia also bids reasons to take your date in-town, like a 50-block National Register Historic District. Take a walking tour of the highlights with the Amelia Island Museum of History, or reserve Amelia Island Carriages for a horse-drawn ride.
Our bed and breakfast, the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, stayed true to the island's tradition of seamlessly blending old and new. Although the lodge was constructed in 1991, hardwood floors, beadboard walls and quaint décor will convince you it is as old as its inspiration, Nantucket shingle-style architecture of the 1890s. Thoroughly modern conveniences like covered parking, robes and even room service surprised and satisfied the bed-and-breakfast veterans in us, as did the view of the Atlantic, pale blue waves crashing onto white sand in spellbinding surround-sound, just as they did one hundred years ago.
Occasionally, a seaplane skids to a frothy stop where Atlantic and Gulf waters commune off the shore of Little Torch Key. More frequently, private watercraft and a complimentary yacht motor by, transporting seekers of romance – and an otherworldly kind of indulgence – to Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. It's a place where nothing is too extravagant when it comes to wowing your partner. As the Resort reminds, "all you have to do is ask."
Start by booking "Arrival Amenities," Little Palm-speak for amenities on arrival. One option presents domestic and imported cheese, gourmet crackers and red wine; another promises beluga caviar and your choice of three champagnes waiting in your suite.
Little Palm offers 30 suites in four types - Island Escape Suites, Island Elegance Suites, Island Romance Suites and Island Grand Suites - all regaling the tropical setting with private outdoor showers and ocean-view verandas. Thatched roofs lend island texture while butterfly netting casts an ethereal mood over king canopy beds. Two Island Grand Suites spoil guests with additional space and a private hot tub.
If you can bring yourself to leave your suite, laze by the freshwater lagoon pool, sample the island's Modern Tropical cuisine (Sirloin Steak with Tostones and Truffle Chimichurri and Florida Lobster with Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Black Truffle grace the menu) or give yourself up to Spa Terre.
For a relatively small-scale splurge, less than $300 will grant you unbelievable turndown service. You'll return from dinner to a candlelit suite, a bottle of Laurent Perrier, Brut Champagne, and chocolate-covered strawberries; your bath drawn and infused with salts; massage oil and rose petals strewn just so.
Despite the opulent add-ons, some of Little Palm's most sublime possibilities live in its voids. With no alarm clocks or television, you'll find ample time to focus on indulging your love.
TRADITIONS FOR TWO
Once a year, we gather our married friends for a couple's weekend on Anna Maria Island, off of Florida's southwest coast. The group grows, but Anna Maria remains charmingly the same: sans high-rises and frenzy. Instead, you'll find pastel cottages and rental homes, clusters of pedestrians, and old-fashioned piers that create a landscape endearingly more classic than contemporary. We stay at the same place every visit - An Island Getaway at Palm Tree Villas - booking the two-bedroom units to accommodate two couples each. Hit the grocery store just before you reach Gulf Boulevard - full kitchens, outdoor grills and picnic tables at the villas mean meals prepared and shared together. Bring a pair of bikes to take turns touring established island neighborhoods; pack a bocce ball set to stage a friendly competition on the sand. In the evenings, walk the beach or pass towering palms and pines to uncover island hangouts (our favorite is ice cream shop S.S. Scoops). It's a leave-your-watch-at-home vacation where sunrise dwindles into nightfall in an unbothered procession.
SAYING "I DO" IN THE SUNSHINE STATE
Getting married in Florida? Local clerk of the circuit court offices can issue same-day marriage licenses to visiting couples. U.S. citizens need their social security numbers and photo identification; international visitors must bring passports, or naturalization or immigration numbers. Florida doesn't require blood tests or medical exams. (Florida residents must wait three days to get a license unless they've taken a state-approved marriage preparation course.) With few exceptions, the bride and groom must be 18. Marriage licenses are good for 60 days and cost just under $100.
Many companies throughout Florida assist in wedding and reception preparation.
Amore Wedding Chapel in St. Augustine: Held in the historic Lightner building, once Henry Flagler's famed Alcazar Hotel.
Panama City Weddings: Specializes in beach weddings and receptions on a variety of area beaches, including Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and select areas of South Walton county.
Wedding on Water: A gorgeous floating chapel based in Sarasota, complete with stained glass windows behind the alter. Pews seat up to 100. The Floating Chapel on the Bay is the only one in America.
Weddings On a Whim: Specializes in beach weddings in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area.