By Lauren Tjaden
It’s called island time for a reason.
When you escape onto a tract of land completely surrounded by water, you escape more than the mainland.
It might be the sand, sprinkled with shells, or the water lapping the shores, or even the salty sea breeze. But on an island, the pressures of the world tend to fade. You can kick back and kick off your shoes. You can take a moment to enjoy the best of what life has to offer.
Here are five islands in Florida and the pleasures you can enjoy on them, in every corner of the Sunshine State.
St. George Island is an ideal destination for folks who love beautiful beaches -- and for folks who love birds. Nestled against the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida, St. George is outstanding for its sheer number of birds as well as their diversity, boasting more than 300 species. St. George Island State Park, which encompasses 1,962 pristine acres at the east end of the Island, provides one of the prime spots to see them.
You might spot Snowy Plovers, Gull-billed Terns, or even a Bald Eagle. Spring brings migrant songbirds decked out in brilliant colors, such as Blue Grosbeaks and Scarlet Tanagers. You’ll have something to see year round, but birding is best from October through April.
Take a day trip on the Yankee Freedom III, a high-speed catamaran, to discover Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson. Located across 70 miles of open water from Key West, the park boasts some of the finest snorkeling in North America. The vibrant reef is brimming with tropical fish, coral, starfish and other marine life, and the water is so clear it’s like looking through glass — glass with an emerald hue. Better yet, the reef is directly accessible from the white-sand beach, and the waters are only 5 to 15 feet deep. Save time to explore the fort, a brooding structure that dominates the Florida island.
Lovers Key State Park is as romantic as the name sounds. The Florida island, located just a splash south of Fort Myers Beach in southwest Florida, features two miles of shell-strewn beaches, ideal for treasure hunting. You might find a Conch, Whelk or Auger, or perhaps you’ll find an Olive or Bubble shell. But one thing’s for certain — you’re sure to find a good time. Your luck will tend to be better an hour before or after low tide, and particularly after a storm with west winds. The park also offers kayaking, hiking and birding. Live shelling is prohibited.
4. Cedar Key Island
It’s not like Cedar Key is anywhere near the mainland. After all, this charming little enclave is located a whopping three miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. But Cedar Key Boat Rentals and Island Tours takes it to a whole other level. On their Island Drop, they’ll bring you to Atsena Otie Key, part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. And then they’ll leave you there. Stroll the nature trail, fish off the dock or explore the Faber Mill ruins. Or just unwind on the beach. You can stay for an hour or make a day of it; you decide on the return time.
Your whole gang will love Bathtub Beach, located in Stuart on the southernmost part of Hutchinson Island. The natural reef protects the beach from the Atlantic’s waves and currents, so even toddlers can enjoy the calm, shallow waters. You can use a snorkel to explore the reef, brimming with sea life, or just wade out to it at low tide. Afterward, make sure to visit the House of Refuge at Gilbert's Bar, the oldest surviving building in Martin County. The limestone rock formations are awe inspiring, and if the winds and tides are right, you can snag a peek of the George’s Valentine shipwreck, only a few hundred yards offshore.