West Florida Barrier Islands Charm Visitors

Each of four islands off Florida’s west coast features its own personality and appeal. For an unforgettable vacation, visit all of them on a scenic 400-mile road trip.

Cedar Key—A remote seafood sanctuary

This island city, a two-hour drive north from Tampa, juts 3 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. With just 800 residents, Cedar Key exemplifies a laid-back destination—small crowds, good food, friendly folks. Don’t be surprised to see people puttering around in golf carts. 

Cedar Key is known for world-class clam chowder, so I drive straight to Tony’s Seafood Restaurant. The three-time winner of the national Great Chowder Cook-off—held each year in Newport, Rhode Island—is serving lunch. A spoonful of the creamy, surprisingly spicy, chowder immediately hits the spot. 

I check in at the Island Hotel and Restaurant, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. In the hotel’s cozy Neptune Lounge and Bar, a mural of King Neptune, painted in 1948, keeps a watchful eye over patrons.

Cedar Key (Photos courtesy of Charles Williams)

Anna Maria Island—Travel back in time

Only a one-hour drive south from Tampa, Anna Maria Island evokes Old Florida. Buildings don’t rise above three stories, and the speed limit tops out at 35 mph.

The island’s official motto is “Welcome to paradise without an attitude.” On this trip, the lovely Tortuga Inn Beach Resort in Bradenton Beach serves as my slice of paradise. 

A mermaid mannequin greets visitors at the funky Ginny’s & Jane E’s, known for its wonderful breakfasts. When I can’t decide between the creme brulee French toast or homemade biscuits and gravy, I order both—with no regrets.

Perhaps no place symbolizes laid-back Anna Maria Island more than the Rod and Reel Pier, built in 1947, where nobody is in a hurry. 

Anna Maria Island

Siesta Key—Superb sand, wide beaches

The sand is the showstopper on this 8-mile-long barrier island, an hour’s drive south from Tampa. Because it’s comprised of 99% pure quartz crystal, the sugary-white sand at Siesta Beach stays cool, even on the hottest days. The beach also is several hundred yards wide, ensuring plenty of space. In 2011 and 2017, Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman—otherwise known as Dr. Beach—named Siesta Beach the No. 1 beach in the United States. 

Siesta Key Village is the go-to spot for dining. I start my day at Bonjour Frenchcafe with a croque madame and a strong cup of cappuccino. I end it equally well with two scoops of homemade ice cream at Big Olaf Creamery.

Siesta Key

Sanibel Island—Seashells galore

Shell collectors flock to Sanibel, along with its neighbor Captiva. Sanibel’s unusual east-west orientation allows gentle waves to deliver over 450 species of unbroken shells by the bucketload, and serious searchers quickly adopt the “Sanibel Stoop” or “Captiva Crouch.”

I find lightning whelks, alphabet cones and Florida fighting conchs. But the real prize is the rare brown speckled junonia, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime find—and I’m still looking.

Sanibel also boasts 25 miles of flat bike trails, with paths that meander all over the island and through the 6,400-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Sanibel Island

CHARMING, TO SAY THE LEAST

Whether it’s fresh seafood, Old Florida, sandy beaches or pretty shells, these four islands are perfect destinations for memorable vacations.