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Five Florida islands to discover while Sanibel rebuilds

I have visited Sanibel dozens of times over 40 years, and I’ve never had a trip there that I didn’t love. So I am sad to know that Hurricane Ian has put this island paradise out of commission for a while.

It will be back, and so will we.

In the meantime, however, this is a good time to discover other Florida islands. While not identical to Sanibel, each of these Florida islands shares a few important qualities – charming ambiance, beautiful sand and saltwater and unspoiled natural beauty.

In addition, we make a few more suggestions beyond these five islands at the end of the article.

Florida islands to discover: Anna Maria Island has wide, white-sand beaches that are full of seabirds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Florida islands to discover: Anna Maria Island has wide, white-sand beaches that are full of seabirds. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key

These barrier islands below Tampa Bay are off the coast of Bradenton and Sarasota and were spared by Hurricane Ian. They are narrow islands with excellent sandy beaches, low-rise development and traces of Old Florida ambiance. While the average temperature is a few degrees cooler than Sanibel (average January high of 72 degrees), nights are still generally in the 50s.

Anna Maria Island is seven miles long and there are three communities on it: Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and at the northern tip, the municipality of Anna Maria Island. It’s all lovely, but the island gets maybe a bit more charming in the upper section that is Anna Maria Island. Below Holmes Beach, skinny Longboat Key stretches for 10 miles and only a block or two wide.

Longboat Key is mostly residential and none of these islands have a lot of hotels; check out vacation rentals.

In addition to their natural beauty, these islands are good bases for a variety of outings, including Cortez, a tiny historic fishing village with great fresh seafood right off Anna Maria Island and lots of places to kayak and hike in county, state and even one national park, DeSoto National Memorial Park.

Here’s a guide to Anna Maria Island and the region from Florida Rambler.

Florida islands to discover: Pass-a-Grille has an Old Florida feel, fabulous beaches and easy access to great things to do around Tampa Bay. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Florida islands to discover: Pass-a-Grille has an Old Florida feel, fabulous beaches and easy access to great things to do around Tampa Bay. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Pass-a-Grille on St. Pete Beach

On the northern side of Tampa Bay, 10 miles across the bay from Anna Maria Island, are more Florida islands, the largest of which is St. Pete Beach.

Most of St. Pete Beach is a series of resorts and hotels, many from the 1950s, along Gulf Boulevard. While these places are on a great beach and are a good base for all the attractions in the area, we think the really special place is Pass-a-Grille, a historic community at the southern tip of the St. Pete Beach barrier island.

Pass-a-Grille has more cute bungalows than mansions or hotels, and there are no condo towers. The core of the town is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a block wide, with the beach on one side and the Intracoastal channel on the other.

Surrounded by water on three sides and located at the very end of the barrier island, Pass-a-Grille feels like an island out of another era.

We love relaxing around Pass-a-Grille in the afternoon and catching the sunset over the beach.

During the day, there are lots of great activities in the area – finding Old Florida in St. Petersburg whose lively downtown is only 25 minutes away; bicycling the Pinellas Trail, a treasured St. Petersburg bike trail; visiting St. Petersburg museumsexploring craft breweries and galleries, visiting nearby Fort DeSoto Park and taking a ferry to wild Egmont Key.

Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Pass-a-Grille.

Florida islands to discover: Hutchinson Island is one of the rare places where you can go horseback riding on the beach. (Photo: Bob Rountree.)
Florida islands to discover: Hutchinson Island is one of the rare places where you can go horseback riding on the beach. (Photo: Bob Rountree.)

Hutchinson Island

This Atlantic barrier island is the only one as warm as Sanibel. (Sanibel has a January average high of 75 degrees; Hutchinson Island’s is 74.)

Hutchinson Island boasts some of the best beaches in Florida and there are four dozen public access points on the island, many of them sandy pocket parks hidden in dense vegetation behind the dunes. That’s the beauty of this island — just drive along SR A1A and pick a beach to suit your taste. What’s more, when you pull over to explore, parking is free.

There are places to snorkel, an outfitter who offers horseback riding on the beach, manatee viewing, lots of birds, hiking, kayaking, fishing and even some interesting museums and historic sites. The nearby towns — Fort Pierce and Jensen Beach – offer great dining options and accommodations.

Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Hutchinson Island with lots of links to additional stories exploring the area.

Florida islands to discover: Vero Beach offers good places to hike and kayak, including along the historic Jungle Trail, which takes you by historic Jones Pier, where one of Vero Beach's pioneers had a homestead on a salt marsh along the Indian River Lagoon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Florida islands to discover: Vero Beach offers good places to hike and kayak, including along the historic Jungle Trail. This hard-packed sand road takes you by Jones Pier, where one of Vero Beach’s pioneers had a homestead on a salt marsh along the Indian River Lagoon. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Vero Beach and its barrier island

If you continue north up Hutchinson Island, you reach a traditional beach town not ruined by over-development, Vero Beach.  

Its beaches are outstanding (and parking is free) but there is more to Vero Beach than that. It has some wonderful funky Florida history and a cute downtown with interesting restaurants and shops. 

We love the spectacular and historic McKee Botanical Garden, kayaking at Round Island Beach Park and spotting manatees and hiking along the old Jungle Road, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s an excellent craft brewery (American Icon Brewery) located inside the revamped 1926 Municipal Power Plant.

Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to Vero Beach.

Florida islands to discover:  New Smyrna Beach has sand packed so hard and a beach so wide that cars can drive on it. This is the iconic arch at the Flagler Avenue beach access ramp. Beach access fee is $20.
Florida islands to discover: New Smyrna Beach has sand packed so hard and a beach so wide that cars can drive on it. This is the iconic arch at the Flagler Avenue beach access ramp for vehicles. Beach access fee is $20.

New Smyrna Beach

Our northern-most  recommendation is New Smyrna Beach, where January days average a high of 69 degrees and a low of 50.

New Smyrna Beach is a mix of Old Florida surfer’s haven, family vacation destination, funky beachfront bars, homes on stilts, low-rise condos and art galleries, with a wide, 13-mile-long beach joined at the hip to Canaveral National Seashore.

The beach is walkable, drivable, great for surfing and surf fishing, family friendly, ideal for swimming and sunbathing.

New Smyrna Beach is also a great base for bicyclists. From here, you can access 52 miles of smooth, 12-foot-wide paved trail, the East Central Regional Rail Trail. There are also many good places to kayak and hike.

Learn more in this Florida Rambler guide to New Smyrna Beach.  

Lorelei tiki bar in Islamorada. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Florida islands to discover: Islamarada in the Florida Keys has only so-so beaches, and that’s true throughout the Keys. But it compensates with lots of great features, including scenic tiki bars like Lorelei. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Other Florida islands and destinations to consider

Immediately after Hurricane Ian, we got calls and emails from people seeking alternatives to planned Sanibel trips. We evaluated lots of Florida islands that had some of the attributes of Sanibel. Here are some additional places that, while not perfect substitutes, might be the ideal place for you.

The Florida Keys, the warmest spot you’ll find in Florida in winter, is fun, funky and full of attractions, but it has one drawback: Its beaches are meagre compared to Sanibel. If beaches aren’t your main deal, consider Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key and, of course, Key West.

Some of our favorite Florida islands are too far north to have reliably warm winter weather. Sanibel is warm with days in the 70s. If you’re fine with winter days in the 60s, then, by all means consider two real beach-front gems – Flagler Beach and Amelia Island. (Those links take you to helpful Florida Rambler guides.)

Florida islands to discover: Cedar Key has only a small beach, but is a great place for kayaking, where you can reach islands with sandy beaches, such as historic Atsena Otie, site of the original settlement of Cedar Key -- until a hurricane struck. (Photo: David Blasco)
Florida islands to discover: Cedar Key has only a small beach, but is a great place for kayaking, where you can paddle to islands with sandy beaches, such as historic Atsena Otie, site of the original settlement of Cedar Key. (Photo: David Blasco)

On the Gulf Coast 140 miles north of Tampa, we think tiny historic Cedar Key is awesome, but it’s not really a beach destination. It’s great for kayaking, birding, history and general ambiance with average high temperature in January in the high 60s.

Finally, there are two places with warm winters, charm and great beaches that we love that are located in urban areas. This isn’t the “Sanibel experience,” but you might want to consider two walkable low-rise beachfront communities in South Florida:  Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Delray Beach.

Florida Rambler’s articles on Florida’s notable beaches.


A note from the editor:

The information in this article was accurate when published but may change without notice. Confirm details when planning your trip.

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Todd acker

Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

We Lost a home on Sanibel. Went to retrieve salvageable trinkets and then went to east coast to look for alternatives. Found nothing but skinny( I mean room for a beach chair) beaches from Jupiter up to and including Daytona. I was told that the hurricane took out all the sand. Finding this hard to believe but I saw it. Please comment and reply. - Todd

Mary Schmidt

Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

Sanibel island is our main vacation destination for biking, playing in the gulf, shelling and nice dinners out. We were scheduled to go 10/26! Plus we love the island vibe! Which other island would be the best option?

Bonnie Gross

Wednesday 2nd of November 2022

Any of the five mentioned here would be nice. There are more shells on the Gulf Coast. All of these choices have beautiful beaches and nice restaurants. I think it will depend on where you find accommodations that appeal to you. As your travel plans are early in the fall/winter, I would also consider the more northern spots, like Amelia Island.

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