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Off-the-beaten-path Florida islands

Florida has thousands of islands and more than 2,000 miles of shoreline, quite a choice for visitors heading to the Sunshine State during the winter months. Some of these islands are very well known to vacationers -- the laid-back Florida Keys, from Key Largo to Key West, or the more sophisticated Miami Beach and Palm Beach. But Florida has many other islands with lots to offer vacationers. From dozens of these, here are four that offer not only good beaches and a variety of hotels and restaurants, but other reasons to visit them as well. Two are on the state's Gulf Coast, two on the Atlantic.

Sanibel Island

Known worldwide for its shelling, Sanibel Island lies
Photo Credit: Lee County Visitor and Convention

Known worldwide for its shelling, Sanibel Island lies on the Gulf Coast, a causeway away from the city of Fort Myers. A 23-mile biking trail, mostly separated from the roadway, runs the length of Sanibel, which is connected at its north end to the island of Captiva. Both islands have many beaches.

Shelling is a major activity here, and beachcombers searching for shells are known for their "Sanibel stoop." The best shelling beach is near the historic lighthouse; for a deeper look into shelling, visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.

The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderland of birds and plants, viewed easily on a four-mile drive, or from hiking and canoe trails or a new boardwalk. In winter, many migratory birds make this their home.

Worth a visit back on the mainland are the Edison and Ford estates in Fort Myers, the former home and laboratory of inventor Thomas Edison and the adjacent home of his good friend, car pioneer Henry Ford.

WHERE TO STAY Casa Ybel Resort and the South Seas Island Resort (upscale); Island Inn and the West Wind Inn (moderate).

WHERE TO DINE The Mad Hatter, Thistle Lodge and Sweet Melissa's Cafe (upscale); The Island Cow and Lazy Flamingo (moderate). A wonderful place to enjoy sunset on the Gulf is the Mucky Duck restaurant on Captiva.

INFO 800-237-6444, fortmyers-sanibel.com

Marco Island

Farther south along the Gulf Coast lies Marco
Photo Credit: Naples, Marco Island, Everglades

Farther south along the Gulf Coast lies Marco Island, with 31 / 2 miles of lovely crescent beach mostly lined with hotels, condos and timeshares. Boating and fishing are popular activities, along with shelling. There are two public beaches, Tigertail and South.

Passengers aboard the popular Dolphin Explorer boat cruise can see bottlenose dolphins in the waters around Marco and interact with marine naturalists doing dolphin research. This unusual cruise makes a stop at a barrier island for a beach walk and shelling. Also available from Marco are fishing charters and boats that take shell seekers to remote beaches.

An unusual attraction in town is Marco Movies, a movie house with a twist -- patrons sit at tables and can have a meal as they watch. A high-speed ferry runs between Marco and Key West December through April; the trip takes 31 / 2 hours.

WHERE TO STAY Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Hilton Golf Club and Spa and Marco Beach Ocean Resort (upscale); Olde Marco Island Inn (midrange); Boat House Motel (inexpensive).

WHERE TO DINE Sale e Pepe (in Marco Beach Ocean Resort), Marco Prime Steak & Seafood and Kurrents (upscale); Snook Inn and CJ's on the Bay, both popular local hangouts, and Marco Island Brewery, casual.

INFO 239-225-1013, paradisecoast.com

Amelia Island

Situated at the northeast corner of the state,
Photo Credit: Amelia Island

Situated at the northeast corner of the state, this island has flown eight different flags since 1652. The climate is on the chilly side in winter, so spring and summer are high season, but autumn can be pleasant.

Golfing is a big attraction on Amelia. Amelia Plantation has 54 holes, some paralleling the ocean. Fernandina Golf Club, open to the public, has 27.

Fort Clinch, one of the country's best-preserved 19th century forts, offers daily tours with period re-enactments. It is now a state park with campgrounds, beaches and other facilities. Many historic sites are found in Fernandina Beach, among them the Palace Saloon and the Florida House Inn, where Ulysses S. Grant once stayed.

Held every March is the Concours d'Elegance, a major gathering that showcases 300 or more vintage cars.

WHERE TO STAY Ritz Carlton Amelia Island and Omni Amelia Island Plantation (upscale); Amelia Island Hotel at the Beach and Residence Inn (moderate).

WHERE TO DINE There are more than 40 restaurants on the island. Salt, in the Ritz- Carlton, is a AAA Five- Diamond restaurant. David's (upscale); BarZin Bistro & Wine Bar (moderate); Cafe Karibo (inexpensive).

INFO 904-277-0717, ameliaisland.com

Hutchinson Island

Located on the east coast of Florida, Hutchinson
Photo Credit: Discover Martin

Located on the east coast of Florida, Hutchinson Island is separated from the mainland by the Indian River Lagoon. It's a long, thin island that spans two counties, with 23 miles of beaches and some unusual diversions.

For one thing, you can go horseback riding on the beach. From December to March, you may be able to spot right whales migrating in the ocean, and in late spring and early summer you can watch giant sea turtles plod ashore at night to lay their eggs in the sand.

The National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, where SEALs trained in World War II, also displays military equipment from later wars, including a HUEY helicopter, an Iranian gunboat and an obstacle course open to kids.

Elliott Museum has an excellent collection of 80 vintage automobiles. The House of Refuge displays maritime artifacts in a 19th century former Life-Saving Service installation.

Three state parks are on the island -- Avalon Beach, Jack Island Preserve and Fort Pierce Inlet -- with trails and other facilities. The Florida Oceanographic Society Coastal Science Center has sea turtles on view.

WHERE TO STAY Hotel rates rise sharply during the winter season. Among island hotels are the Hutchinson Island Marriott (upscale); Vistana Beach Club (moderate time share and hotel); Courtyard by Marriott and the Beachfront Inn (moderate); Dockside Inn (low moderate).

WHERE TO DINE Most restaurants are casual places. Among them: Chuck's Seafood; Archie's Seabreeze; The Landing; and Chillin the Most.

INFO 800-344-8443, visitstluciefla.com; 877-585-0085, discovermartin.com; floridahutchinsonisland.com

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