The Good Life
with a Southern Drawl

4 Island Paradises Just A Drive Away

By Amy Bailey — May 31, 2016

Can you hear it? As the first day of summer draws near, I can almost hear the ocean waves crashing against the sand. If you think you have to hop on a plane to have an island experience, you don’t. There are islands speckled throughout the Southeast that are just a drive away that will transport you to paradise. Here are 4 Southern islands to put on your summer travel list:

Got out of town on a boat goin’ to the Southern Islands… – Crosby, Stills, and Nash

BlacksIslandBlack’s Island, Florida

Nestled in St. Joseph’s Bay in between Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas on the Florida Panhandle, Black’s Island is an experience like no other. You can bring you own boat or catch a ride on the Black’s Island Ferry to get to the island. As you bring your boat in to dock, you quickly realize you have indeed discovered an island paradise. Stilted bungalows blend in nicely with the island environment. The bungalows are 2 bedrooms with a bunk area, 2 full baths, full kitchen, balcony, and 12003186_10153604575784042_753552587768427489_nall waterfront. They provide plenty of room for two small families and the location of course cannot be beat. While on the island you will begin to feel like you are a cast away in the Blue Lagoon. Surrounded by marine life from scallops to an abundance of fishing, there is no shortage of food to enjoy straight from the ocean. A large clubhouse is available for events or cooking. Owners Jeff and Wanda can help stock your bungalow and will help prepare a meal for your group in the clubhouse at your request. A pool and hot tub sits on the west end of the island near the dock. There is also a floating dock you can swim out to after a day of scalloping.

Scalloping is one of the main attractions to St. Joseph’s Bay, season opens the end of June/early July and runs through September. In clear waters you look for scallops in the sea grass with their purple eyes reflecting in the sunlight. In cloudier waters you can actually find them with your feet. The most we found this year were in cloudier waters and they were the prettiest green color you can imagine, we nicknamed them ‘mermaid food’.

11993288_10153600647999042_5221991243250639723_nFishing just off the pier at Black’s Island is comparable to jubilee. We would fish almost everyday from the boat but one night decided to try off the pier and to our delight it was as if every time we threw our line out we hooked a Red Fish. We had enough fish for several meals.

11249232_10153596200864042_7809681706476704466_nWatching all of our children play freely, running around the island was an experience in itself. To not worry about your children running off and to have an island virtually to yourself is quite a paradise. Between finding scallops, sand dollars, shells, and blue crabs, every day was a day of discovery for the children.

When you discover a place so secluded and untouched that makes you feel like you are on your very own island, it makes it hard to leave. For a truly unique vacation that is just a short drive away contact Black’s Island and discover your very own Blue Lagoon.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

St. Simons Island, Georgia

stsimons5St. Simons Island welcomes you with coastal estuaries filled with an abundance of wildlife, streets lined with mossy oaks, and fiery sunrises that blaze out of the morning sky. Its beauty does not ask for attention, it simply exists in all its natural wonder.

stsimons15Arriving in St. Simons you can drive the FJ Torres Causeway which takes you across the breathtaking estuaries or you can fly into McKinnon-St. Simons Airport by private plane. In the 1930s, visionaries Howard Coffin and County Commission Chairman Malcolm McKinnon began advocating for an airport on the tiny island as they saw St. Simons Island and Sea Island a future hub for upscale travel and leisure. In 1941 the airport opened, today the airport is one of the busiest private airports in the world frequented by tourists, aviation enthusiasts, business executives, and golf professionals.

Upon arriving in St. Simons Island you quickly realize you are in fact on island time. This barrier island along the Atlantic coast isn’t just a barrier to the sea, it is a barrier to a world caught up in the rat race. While you can still be readily connected to the rest of the world, you can let go of all the things you think you have to do and simply enjoy.

stsimons12My sandcastle by the sea, The King And Prince Resort, was in fact the color of sand with perfect positioning along a beautiful stretch of beach. A recent renovation reveals a lobby with beautiful wood beams and tiled ceiling, chandeliers dramatically hanging from above, a white stone fireplace majestically structured in the lobby, and the renamed Echo restaurant with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the beach and pool deck. Further suspicions that this in fact is a sandcastle once inhabited by a king and prince are confirmed as I make my way to my room, the Governor’s Suite, a 2 story suite with a spiral staircase leading to a bedroom in a circular tower.

stsimons7The King and Prince Resort offers beautiful accommodations at affordable prices, direct access to the beach, an expansive, sophisticated pool area, and delicious fresh food. The food at Echo is incredible. With a mission to provide guests with healthy, fresh food, most ingredients are locally sourced. Every dish experienced during my stay was fit for a king (or queen). The flavors, the impeccable knowledge of the chefs and sommelier, and the presentation come together to create unforgettable meals. The first night we enjoyed shrimp and grits made with wild Georgia shrimp, which I learned is darker in color with a sweeter taste than Gulf Coast shrimp. A breakfast of crabcake benedict with fresh fruit, a lunch with a simple vegetable soup I have actually recreated in my own kitchen, and a 5-course wine dinner filled with oysters, scallops, quail, and steak still linger deliciously in my mind. It was some of the best food I have ever enjoyed. The quality of the ingredients, the combintaion of flavors, and proficiency of the cooking make The King and Prince a culinary destination.

stsimons17Venturing outside this sandcastle by the sea is a must as well so you can experience the local fare. Other restaurants you should try include:

Gnat’s Landing – An island icon located in Red Fern Village, Gnat’s Landing was once owned by Robert ‘Boz’ Bostock, a local favorite whom tragically passed away in 2013. Since then the Pope family has kept Boz’s dream going by providing great food in a flip-flop atmosphere. I recommend the fried pickles to start followed by the slaw bowl with grilled shrimp.

Sandcastle Cafe – Sandcastle Café and Grill is the local’s favorite. Locally owned and in business for over 25 years, Sandcastle is known for its breakfast buffet and its homemade Bloody Mary mix.

imageFor an adventure in ecology step aboard the Lady Jane, a US Coast Guard shrimping vessel recently retired. You cruise along the estuaries and you get to learn hands on about the baby squid, stingrays, horseshoe crab, puffer fish, Amberjack, blue crab, and more, which are caught and released. For more information or to book click here. I got to hold a baby stingray and a baby squid in my hand before releasing them back to the sea.

On St. Simons Island even a day at the beach is an adventure. With the sand so firm you can truly beach cruise on your bike. Bicycle is also a wonderful way to see the island and explore from the lighthouse to causeways. Conveniently located one block stsimons9from the King and Prince, Ocean stsimons9Motion has the largest selection of bicycles and you’ll find a bike for everyone in the entire family – including infant seats and Trail-a-bikes. Rent by the 1/2 day, the day or for your entire stay. I love this photo of this woman I saw on the beach, she rode up on her bike then hopped off to lay out her towel and read. You will see people of all ages enjoying the beaches of St. Simons Island.

St. Simons Island is a place of discovery and childlike wonder. Once you visit, it is easy to understand why families like the Carnegies fell so in love with the area that it became their home. After witnessing a spectacular sunrise the first morning, I discovered that each morning sunrise on St. Simons is one of nature’s greatest masterpieces.

KiawahIslandKiawah Island, South Carolina

So lush and full of natural beauty, Kiawah Island is an absolute must for anyone, especially those with children. The island is of course home to The Ocean Course, one of the best golf courses in the world, so if you like to pick up a driver this destination should be on your bucket list. But there are far more reasons than golf to visit this natural treasure on our East Coast. Kiawah is a large island with a large selection of activities. Not only are there little villages nestled throughout the island with shops and delis, there are endless activities for everyone in the whole family.

Kiawah is about 45 minutes south of Charleston and about 2 hours north of Savannah. So depending on your car stamina and where you are coming from in the Southeast you could drive or easily fly into Charleston and make the short drive South.

10592919_10154027306404042_7068851086705877813_nBeing that the island is quite large, bicycles will enhance your trip greatly. You can each rent your own bike or there are tandem options as well. Cycling makes it easy to get around the island and with so many pathways throughout, it makes it an adventure too, you never know when you might spy a gator basking in the sun along one of the island’s ponds. Ride your bike to the beach and have a picnic or peddle to the pool for a day of fun. With multiple pools all over the island, many focused on children, you will be amazed at the water features and the arts and IMG_7949crafts activities offered on a daily basis for the kids. One day my daughter made a stuffed animal and another day sand art. There was even a magician teaching magic tricks poolside one afternoon. Outside the pool there are art classes offered everyday at Turtle’s Nest Art Studio at West Beach’s Straw Market. My daughter took a class on how to make glass art there. Sign up for paddling or kayaking tours, nature programs, or an inshore or offshore fishing charter. Learn about all recreations here.

IMG_7513Kamp Kiawah’s summer program runs May through early September. With its unique, natural environment, close proximity to the beach, and unparalleled facilities, Night Heron Park is the perfect location for an exciting and adventurous camp experience for young vacationers.
Kamp Kiawah is staffed with fun and dedicated counselors that come from all across the United States to share their enthusiasm with the Kampers.

Live In Each Season As It Passes, Breathe The Air, Drink The Drink, Taste The Fruit, And Resign Yourself To The Influences Of Each.
Henry David Thoreau

IMG_7411A must while you are visiting Kiawah and even an activity you should plan your vacation around is the Oyster Roast at Mingo Point. A lowcountry tradition, you will feel as if you just stepped out of a Pat Conroy novel. This oyster roast was by far one of the highlights of the trip. Located on a point that juts out into the estuary, oysters are roasted on open flames and then shoveled onto tables for guests to enjoy. Buffets of seafood, steak, lowcountry veggies and desert are set up as well. There is a band, naturalist who does an animal show for the children, and arts and crafts from the region for sale.

IMG_7456There are plenty of lodging options located around Kiawah, from resort villas to private homes to the exquisite 5 star The Sanctuary Hotel offering luxury pools, a variety of restaurants, and boutiques. Kiawah is pet-friendly as are the beaches of Kiawah, pet-friendly lodging can be found among the vacation villa and home rentals.

IMG_7501If you choose a villa or private home you will have access to a full kitchen, but while in Kiawah you should make plans to enjoy these incredible restaurants:

12494697_10154032397094042_3186784365135971936_nThe Atlantic Room – Situated on the 18th green of The Ocean Course, The Atlantic Room is a must. The food is unsurpassed and the atmosphere is breathtaking. We witnessed one of the prettiest sunsets of our life while seated on the The Atlantic Room’s patio. Offering special raw bar items like oysters, stone crab claws as well as signature seafood entrees, The Atlantic Room knows how to prepare food fresh from the sea.

IMG_7337Jasmine Porch – Set in a large, yet charming Southern dining room in The Sanctuary Hotel, Jasmine Porch offers indoor and outdoor seating and a menu you can really sink your teeth into. Course after course is exceptional and  with so many options available there is something to suit everyone in the family.

Loggerhead Grill – For poolside, oceanfront fun choose Loggerhead Grill at The Sanctuary Hotel. The fare is casual, easy, and flavorful.

Beaches And Cream – Don’t just think ice cream when you think of this little retro grab and go nook located in The Sanctuary Hotel. Beaches and Cream also offers gourmet coffee, smoothies, juices, and an array of healthy snacks and pastries.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. – Mark Twain

sunset2Palm Island, Florida

The salty ocean water swept across our skin, our feet splashed in the waves while my daughter sang and played. In a moment we saw a curved dark fin roll up and down in the water. Spellbound I stood up in the water and watched as 3 dolphins came less than 10 feet from us. They played for several minutes and all my daughter and I could do was stand and stare mesmerized by such enchanting beauty. They were close enough we could see their eyes and the detailing of their bodies as they twirled and capered in the water. We were present in that moment and felt the magic of nature, and it was extraordinary. It was at this point we began wondering if we were in fact becoming mermaids.

sunset4What we would discover in this unspoiled area of Southwest Florida is that these accidental encounters with nature would happen everyday and with them deep peace, clarity, and spiritual connection. In Japan the word Satori is used to describe these profound spiritual moments when you feel the energy and peace of the earth. What you will find is once you have these enlightened experiences you will begin to have these moments more and more.

IMG_1773We discovered Palm Island haphazardly, we had planned to visit neighboring towns on the west side of the Florida coast but with a little more research became captivated with Palm Island, Boca Grande also known as the Charlotte Harbor area. These islands sounded like such beautiful places to explore. Now this area is one of my favorite places in the world and I cannot wait to go back. Every morning we discovered massive sea turtle tracks where mother sea turtles had made their way to the beach to lay their eggs, we walked along the shore to uncover shells, sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins, we saw manatees and their babies swimming in the harbor, we found a baby octopus in a conch shell, and we fished for our dinner. We had discovered a honey hole of magic and it existed in all its splendor just one state away.

IMG_1839To get to Palm Island you can fly into Tampa or one of the other 4 airports in the area, driving is of course another option. You take Placida Rd into Cape Haze where you will see the sign and entrance for the Palm Island Ferry. Palm Island offers a variety of accommodations from 1 bedroom condos at the Palm Island Marina that are perfect for docking your boat and exploring the entire area to 2 and 3 bedroom private homes on the island. A car ferry actually takes you to the island resort which is an experience within itself. Once on the island you pass hand painted signs asking you to ‘Don’t speed you might ‘egret’ it’ and ‘Slow, let us cross’ with sea turtles painted on it. A boat ferry also shuttles back and forth daily between the island and the marina allowing you access to the mainland.

IMG_1683Our first day on the beachside of Palm Island we found beautiful fighting conch, scallop, and olive shells in the surf. We fell in love with the island’s area called Stump Pass. Picturesque stumps line the beach along with shell wishing trees where people hang shells with holes in them on the trees to make a wish. At Stump Pass enjoy some of the most spectacular sunsets you can imagine as you watch a family of egrets forage along the shore. It was also at Stump Pass where our magical dolphin encounter occurred.

IMG_1977On the bay side of the island beautiful mangroves line the shore providing a home to thousands of species from crabs to barnacles to birds. Mangroves provide ideal breeding grounds for much of the world’s fish, shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish. Many fish species, such as tarpon and snook, find shelter among the mangrove roots as juveniles, head out to forage in the seagrass beds as they grow, and move into the open ocean as adults. An estimated 75 percent of commercially caught fish spend some time in the mangroves or depend on food webs that can be traced back to these coastal forests.

If there are no mangrove forests, then the sea will have no meaning. It is like having a tree with no roots, for the mangroves are the roots of the sea. -fisherman, Trang Province

IMG_1972The area is also studded with barrier islands other than Palm Island including Don Pedro, Little Gasparilla, Useppa, Cayo Costa, and more which create Florida’s second largest estuary, Charlotte Harbor. This combination of barrier islands and mangroves produce some of the world’s best fishing and exploring. With this plenitude of marine life comes an abundance of activities.

IMG_1976Palm Island Outfitters – Palm Island Outfitters’ Captain Mike Slattery took us out for extraordinary fishing. Along the mangrove lined banks we would cast and immediately get a bite from a snook or snapper. The water was crystal clear so we could see every fish and watch them as they fought over our bait, we were able to catch our dinner very quickly. Feeling adventurous we also decided to go tarpon fishing. Boca Grande Pass with its deep blue waters is the world’s best place to fish for tarpon aka the silver king. It was magic to watch them roll through IMG_1966the ocean in groups, their bodies so large and silvery. If you are looking for instant gratification, tarpon fishing is not for you, this type fishing is more like hunting and knowing why and when this fish decides to bite is a mystery. In beautiful Boca Grande Pass 12 boats each with at least 2 lines in the water sat for hours on top of a school of rolling tarpon with no bites. But when they do bite it is quite the thrill reeling in one of these fish that averages 6 feet in length and 150 lbs.

SUPnightHooked On SUP – Hooked On SUP offers an array of stand up paddleboarding and kayak tours. From snorkeling at Stump Pass to mangrove tours to Light Up The Night tours in which your paddleboard or kayak will be lighted from underneath while you float above in the dark, giving you a whole new perspective and ability to see sea creatures in a way you’ve never seen them before.

King Fisher Fleet – King Fisher Fleet in Punta Gorda offers sightseeing cruises to several barrier islands including Cayo Costa State Park. Begin your trip at 9:00 a.m. with a two hour narrated cruise and then you can enjoy 3 hours on this secluded island. Cayo Costa State Park lies on an eight mile long barrier island with a pristine, white-sand beach with many treasures to discover from sand dollars to starfish to sea urchins. A complimentary park service IMG_1639shuttle picks you and your beach gear up at the boat landing and deposits you on the beach. On the cruise you may have dolphins play and jump in the wake of the boat or pass a sea turtle swimming.

Tampa Bay Rays – You can even take the kiddos on a short drive to St. Petersburg to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play a game. During Spring enjoy The Rays Inaugural Spring Training Season in Charlotte County at the state of the art Charlotte Sports Park. The Rays minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs, also call Charlotte Sports Park home.

We really enjoyed simply relaxing and eating our fresh catch on our balcony over looking the water, but we also discovered some great places to eat.

Rum Bay on Palm Island – Offering an extensive menu Rum Bay is located on Palm Island and allows you to enjoy dinner out without leaving the island. Try a delicious grilled Mahi sandwich, Heart of the Oceans Salad with chilled lobster, a steamer pot of shellfish, fresh fish any way you like it, or even a homeade pizza.

IMG_1969Leverock’s At Palm Island Marina – Located right on the water, Leverock’s offers fresh fish, oysters, broiled lobster tails, and so much more. A vibrant atmosphere invites guests from all over the area.

Do not worry about fighting crowds or waiting hours for a table, the Charlotte Harbor area remains more intimate and secluded than other parts of Florida. So often you will feel, especially on Palm Island, like you have the entire beach to yourself. Another wonderful aspect of this area, the beaches are dog friendly, so bring your four-legged friend.

IMG_1978While in the area also make sunrise and sunset top priorities. Some of the most brilliant sunsets I have ever seen occurred here. Whether we were watching from the beach or had just gotten back to the marina from boating, each day the sunset looked as if it had been painted onto the sky.

IMG_1775People often joke about older people retiring to Florida, my reply is, “Have you been to Florida? Who wouldn’t want to retire there?!” This enchanting piece of paradise did not just feel like a vacation, with all its magic and beauty it felt like we were on another planet. If you are looking to feel worlds away yet still be in the continental United States, Palm Island is for you.